A “Protection Agenda” for Climate-Related Displacement Reveals Complexities, and No Easy Answers

Each year, millions of people across the globe are forced to flee disasters, primarily floods, storms, and other acute, weather-related events. As the effects of global climate change continue to unfold, more extreme weather, growing food insecurity, and other drivers of displacement will only increase. Of utmost concern is how climate change will affect low-lying island nations who face increased storm surge, salt water inundation of fresh water resources, and sea level rise, threatening their very existence.

But with numerous conflicts raging around the globe and unprecedented numbers of refugees in urgent need of assistance, convincing governments to extend international protection to a new category of persons – so called “climate refugees” – has proven extremely challenging and, for multiple reasons, may not represent the best way forward. After all, refugees are those fleeing persecution whose governments are unwilling or unable to protect them, which is not the case for island inhabitants threatened by a harm (climate change) they and their governments did little or nothing to create. So how should we address the problem?

Enter the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-border Displacement – an initiative of the Swiss and Norwegian governments that over the past two years has pursued a state-led, bottom up consultative process intended to build consensus among governments on how to address the needs of people displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.

Last week I attended a meeting of the Nansen Initiative Consultative Committee in Geneva to discuss a draft “Protection Agenda” which consolidates the outcomes of the numerous regional consultations with governments and civil society. The drafters deserve enormous credit for the skill with which they unpack the complex and multi-causal relationship between disasters, climate change, and displacement, and the compounding role of under-development, weak governance, conflict and violence, poorly planned rapid urbanization, and other factors in driving displacement. But the length and breadth of the document – which covers both internal and cross-border displacement and migration – also reflect the fact that there are no easy answers for how to protect increasing numbers of people who will be impacted in the coming decades. This is due to the fact that depending on where you are in the world – be it Bangladesh, the Pacific islands, or arid regions of Africa – disasters and climate change effects take different forms, and will contribute to different types of human movement over different time frames. The solution for a person driven from their home by a typhoon for a short period of time will be different than for a person who, due to irregular rainfall patterns or growing water scarcity, migrates in search of alternative livelihoods. Rather than propose a “one size fits all” protection mechanism, the document outlines an array of actions at the national, regional, and international level for meeting the challenge.

There are no easy answers for how to protect increasing numbers of people who will be impacted in the coming decades.

Perhaps most importantly, the draft protection agenda indicates that the problem is not one that humanitarian actors can take on alone. In fact, in my view, the draft protection agenda does not go far enough in grounding the problem in under-development, weak governance, poor natural resource and land management, and poverty – factors which contribute not only to people’s underlying vulnerability to displacement and loss of livelihoods in the face of disasters and climate change, but also to the inability of governments to effectively protect them (and hence, the need for international protection). Unless and until development actors and donors decide to prioritize disaster risk reduction, sound urban planning, and building the resilience of vulnerable communities in those countries with the least capacity to confront climate change, disaster- and climate change-related displacement will only increase. And as is the case with the millions of people around the globe fleeing conflict and persecution, it will be developing countries and a woefully overstretched and underfunded humanitarian system that will be left to harbor and assist.

Photo: A sign calling for help on the Philippine island of Samar after Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). Nov. 2014