UN Moves Forward on Task Force to Protect So-Called "Climate Refugees"

Over the next two weeks, nations will be meeting in Marrakesh to discuss progress on the landmark UN Climate Change Agreement reached in Paris last year. On the agenda will be the increasing impacts of climate change on displacement and migration, including a decision to establish a “Climate Displacement Task Force.” With extreme weather events like floods and hurricanes already forcing tens of millions of people from their homes each year, and with countless more uprooted by droughts, growing food insecurity, and sea level rise, the urgent need for a game plan to address this issue cannot be overstated.

The Climate Displacement Task Force’s primary chore will be to identify ways for governments to “avert, minimize and address” the impacts of climate change on forced displacement and migration of vulnerable and at-risk populations, such as those living in coastal areas, in the Arctic (which is warming twice as fast of the rest of the planet), and low-lying island nations facing permanent displacement from their homelands. While often referred to as “climate refugees,” those forced to flee their countries due to climate change are not, in fact, protected by the 1951 Refugees Convention, leaving a gaping hole in the international legal framework. The task force will also need to consider how changing rainfall patterns and more extreme weather will increasingly drive migration of poor, rural populations in developing countries, both internally and abroad.

The task force will need to grapple with complex, politically-charged, and extremely sensitive issues such as how to ensure the human rights of affected communities are fully protected

Addressing these complex issues and how vulnerable communities can best be protected is, no doubt, a daunting task. The task force will need to grapple with complex, politically-charged, and extremely sensitive issues such as how to ensure the human rights of affected communities are fully protected (whether they adapt in place or decide to migrate or relocate as a best adaptation strategy), how this will be paid for and by whom, and what legal protections receiving countries can and should provide. The good news is that the task force won’t be starting from scratch. In fact, quite a lot is already known regarding climate change impacts on displacement and migration.

Since launching the Climate Displacement Program in 2010, Refugees International has conducted fact finding missions to numerous countries where acute flooding, tropical storms, and changes in rainfall patterns have uprooted millions of people. In my own travels with Refugees International over the last six months alone, I’ve met with dozens upon dozens of poor, rural communities struggling to maintain their way of life – from communities in Myanmar whose homes and agricultural lands were destroyed by historic floods to impoverished farmers in Zimbabwe who, due to the worst drought in 35 years, are now dependent on emergency humanitarian aid to survive. Beyond the obvious fact that it is invariably the poorest communities – and those least responsible for the climate crisis – who are impacted the most, some common findings have emerged from our fieldwork suggesting that numerous opportunities currently exist to prevent and minimize displacement in the decades to come -- but only if we act now.  Following are some important lessons that we’ve drawn from our fieldwork, and which the task force, as well as governments, humanitarian and development agencies, and the private sector are advised to acknowledge:

  • Prolonged displacement of vulnerable communities in the wake of floods, storms, and other climate-related disasters often has more to do with poor government decision-making and the failure to consult and involve those who are affected than with the climate-related event itself. 
  • Despite efforts to better link humanitarian and development assistance programs in countries that experience recurrent climate shocks, governments and the international community are still failing when it comes to helping displaced communities to recover their homes, jobs, and assets in the wake of disasters. The result is that despite millions of dollars of humanitarian aid, many are left homeless, poorer, more vulnerable, and with no option other than to migrate to cities or abroad in search of new livelihood opportunities.
  • Relocating communities devastated by floods, cyclones, or other disasters to safer areas is increasingly seen by governments as a good strategy for taking the residents out of harm’s way and protecting them from recurrent displacement. However, the process of relocating people in a sustainable way that keeps their communities and livelihoods intact is an extremely long-term process and wrought with challenges. Relocation should only be undertaken where it is voluntary, and accompanied by multi-year support to ensure the relocated communities are able to access services and sufficient livelihoods in their new homes.
  • Environmental degradation – especially illegal logging and the destruction of mangroves in coastal areas – are a significant contributing factor to large-scale displacement from more intense rains, coastal flooding, and tropical storms. For example, in the case of the historic 2010 Pakistan floods, which submerged one-fifth of the country, displacing nine million people, deforestation was said to have been responsible for making the floods worse.
  • The risk of permanent displacement in the wake of extreme weather events is often highest among those who lack land tenure. When their homes are destroyed by a flood or storm, renters and informal settlers are often unable to find new places to live that are affordable, legal, and/or safe. In the wake of disasters, governments, aid agencies, and the private sector should prioritize the landless and ensure that post-disaster recovery is not only targeted at those who own their homes.

With the window fast closing on opportunities to get out ahead of these issues and put in place strategies, policies, and laws to prevent and address climate-related displacement and migration, the task force needs to move forward quickly. Let’s hope that politics and lack of ambition don’t hamper its task. The lives of too many people are at stake.  

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