This story was originally published by USA Today.
A quick scan of headlines reveals the disproportionate impact of climate change on displaced communities around the world. Intense storms and massive flooding, often attributable to the effects of climate change, are destroying homes and spreading water-borne diseases among internally displaced South Sudanese and Syrians, as well as Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
As U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi underscored: “The climate emergency is punishing displaced people three times. It tears them from their homes, it compounds their crisis in exile and destroys their homeland, preventing them from returning.”
Displaced people, already bearing the brunt of climate change and leading local responses to it, must be centered in planning, policymaking and funding opportunities. This was not the case at COP28, the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference.
What needs to change to do so moving forward?
Refugees need a seat at climate talks
Refugees remain largely excluded from the halls of power and seats at negotiating tables where decisions are made. These decisions shape how they can respond to the growing impacts of climate change and the financial resources available to them.
Only a handful of refugees were present at this year’s COP negotiations. And even those present were not part of countries’ delegations – and so could not speak in official negotiations nor ultimately vote on decisions.
It’s far past time for governments to bring refugees living in their countries as part of their national delegations, and the U.N. Climate secretariat can include more refugees as stakeholders within its expert groups and platforms.
‘Many bodies in the streets’: State Department finally calls out war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Sudan
Include high-risk communities in climate plans
Adaptation – responses to current and future impacts of climate change – must be scaled up writ large to prevent forced displacement of communities, and to prevent further displacement of those living in refugee camps.
Governments must also include refugees in National Adaptation Plans, which outline governments’ proposals to prepare for and respond to the effects of climate change. Many NAPs include planned relocation and other elements of human mobility, but very few mention refugees, much less incorporate their perspectives.
National plans must also improve land management and prepare for cases where mobility must be used as an adaptation strategy to prevent people from being trapped in high-risk areas. Those unable to move are often the most vulnerable.
Countries and organizations can also commit to actions through the U.N. Refugee Agency’s climate action pledge, launched recently at the Global Refugee Forum.
‘Loss and damage’ funding board must include refugees
A seat at the table matters only if people have funding for implementation. COP28’s agreement to operationalize a fund for those facing irreversible “loss and damage” from climate change is a start. But pledges fall woefully short of amounts needed for real impact.
Additionally, who can receive money from the fund remains an open question. A new board – the members of which have yet to be selected – will decide that question. Refugees must have a seat on this board.
Through both refugee representation on the board and direct funding at the community level, refugees and host communities will be able to implement locally led, context-specific responses.
The right to go …
At the international and regional levels, legal protections and humanitarian assistance must catch up to the reality on the ground for those crossing borders in the context of climate-affected displacement. Most of these individuals do not legally qualify as refugees. However, displacement in the context of climate change cannot be considered entirely voluntary, either.
The global community needs both the legal frameworks and language to acknowledge this.
For example, new regional free mobility regimes are being discussed, and existing regional frameworks may offer protection where “adverse effects of climate change” cause “a serious disturbance to public order.”
On language, reasons for movement and degrees of voluntariness vary widely across individuals and communities affected by climate change. A single term cannot encompass all of these, but nuance and specificity matter in both legal agreements and funding arrangements.
… and the right to stay
Most people do not want to leave their homes and communities, the lives that they have built and the places where they have family, friends and rich cultural heritage. Not only must the right to move away from climate risks be bolstered but also the right to stay – safely – as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
To achieve this, action must begin now.
Ahead of COP29, governments and organizations must ratchet up their ambition, meaningfully committing to the end of fossil fuels and substantially increasing funding for adaptation.
What should those specific actions be?
Above are a few ideas, but more important: Listen to the communities – including refugees – bearing the brunt of climate impacts.