What COVID-19 Means for Climate Displacement Policy Progress

Across the world, governments are rightly focused on the COVID-19 crisis. However, it is imperative that policy makers don’t lose sight of other global challenges, including those related to climate change. This may be especially true in the case of climate displacement. Just this year, important progress has made in regional protection frameworks and international human rights law to protect those displaced by climate change. Last year, U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill that sought to recognize “climate displaced people” in need of protection in the United States. This would have been seen as impossible just a few years ago. Despite this progress, the climate displacement community may need to be on guard in a COVID-19 world for a variety of reasons:

It creates obstacles to the provision of immediate humanitarian aid and climate finance. A deep economic recession has serious implications for provision of official development assistance, as we saw after the 2008 recession. This will be especially impactful for climate change adaptation financing that could fall farther off the policy agenda, including disaster risk reduction efforts, which are meant to avert displacement; and third rail “loss and damage” financing, which some developing countries depend on to fund necessary relocation plans.

Budget cuts to immediate humanitarian aid are particularly worrying this year, as scientists are predicting an unusually active hurricane season. Provision of post-disaster recovery and relief will also be further challenged by the need to keep a safe distance and by availability of hospital beds and medical staff. These challenges were put to the test last week when Tropical Cyclone Harold bore down on the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga. Vanuatu, the hardest hit, was hesitant to request external humanitarian assistance, as it feared the spread of COVID-19 on the previously untouched island.

It threatens existing policy solutions. In an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19, many countries have imposed partial or complete border closures. While this has disproportionately affected the forcibly displaced, it presents the climate displacement community with new trials in the face of the fight for freedom of movement for those displaced by disaster. For example, such closures could derail recent negotiations around a Free Movement Protocol in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) region, a trade bloc consisting of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, and Uganda. The Protocol was to be the first of its kind – with specific provisions for those affected by disasters and climate change. While the Protocol was endorsed by ministers in February, it still needs to be adopted by heads of state. At the moment, Sudan has completely closed borders and Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda all have partial closures in place.

It highlights the need to address longer-term climate adaptation issues. COVID-19 has laid bare some of the perennial issues that vulnerable communities, especially refugees and IDPs, face in staving off pandemics. As our recent report highlights, crowded camps and access to proper water and sanitation are some of the principal challenges. In addition, as climate change likely forces people to migrate from rural to urban areas, density and number of slums may increase and access to water and sanitation for these new migrants may prove an even bigger issue.

As the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has made clear: “Both the coronavirus and climate change are very serious problems…” but climate change “has been there for many years and will remain with us for decades and require constant action.” The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the climate displacement agenda will come into sharper focus over the next year, including at the international climate conference intersessional in October and at the Conference of Parties (COP) 26 in Glasgow (moved to 2021). Climate economist Nicholas Stern is hopeful that moving these meetings may allow activists and civil society to mobilize to advocate for a “new approach to [economic] growth that is a sustainable and resilient economy in closer harmony with the natural world.” If countries can limit emissions, the World Bank predicts that this could reduce the number of people migrating internally due to climate change by up to 80 percent.

Less optimistically, other important global gatherings on migration and disaster risk reduction (DRR) have been put on hold or rescheduled, along with decreased interest and engagement by countries mired in the COVID-19 crisis. For example, meetings the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM) implementation, the Seventh Regional Platform for DRR to be held in Jamaica and the Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on DRR in Australia have all been disrupted.

In the end, it’s up to the climate displacement community to keep these intersecting issues on the agenda despite competing and limited space to do so.