The 16th Conference of the Parties (COP16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (Cancun, 29 November – 10 December) has reflected a growing concern of the international community for migrations induced by climate change, which is going to affect hundreds of millions of persons in the next decades. Several civil society initiatives attempted to raise awareness on this topic. For instance, the IIED, Bread for the World and UNU organized a conference of fieldworkers and experts on “Climate Change and Forced Migrations.” A petition for a “New UN Protocol for Climate Forced Migrants” was also presented by international civil society leaders led by the Bangladeshi NGO “Equibybd.” In the diplomatic arena, following a proposal by the Group 77 and China, the “Cancun Agreements” invited States to adopt “[m]easures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate, at national, regional and international levels.” This first reference to migrations within the legal framework on climate change is a great achievement, even though such abstract language is unlikely to lead to concrete international action in the short term.
Yet, another significant contribution to the debate on climate migration came from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which released a new report on “Disaster Risk Reduction, Climate Change Adaptation and Environmental Migration” (the Report). While briefly referring to IOM ongoing projects relating to climate migration, the Report takes an original perspective when presenting climate migrations as an appropriate adaptation strategy, contrasting with the current international paradigm. International organizations often considered that a first-rank political answer to climate change should consist only in mitigation efforts, ie. measures taken to prevent or, at least, reduce climate hazards; that adaptation should be a second-rank solution to limit human vulnerability to unavoidable climate hazards; and that climate migration should be considered as a third-rank “solution” that one adopts only after a failure of both mitigation and adaptation efforts. Thus, considering migration only as a means of last resort, this paradigm may push populations to remain in locations threatened by increased natural hazards – while adaptation remained in any case deeply underfinanced.
At COP13 in 2007, States adopted the Bali Action Plan, recognizing that adaptation efforts should accompany mitigation ones and that both “pillars” are equally important to address ongoing climate change. Yet, migration was not considered as part of adaptation and remains excluded from climate policies – a mere reference by COP16 will probably not suffice to integrate migration strategies in adaptation plans. Now, the position of the IOM is promising, as the Report argues that, “while migration can be a manifestation of acute vulnerability, it can also represent a logical and legitimate livelihood diversification and adaptation strategy.” Going even further, the IOM highlights that “[m]igration as an adaptation strategy has already been used for millennia and is likely to be of growing importance in the future.” Thus, the IOM suggests that “orderly and managed population movements can result in a win-win solution for migrants and the countries of origin and destination.” To achieve sustainable development, the IOM suggests a five-step migration management cycle: after efforts to prevent migration or, when necessary, prepare to it “in order to minimize human suffering and the lost of livelihoods,” it advises States to commit in policies to manage migration, mitigate its impact at the place of destination and address it in view of finding a “durable solution.”
Nonetheless, besides this fair understanding of climate migration as a potentially successful adaptation strategy rather than always a failure thereof, it is unfortunate to realize that the IOM defines “migration” very narrowly in this Report. Temporary and internal migrations carried out only in reaction to an occurred natural disaster will necessarily be insufficient to respond to ongoing and irreversible phenomena like sea level rise, land degradation and worsening of extreme climate events. Accordingly, the approach adopted by the Report is insufficient for three reasons. First of all, addressing climate migration only in relation with disaster risk management and reduction seems to exclude any proactive policy attempting to promote early relocation from areas which, due to slow processes, are becoming highly vulnerable to extreme climate events. Scientific risk assessment would often allow early action and early, life saving decisions.
Secondly, the report focuses on internal displacements and only accessorily touches international ones. This fairly reflects a reality: most climate migrants stay in their own State, for lack of means and probably of will to go far. But this approach eludes thorny issues relating to trans-border climate migrations. Internal climate migrants are protected by the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (even though those are only soft law adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights) and remain under the jurisdiction of their own State. Some climate migrants however need to leave the sphere of relative protection offered by their own State and to cross a border. In some highly densely populated countries like Bangladesh, it may be impossible to relocate internally the high number of persons negatively impacted by climate change. Similarly, entire territories of low lying small Island States such as the Maldives and Tuvalu may be affected, forcing its inhabitants to international migration. In a speech on “Protection Gaps and Responses” on December 8, 2010, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterre emphasized that, “through its acceleration of drought, desertification, the salinisation of ground water and soil, and rising sea levels, climate change […] can contribute to the displacement of people across international frontiers.” As Mr. Guterre noted, no international legal protection applies to international climate migrants. Due to this legal emptiness, climate forced migrants will be forced to migrate illegally and, once arrived in a destination country, will certainly be denied the respect of their most fundamental rights. If no action is taken, even documented climate migrants may be victims of widespread discriminations and they will suffer from not speaking the same language or not having the same culture.
Thirdly, one can hardly agree with the Report’s assertion that “[l]ooking for a durable solution in most cases of displacements induced by natural disasters or environmental degradation means ensuring sustainable return.” All scientific evidence shows that sea level will continue to rise for decades and extreme events such as droughts, hurricanes and storm surges will be more severe and more frequent. Thus, “sustainable reintegration at the place of origin” may actually amount to turning climate migrants back to a dangerous place after media have left. How could a population be turned back to a territory that they left because of a natural disaster, if worse natural disasters are expected to happen there again, threatening once again those who survived the first disaster? Unlike displacements caused by punctual and exceptional environmental phenomenon (eg. seisms, volcanic eruptions), climate migrations are most often permanent in nature. In addition, the responsibility of developed countries at the origin of climate change should push them to offer climate victims the right to participate in generous relocation programs where their rights and dignity will be adequately protected, rather than forcing them to remain in increasingly affected territories.
Eventually, throughout the Report, one may wonder whether the IOM has adopted the right priorities of action in addressing climate migration. Preventing migration or displacement through enhanced climate resilience or in situ adaptation is an objective which must be pursued whenever achievable; but this may be the role of the UNFCCC, the Global Environmental Facility and the UNDP, together with regional organizations and States, rather than the IOM’s. Responding to humanitarian emergency is certainly part of the IOM’s mandate as defined in its Constitution, but other UN institutions are also in charge, under the coordination of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The IOM should play a role in protecting internal climate migrants since the UNHCR has adopted a narrow definition of internally displaced persons. Nonetheless, the IOM’s priority while addressing climate migrations should be the protection of international climate migrants. Those are in greater need for assistance by an international organization due to their lack of status. The IOM may find a great role in raising awareness on the opportunity of negotiated and controlled solutions as opposed to forced illegal climate migration flows, and in encouraging and facilitating negotiations between States on international relocation programs as an alternative to counterproductive border fencing policies. Eventually, it might want to advocate, along with G77 and nescient NGO community and now the UNHCR, for an international protection of climate migrants.
By Benoît Mayer, benutko gmail.com