How Should the World Respond to the Coming Wave of Climate Migrants?

How Should the World Respond to the Coming Wave of Climate Migrants?
Bangladeshi children sit on garbage piled up by the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 4, 2018 (AP photo by A.M. Ahad).
By 2050, hundreds of millions of people in developing countries will have left their homes as a result of climate change—a mass displacement that will make already-precarious populations more vulnerable and impose heavy burdens on the communities that absorb them. Unfortunately, the world has barely begun to prepare for this impending crisis. Those displaced by climate change are neither true refugees nor traditional migrants, and thus occupy an ambiguous position under international law. The world needs to agree on how to classify environmental migrants, as well as what their rights are. It also needs to strengthen its capacity to manage these mass migrations, without weakening existing international regimes for refugees and migrants. Let’s begin with terminology. Public officials and the press have popularized the phrase “climate refugees.” It’s a catchy but misleading and in fact unhelpful label. To begin with, it stretches the term “refugee” well beyond its established definition under the 1951 Refugee Convention as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” It is not persecution that will cause climate displacement, but hardship due to ecological factors like water insecurity, crop failure, sea level rise and extreme weather. Second, refugee status implies that an individual has crossed an international border, whereas climate displacement will be primarily internal. The World Bank anticipates that by mid-century, some 143 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America alone will “move within their own countries to escape the slow-onset impacts of climate change.” Many will settle in already-crowded cities. Third, most of the anticipated migration will not be “forced” in the coercive manner we associate with refugee flows. The decision to relocate will be a matter of choice, albeit constrained, and will typically involve an array of considerations beyond environmental motivations. This makes it problematic to designate an entirely new category of “climate refugees.” Finally, seeking special “refugee” status for those compelled to relocate for environmental reasons could well have unintended, negative consequences. Those who fail to qualify as refugees under any new arrangement—for instance, because they relocated for multiple reasons—could lose protections they would otherwise enjoy. Moreover, any effort to reopen the Refugee Convention to encompass climate migrants could be disastrous in the current global context. Nationalist and nativist governments would surely try to eliminate or dilute their existing treaty obligations, such as the commitment to hear asylum applications and the duty to avoid repatriating refugees against their will.

Those displaced by climate change are neither true refugees nor traditional migrants, and thus occupy an ambiguous position under international law.

The most appropriate term for those displaced by climate change is “environmental migrants.” As defined by the International Organization for Migration, “environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their homes or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.” Advocates for environmental migrants worry that even as their numbers grow, they will fall into a gray zone under international law. John Podesta of the Brookings Institution bemoans what he sees as a two-tier legal system: Whereas the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, grants refugee status to the more than 20 million people who flee annually across borders from political violence, it offers no such protections to the similar number “who flee their homes as a result of sudden onset weather hazards every year.” He and others were disappointed that neither the Global Compact on Refugees nor the Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration, which the U.N. General Assembly adopted overwhelmingly in December 2018, incorporated specific legal protections for climate-induced migrants. The plight of the climate displaced is real and growing. Some 20 million inhabitants of coastal Bangladesh, the World Bank reports, “are already having their health affected from saltwater intrusion into drinking water supplies related to sea level rise.” Many of them will have little choice but to relocate to the slums of Dhaka, joining an estimated 3.5 million compatriots who fled previous bouts of coastal flooding. In the Sahel, meanwhile, the inexorable disappearance of Lake Chad, and the encroaching Sahara Desert more generally, has already led millions to migrate, many across international borders. The solution to this global challenge, however, does not lie in reopening the Refugee Convention, or in trying to negotiate a new international legal regime specifically devoted to environmental migrants. The world should instead adopt a more pragmatic approach to helping climate migrants, whether they are victims of sudden-onset disasters, gradual environmental degradation or, in the case of low-lying island states, the complete disappearance of their countries under rising seas. The goal should be to make the best use of existing international laws, institutions and instruments to protect and assist vulnerable populations, while mobilizing foreign aid to help communities in the developing world absorb the coming wave of migrants. As a first step, the U.N. secretary-general should designate a single coordinator for the global response to climate displacement within the sprawling U.N. system. The most logical candidate to spearhead this effort is the International Organization for Migration, which has been at the forefront of thinking about the link between climate change and migration. The director general of IOM should collaborate with the Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, to develop a U.N.-wide strategy on climate migration that can improve cooperation among the multiple agencies already working on pieces of the climate migrant puzzle, from IOM to UNHCR, the U.N. Development Program, the U.N. Environmental Program, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Food Program, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to name just a few. By getting its own house in order, the United Nations would be in a stronger position to engage major donor governments, as well as multilateral development banks, in mobilizing dedicated funds to help affected countries strengthen their resilience to climate change, as well as to adapt to swelling numbers of migrants. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who took a special interest in climate-induced displacement while head of UNHCR from 2005 to 2015, would likely champion such an initiative. Finally, the multilateral system must ensure that the climate displaced are accorded the legal protections they deserve. Environmental migrants may not be refugees, but, like internally displaced persons, they are entitled to receive humanitarian assistance and, as human beings, to enjoy the universal civil, political, economic, social and cultural freedoms established in U.N. human rights conventions. Respecting those rights is the least we can do for them. Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World” (Brookings Press: 2018). His weekly WPR column appears every Monday.

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