On Human Rights Day: Protecting the climate displaced - from emergency to resilience and sustainable development

Joanne Irvine

Publication date

Thursday, December 10, 2015 - 17:45

Today we are celebrating Human Rights Day. Indeed, since the first ever international agreement on human rights in 1948 with the Universal Declaration for Human Rights to the multitude of conventions and protocols that have been ratified and put into place to date, we do have a lot to celebrate. Yet I want to highlight a specific area where we have not progressed much at all: protecting displaced persons due to climate change and climate-induced disasters.

As we are in the midst of COP21 with a draft Paris agreement looking to bring world leaders to an agreement to mitigate the negative effects of global warming, it is extremely encouraging to see mentions regarding the creation of a climate change displacement coordination facility under the Warsaw Mechanism ‘to help coordinate efforts to address climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation’. This is of course a welcome proposal but in light of the average 26.4 million people per year that are forced from their homes by natural disasters and an increasing number of vulnerable people living in disaster-prone areas according to UNCHR, I fear that we may see a lot of human suffering and tragedy if this is not tackled in a more comprehensive and concrete manner. For example, the Advisory Group to the UNFCC on Climate Change and Human Mobility have released an excellent recommendations paper listing a set of actions on how to integrate migration and mobility concerns into the Paris Agreement which I can only hope with be fully considered. Climate change related displacement is here to stay and is certainly becoming very urgent with UNCHR warning in a recent study that with food and water insecurity driving competition for scarce resources, even greater displacement due to climate change could follow in years to come. What we are doing now is therefore simply not enough.

You might argue that those displaced due to climate change are already covered by some of the specific international human rights conventions, protocols and guidelines that already exist. For example, given that the majority of climate-related displacement is likely to be internal, perhaps the existing mechanisms for protecting internally displaced persons are sufficient. Yet no specific legally-binding convention actually exists for the internally displaced either, and while the main responsibility to protect the internally displaced fall to the states where the displacement is taking place, often they are unable or unwilling to do so. Moreover, despite the non-binding Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement being widely accepted and at times, integrated into national law concerning the protection of the displaced, these principles also only work to protect under the assumption that persons affected are ‘forced’ to move. However, not all climate displacement is related to a sudden-onset disaster like a flood where a clear application of the word ‘forced’ could be used. This essentially leaves out a lot of people who move due to decreasing productivity of their lands caused by drought for example or slowly increasing sea-level rise that will eventually submerge their land and destroy their livelihoods. Some, in the face of ever increasing disasters may even move in anticipation of the next storm or flood. Would these persons therefore be voluntary migrants? As Alice Thomas pointed out, the “motivation to migrate is a continuum with voluntary at one end of the spectrum in a gradual transition to forced at the other”.

Source: UNHCR, 2013

This principle could also be applied to climate displaced that cross international borders – while they are currently not protected under the 1951 Geneva Conventions as refugees, even if this was adapted to include a status of ‘climate refugees’ or a new convention elaborated, where do we draw the line at who is forced and who is voluntary to allow us to be able to identify and assist such persons?

If we did make a difference between voluntary and forced, wouldn’t voluntary climate displaced simply be migrant workers crossing an international border looking for a better life and potentially be protected under the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families? The problem here is that this is one of the least ratified international conventions with those countries that have ratified it being those countries more affected by poverty, migration, conflict and violence, thus limiting their ability to duly implement the Convention. It is clear, therefore, that the climate displaced are not well protected in terms of the existing international human rights law, and even less so under national law where many states affected by climate change are already suffering from a lack of resources and capacities to protect the rights of all their citizens. Yet, it is now an internationally accepted concept that protecting the human rights of any kind of migrant is a necessary pre-requisite to ensure that they are able to become resilient and active actors in their own development and that of their host and origin territories.
So what kind of policies can states and international organizations therefore put in place to meet the specific needs of these people? I firmly believe that it is important to have a global set of specific implementation guidelines that can act as a model and inspiration to actors involved in dealing with climate related displacement and which can be taken on board and tailored to the specific context at hand. Moreover, these must go beyond immediate protection measures and look at promoting resilience, involving the displaced themselves in creating their own durable solutions and links up to and harnesses the development potential that lies within all types of human mobility, forced or not. Indeed, from the EU to various other international organisations like UNDP and IOM, the need to look at root causes of migration and propose long-term durable solutions is well acknowledge and even the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has recognized the positive contribution of migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable development.
Source: UNHCR, 2011
Such a set of guidelines is exactly what the Nansen Initiative has proposed in their Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change and it thankfully goes beyond simply working at the state level but recognizes and clearly highlights the key role of local and regional authorities and other local actors in managing climate displacement. Indeed, climate change and climate induced displacement is extremely complex and varied across all territories. This, coupled with the unique socio-economic, political and existing migratory contexts found at the sub-national level even within any given country, means that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. This is increasingly important given that more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas with the majority of migrants and displaced populations also moving to urban areas. Indeed, some 60% of the total 14.4 million refugees and 80% of the 38 million IDPs are thought to live in urban areas. Local and regional authorities therefore increasingly find themselves at the forefront of dealing with mobility and human displacement. Recognizing this complexity, the Nansen Agenda therefore looks to support national and sub-national actors to construct their actions in a way that is appropriate to their specific contexts through a human rights based approach that empowers the displaced, protects their rights and promotes long-term development solutions.

Indeed it is local and regional authorities that must directly provide the services and protection for all persons under their jurisdiction, which means that it is also local and regional authorities, together with other local actors, that should be at the centre of discussions on how to manage not only climate related displacement, but generally how to manage the complex and varied migratory flows that happen across all territories. The local dimension of migration and displacement is a crucial element that needs to be considered within COP21 and the new SDGs alike so that we can ensure that the millions of current and future displaced and migrants can have a bright future in equal terms with the rest of humanity.


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