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climate refugees – a comment on climate change, conflict and forced migration

With the certainty of global warming, the term “climate refugees” is gaining popularity in public discourse. There seems to be some fear in the developed countries that they, if not flooded literally, will most certainly be flooded by ”climate refugees”. From a forced migration perspective, the term is flawed for several reasons.

The term “climate refugees” implies a mono-causality that one rarely finds in human reality. No one factor, event or process, inevitably results in forced migration or conflict. It is very likely that climate change impacts will contribute to an increase in

forced migration. Because one cannot completely isolate climate change as a cause however, it is difficult, if not impossible, to stipulate any numbers. Importantly, the impacts depend not only on natural exposure, but also on the vulnerability and resilience of the areas and people, including capacities to adapt. At best, we have “guesstimates” about the possible form and scope of forced migration related to climate change.

Climate change will have several impacts on the environment which in turn can impact on forced migration and conflict. Gradual environmental degradation and slow-onset disasters such as drought are likely to increase due to climate change. Most vulnerable are developing countries where large sections of the population live directly from agriculture and many of these from subsistence farming. Importantly, adaptation, involving for example different land-use techniques and livelihood diversification, would lessen the need to migrate. Climate change is also likely to lead to an increase in the frequency and severity of sudden disasters such as floods and storms. Many of the affected are particularly vulnerable (typically poor) people in developing countries. Hence, they have little mobility. Climate change impacts can impoverish them and reduce their mobility even further. As is the case with drought, sudden disaster impact depends on several political and socio-economic factors, including adaptation measures (for example flood defense infrastructure).

Forced migration is also likely to result from rising sea levels, and certain low-lying island states may disappear altogether, raising difficult questions of statelessness.

Forced migration can be triggered by – and itself also trigger – environmental conflicts. In transit or at the place of destination, migration can (be perceived to and/or) contribute to a competition for already scarce resources such as land and water. Most conflicts with an environmental element have historically occurred within countries. The degradation of freshwater resources can trigger competition and conflict.

Sudden disasters such as storms and floods often highlight existing domestic problems, revealing weaknesses of the government in power and may thereby exacerbate conflict. Conflict potential normally depends on a range of socio-economic and political factors often similar to those that can trigger forced migration. Governance and the role of the state are often crucial factors. In fact, cooperation rather than conflict may be the response to some environmental challenges. It is likely that developing countries in lower latitudes will continue in the near future to be the hotspots in several senses of the word. Faced with climate change, there may be some increase in planned migration that is longer-distance, longer-term and more permanent. Increased urbanization with the possibility of secondary migration can also be expected. But most of the forced migration and conflict related to climate change, is likely to remain internal and regional. While the developed countries bear the main responsibility for climate change, one could question whether the dynamics of climate change, conflict and forced migration can and should be portrayed as a threat image of masses of refugees flooding over western borders. The sad truth is that there will be real floods, and if nothing changes, many of the affected will have little choice but to return and risk further flooding.

From a legal point of view the term climate refugees is also inaccurate. Some authors have suggested amending the 1951 Refugee Convention to accommodate for environmental displacement. Others suggest drafting a separate convention. Resorting to quick-fix solutions of new laws and policies often fulfils an action function, the need to be seen to act, but closer consideration of the existing prevention and protection possibilities may prove helpful before new measures are enacted.

In cases of severe environmental degradation and sudden disasters, the human rights principle of non-refoulement could apply. When there is a risk of certain ill-treatment, people are protected against return. A need for international protection could be met by granting humanitarian asylum or another protected status.

Executive summary

Many of the forced migrants are likely to be internally displaced. Disaster displacement is recognised in the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Those displaced due to more gradual environmental degradation could be considered displaced due to slow-onset disasters, (the lack of) development or as a separate displaced category covered by the descriptive and non-exhaustive definition of the Guiding Principles. Many face challenges and have needs similar to conflict-induced displaced persons, but protection and assistance will largely depend on whether or not international organisations include them in their mandates. While there is often political will, money and media coverage when sudden disasters hit, those who move primarily due to gradual environmental degradation are often less visible.

The degree of force in the migration may be considered differently at the different stages of gradual environmental degradation. Particularly for this group, there may be operational and normative protection gaps, internally and internationally, because they risk being considered economic or voluntary migrants. Existing law and protection possibilities should be further investigated to identify and address potential protection gaps. An approach similar to the one taken with regard to IDPs, with the creation of the Guiding Principles, could be considered. Many of the forced migrants may be included in already existing categories of protected persons, but they may need to be made more visible and recognised within the categories. For the internally displaced persons in general there is still a severe protection deficit that must be better addressed. If it is better to prevent than to cure, one should also try to deal with the root causes of forced migration and conflict. Adaptation to climate change in developing countries must be made a top priority along with mitigation. Alongside more typical information and infrastructure measures, addressing general factors of forced migration and conflict can contribute to vulnerability reduction and adaptation. A broad approach to climate change adaptation is needed. Hopefully, climate change will foster a new and stronger sense of solidarity. It provides an opportunity for cooperation in addressing global issues such as conflict and displacement.

Migration is one of the oldest coping strategies for dealing with environmental change. Throughout the millenniums people have moved temporarily or permanently during periods of drought and other environmental change. Lately, however, due to the perceived increase in the intensity and scale of environmental change, many people see environmentally induced forced migration as a new type of phenomenon. The fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)1 authoritatively establishes that global warming is accelerating and that humans are directly responsible. The warming is unequivocal and evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising sea level. Climate change is expected to have considerable impacts on the environment – first and foremost in developing countries. This, in turn, can trigger conflict and displacement

of people.

“Climate refugees” are increasingly referred to in the debate on global climate change. However, the usage of the term seems unclear and at times misinformed. There is a paucity of information about how climate change can trigger migration and what forms of migration one can expect. There is also much confusion about the conflict potential in climate change and forced migration. Finally, there is the question of how the migrants should be treated, particularly as to whether or not the label “refugee” is appropriate. The objective of this report is to shed some light on the dynamics between climate change, conflict and forced migration. Furthermore, it will identify challenges and develop recommendations, both to protect the displaced, and, indeed, to prevent forced migration related to climate change. Hopefully, this report will also contribute to bridging the disciplinary gap between environmentalists and natural scientists on the one hand, and migration and refugee specialists and lawyers on the other.

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