The Gathering Storm: the need for international protection for climate refugees
May 23, 2019

The Gathering Storm: the need for international protection for climate refugees

By Steve Trent

For over a decade, EJF has been campaigning on behalf of those forced to flee their homes because of climate-related disasters, calling on governments to recognise climate refugees and support a new legal agreement to guarantee their rights. As severe weather brings fatal conditions to vulnerable parts of the world, and lays bare the chronic injustice of the climate crisis, why has so little changed in the halls of power?

The figures of climate migrants grow, the storm gathers, and still no international, rights-based approach to protecting climate refugees has emerged. This piece from EJF's Executive Director Steve Trent, first published in Angle journal in May 2015, provides an enduring picture of the trends in climate-induced migration, and our global responsibilities.

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On average, 27 million people are forced from their homes each year by climate- and weather-related disasters. Research on human displacement resulting from extreme weather events and rapid-onset disasters such as storms and floods has told us much about how to minimise risk and exposure as well as how to ensure that relief is delivered to those in need, and that affected areas are able to recover. What remains missing is a rights-based approach to protecting victims of climate-induced displacement; one which recognises their entitlement to assistance and protection and leverages opportunities to migrate safely, positively and with dignity in order to avoid or recover from the impacts of natural disasters. The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) calls for a legal framework that specifically addresses and protects the rights of those affected by climate-induced displacement.

One of the most oft-cited projections of the number of so-called ‘climate refugees’ is 200 million by 2050. This figure, which has little basis in fact or scientific methodology, pales in comparison to the actual scale of displacement. In the last six years alone, 140 million people – some 2% of the world’s population – have been displaced by climate- or weather-related disasters. The problem of climate-induced displacement is gradually entering the mainstream consciousness. For the first time, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report looks at how displacement will affect human security; the issue has been discussed at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; and a whole host of international organisations from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) are building an understanding of how displacement, migration and resettlement caused by climate change will affect their work.

Displacement after rapid-onset environmental disasters such as cyclones, storm surges and flooding is not the only type of population mobility associated with climate change. But it is the type which we understand most about and it is certainly the easiest to keep track of - the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) runs a global tally which it releases annually. There are also several established facts about disaster-induced displacement. Firstly, it is on the rise: the IDMC estimates that the number of people displaced by such events has more than tripled in the last half century, in part due to anthropogenic (human made) climate change. As the frequency and/or magnitude of extreme weather events caused by climate change similarly increase, this upward trend is very unlikely to change.

Secondly, we know that people displaced by extreme weather events tend to move non-permanently over short distances. This is important, because it contradicts the claims of those who warn of ‘waves’ of destitute refugees ‘flooding’ across the borders of rich countries. Nevertheless, the scale of disaster-induced displacement presents severe operational challenges to many countries. For less- developed countries, maintaining early-warning systems and disaster risk- reduction infrastructure such as emergency shelters as well as providing relief (housing, water, food, medicine) to those who are driven from their homes is difficult to coordinate and finance. This can disrupt the recovery of disaster- affected areas. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake in 2010, for example, the lack of adequate infrastructure and provision of clean water caused an outbreak of cholera which claimed at least 8,231 lives.

Without sufficient resources, technical expertise or support, some countries are unable to fully recover following disasters, which increases their vulnerability to future threats. This highlights a third trend: protracted displacement. Six months after Typhoon Haiyan, which hit Southeast Asia in November 2013, two million people remained without shelter and exposed to a new typhoon season. These people, who had suffered the greatest damage from Typhoon Haiyan, were unable to return because their homes were in areas considered as too high-risk or unsafe. Similarly, almost 7 years after Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady delta region is still struggling to rebuild its economy and thousands of displaced people continue to live in shanty towns and informal settlements across the delta region and around the city of Yangon. Here, a combination of political instability and poor economic growth has hindered effective relief and reconstruction efforts, prolonging the recovery process after the cyclone and resulting in large influxes of rural migrants to Yangon, where they have limited access to services and employment opportunities. In other contexts, these kinds of rural-urban movements can actually result in increased exposure to climate-induced displacement.

We understand that human displacement caused by extreme weather events is getting worse, particularly as a result of climate change. We also know that, when disasters strike, displacement typically involves millions of affected people, with displaced inhabitants usually moving only a short distance. The challenges presented by the movement of large numbers of people to new areas, particularly towards cities in less-developed countries, means that many face the risk of protracted displacement. In order to coordinate effective responses to climate- induced displacement at an international level, we need to understand who is most at risk.

A Question of Justice

Over the last six years, East Asia and the Pacific recorded the highest number of weather- or climate-related displacements of any region in the world, with 32.9 million people displaced by floods, storms and earthquakes. In 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, almost half the countries with the highest numbers of climate refugees have Least Developed Country (LDC) status and a fifth of countries with the highest levels of displacement relative to population size are Small Island Developing States (SIDS). As the World Bank’s 2013 ‘Turn Down the Heat’ report emphasises, it is the poorest and most fragile countries that are affected first and worst by climate change. Yet, perversely, these are also the countries which have benefited least from our carbon-intensive global economy. Kiribati, for example, has emitted the equivalent of a mere 0.0007% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions in the two decades from 1990-2010 but the impacts of climate change pose a genuine existential threat to it as a state, as rising sea levels are already threatening fresh water supplies and inundating land. Although Kiribati has barely contributed to global climate change, the country is already being forced to pay for its consequences, having in recent years secured the purchase of 20 sq km of land in Fiji to enhance food security and, perhaps, eventually house resettled Kiribati communities.

Recent extreme weather events, such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the catastrophic 2014 floods across the UK, have highlighted the vulnerability of even the richest countries to climate change. But even in rich countries, it is the marginalised and poverty-stricken communities which bear the brunt of natural disasters. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans - a city with one of the highest levels of income inequality in the US - tens of thousands of people ended up stuck in the city’s Superdome which was later described as a “sweltering cesspool of human misery”. Their presence in the Superdome was no coincidence. These people were the elderly, the sick and the frail; those who had no choice; those who lived on or below the poverty line and were waiting for a paycheck (Katrina struck at the end of the month); those who didn’t own a car or whose social networks didn’t extend out-of-town.

What is also often missing from climate change narratives is the fact that the effects of climate change have unequal impacts on different social groups, particularly women and children. According to the World Health Organization: “... women and children are disproportionately affected by natural disasters...In disaster situations, women and men, boys and girls are affected differently. Available data suggest that there is a pattern of gender differentiation at all levels of the disaster process”. Both exposure to and the severity of climate change impacts depend on many factors, such as age, gender, social roles, household economies, access to resources and disabilities. Those who have limited knowledge about or access to their rights are among those who suffer the most from climate change impacts. Limited access to resources, in fact, plays a significant role in determining the social impacts of climate change.

In the final 25 years of the 19th Century, some 31.7 to 61.3 million people died in Brazil, China and India alone as a result of drought, famine and disease. This appalling tragedy was linked to a particularly strong warm phase of the cyclical climatic process known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation. However, as the Nobel prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen later pointed out, these and other ‘natural’ disasters are not so much the result of insufficient resources (in this case, food) but of the ability of particular individuals or households to access those resources. In famine-stricken late 19th Century India, for instance, thousands of rural peasants starved to death along railroads and at the gates of grain depots as the British Raj continued to export Indian staples to growing cities in England and throughout the wider Empire.

Sen’s work essentially underlined the importance of asking difficult questions about disasters in specific places and times. Who is entitled to the resources which help people to remain resilient in the face of disasters? And under what political, social and economic conditions do those entitlements change? These questions are still relevant today.

A New Paradigm

Climate change is causing the displacement of around 27 million people every year, which is roughly double the total number of refugees fleeing conflict or persecution. However, while refugees are protected by the 1951 Geneva Convention, there is currently no international legal framework that protects climate refugees. This is not to say that global refugee law should be revised – this would almost certainly undermine existing protection frameworks – rather, at the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) we are calling for a legal framework that specifically addresses and protects the rights of those affected by climate- induced displacement. In order to respond to the challenges of climate-induced displacement, we need an approach that acknowledges the rights of people displaced by climate change. Victims of climate change displacement are deprived of their inherent rights to life and security, and basic needs such as the right to adequate food, water, housing, health and sanitation. Displacement as a result of climate change also affects multiple economic, social and cultural rights such as the rights to education, livelihood, and work, as well as civil and political rights.

We also need an approach that recognises the common but differentiated responsibility of nation states towards managing the impacts of climate change. Global-level processes already acknowledge that climate change adaptation programmes must take account of the unique vulnerabilities of marginalised individuals, households and communities within and among countries. After years of extensive regional consultations, the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction will be held this year with the aim of replacing the Hyogo Framework for Action - a non-binding, global pact which recognises the unique vulnerabilities of less-developed countries and aims to strengthen preventive measures such as early-warning systems. Reducing the risk or severity of disasters, particularly through public awareness and preparedness campaigns, can mitigate against disastrous losses of household assets and help people to recover more quickly from disasters and avoid protracted situations of displacement.

The search for a new global framework on disaster risk reduction will not be the only forum in 2015 where climate-induced displacement is a hot topic. In 2010, a coalition of African and LDC states joined forces with a group of small island nations to call for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to address issues of loss, damage and compensation. The eventual result, in 2013, was the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (WIM) which commits to looking at evidence of both economic and social losses and damages from future climate change impacts, including rapid-onset disasters. Several international organisations working under the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility – which includes the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) among others - are advising the WIM Executive Committee on the “impacts on, needs of, and solutions for populations vulnerable to climate change including those affected by climate-related human mobility.”

Previous UNFCCC agreements from 2010 and 2012 already featured significant articles on climate-induced migration, displacement and resettlement – thereby implicitly acknowledging the link between climate change and human rights. Previous examples of rights-based approaches to climate change such as the 2005 Inuit Petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the 2007 Malé Declaration – which both highlighted the connection between climate change and human rights – could serve as guidelines to the UNFCCC framework in this respect. A draft negotiating text at the December 2014 Conference of Parties (COP) in Lima included a WIM provision for a “climate change displacement coordination facility” to provide assistance and relief to affected populations. Although the coordination facility was not included in the final text, its presence in a draft negotiating text highlights how climate displacement is being seriously taken into consideration within the UNFCCC framework, and particularly in the WIM.

A global agreement addressing forced displacement resulting from natural disasters related to climate change remains some way off. Rights-based standards which tackle difficult questions about entitlements, compensation and perhaps even liability will be required in order to offer meaningful protection and assistance to climate refugees. At the EJF we are calling for a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Climate Change, whose role would be to assess the impacts of climate change, mitigation and adaptation on human rights, and to provide information and material to the UNFCCC process. The Rapporteur would inform governments and the international community about best practices on the protection of human rights in relation to climate change. In the meantime, our global response to the human face of climate change must reflect the principles of shared responsibility but also acknowledge the different capacities of developed and less-developed countries to respond to climate change impacts. Finally, we must situate human rights at the centre of our global responses, so as not to exclude the voices of the vulnerable people on the frontlines of climate change.