By Liza Kane-Hartnett
Ioane Teitiota and Angua Erika migrated to New Zealand due to the impacts of climate change on their home country Kiribati in 2007. Kiribati’s land averages just over 6 feet above sea level. Among its environmental challenges are erosion, flooding, and declining fishery resources; more than half of Kiribati’s population now lives in its capital. As Foreign Policy reports, Kiribati “will likely become one of the first countries to face an exodus of people due to climate change.”
For years, Teitiota and Erika have endured a nearly unending litany of legal battles just to prove they cannot return to their home nation, like so many asylum seekers across the world stranded by violent conflict or some other politically-motivated form of displacement. They argue that there is no future for them, or more importantly their children, in their home, fearing that the rising sea levels “will swallow Kiribati – and them with it – within 20 years. Today, they and their three New Zealand-born children are fighting deportation and awaiting the result of an appeal to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee, hoping to become the world’s first recognized climate refugees.
Stories such as Ioane Teitiota and Angua Erika’s illustrate the haunting truth that climate change will be a crucial challenge to human security by the end of the 21st century. As the U.N. General Assembly begins its session on Sept. 15, it would behoove nations to call attention to the humanitarian side of climate change and the growing question of climate refugees and internally displaced persons.
The term climate refugee can apply to a person displaced by a natural disaster as well as to those who are forced to migrate from their homes, either within or across borders, due to consequences of longer-term climate change. Those who are forced from their homes and stay within their home nation are covered under forms of international law such as the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, however, climate refugees who cross international borders do not possess this same coverage. Additionally, climate refugees are not recognized in the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore are not afforded the same protections extended to those displaced by violent conflict or persecution. As such, there is “no single international agency [that] has the mandate to cdeal with populations displaced on account of disasters and the impacts of climate change.”
While these individuals are not the sole responsibility of Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or any other international entity, Dr. Amare Gebre Egzeiabher, Senior Environmental Coordinator for the Division of Programme Support and Management, explains that the UNHCR does increasingly focus on this issue by contributing research and providing support to operational initiatives such as the Nansen Initiative. Although an increased focus is welcome, this legal gap often leaves climate refugees unprotected and unassisted.
A majority of climate refugees and those most at risk to become climate refugees are located in the developing world. Consequently, developing nations will be impacted the fastest and most severely by climate-induced displacement. A key driver of this forced migration is lost or reduced livelihoods due to long-term environmental changes. People that rely on agricultural and sea-based professions as their main source of income, as well as those who live in low-lying areas are the most vulnerable to displacement by lost livelihoods.
This has already occurred in multiple locations around the globe. For example, a study has shown that “rising temperatures are a significant driver of permanent migration among poor farmers in Indonesia… temperature increases were far more likely to induce migration than rapid-onset hazards such as floods, due to their long-term and cumulative effects on population income.” Due to limited resources, a reliance on agricultural and maritime-based livelihoods, and generally weak governance structures, environmental displacement will be felt disproportionately by the developing world. Therefore, the international community will need to play a leading role in orchestrating an effective response to an increasing population of climate refugees.
Steps have already been taken to develop a framework and mobilize support for this issue. Among the efforts have been several forums that have advocated for legal protections and, perhaps most significantly, the establishment of the previously mentioned Nansen Initiative. Established in Oct. 2012 by Norway and Switzerland, joined by Australia, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Germany, Kenya, Mexico, and the Philippines, the Nansen Initiative seeks to develop consensus for a “protection agenda for people displaced across borders in the context of disasters and the effects of climate change.”
An important aspect of this initiative is the inclusion of multiple stakeholder types. The participation of nations, particularly those affected, civil society and academia alongside international organizations can help develop a foundation for sustainable progress. These efforts are positive developments, but need continued support and increased resources to successfully navigate the emerging challenge of climate-induced displacement.
Although encouraging, policy development and its subsequent implementation is a long-term project and more urgent action is needed to address the critical gaps in protections afforded to climate refugees. The Pope highlighted this issue in his encyclical when he made an appeal about the status of climate refugees, stating, “They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever.”
Immediate action should include a concerted effort by nations and civil society to incorporate displacement due to climate change as grounds for refugee status. An official classification as a refugee would provide some immediate relief by extending legal protections to those who are displaced across borders and expanding the range of UNHCR’s mandate to include climate refugees. This progress will not come without hurdles, as more resources will be required within the UNHCR and host nations will need to take on a larger burden, however, these challenges, and others, will need to be overcome to ensure human security against the threat of mass displacement.
It is crucial to act now to protect the current and future victims of climate change, as the issue will only continue to impact our world and dictate the international policy agenda. A growth of climate refugees will add stress to an already fragile refugee system, furthering the need for immediate action and a comprehensive plan of action. Luckily, opportunities to achieve progress are numerous in the final quarter of 2015 given the focus on climate change at high profile events such as the U.N. General Assembly and Paris COP21 as well as its place in the Sustainable Development Goals.
While it is tempting to expect advancement on this issue, the reality is that changes to global governance and its structures are slow moving, despite an the increased focus on climate change. Over the past two decades, the international community has been unhurried in addressing the environment, it would be unreasonable to assume that this trend will change and significant development could occur before years-end. Acknowledging the painstaking process of international agreements, success in 2015 could be as small as the international community formally recognizing the growing crisis of climate refugees and placing it on the agenda for future considerations in the upcoming year.
Though the international community does not have the single-focus or agility to act immediately, NGOs and other civil society groups do not face this same challenge. Climate scientists and activists have long been leading the way in addressing climate change, they continue to have the potential to create tangible progress by contributing resources and expertise, and raising the issue in global media and policy circles.
Liza Kane-Hartnett is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr]