The news is full of warnings about the effects of climate change and how it is going to change the world. Aside from the devastating environmental impact, the human costs include threatened livelihoods and both water and food security issues.

Statistics about forcible displacement often focus on the people escaping persecution or war, yet 40 million of the 68.5 million people displaced around the world remain within their countries’ borders, driven from their homes by natural disasters. According to the International Rescue Committee, in 2017, disasters accounted for 61% of internal displacement, while conflict accounted for 39%. 

Internal displacement is as dangerous to having to leave the country. As communities are forced to relocate, competition over depleted natural resources can spark conflict between communities or compound pre-existing vulnerabilities that quickly lead to humanitarian crisis. Yet, climate change threatens to increase displacement levels, already the highest on record, with the World Bank predicting that by 2050, more than 140 million people could be internally displaced due to the effects of climate change.

Climate refugees that are forced to cross borders are often in need of international protection in the same way those escaping from conflict are. Yet, current international and national legal frameworks do not support cross-border movement in climate change circumstances. For example, while people displaced within their own countries are covered by national laws, international human rights law, the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and a few regional instruments, a serious legal gap exists when a person is forced to move cross-border in the context of climate change disasters. 

According to current international refugee law, climate refugees are not ‘refugees’ and therefore are not protected in the same way that people displaced by war, are. This means that a gap in human rights law emerges as there is no mechanism to address critical issues such as their admission, stay and basic rights within their new country. This is all due to existing criteria that defines refugees based on the distinction between forced and voluntary movement.

Occasionally, if people are adversely affected by policies adopted after a natural disaster – such as discriminatory government policies that restrict access to humanitarian assistance, then a refugee claim may succeed, but otherwise, they fall through the gaps. In addition, many of the policies associated with refugee law are remedial. 

However, as we now know that the effects of climate change will only worsen and the number of displaced people as a result will only rise, it is critical that governments identify and pursue proactive strategies to close this legislative gap to ease the suffering of those displaced by climate change, whilst also considering relocation strategies that avoid future displacement altogether.

To do this, policies for climate change displacement must be devised on all levels, from local, to national, to regional and international levels - facilitating climate change adaptation that enables people to remain in their homes for as long as possible, and migration strategies for those that need to move away.

On an international level, the UNHCR has facilitated a number of conferences and state-led initiatives on climate change displacement that have resulted in commitments to prevent and address cross-border climate displacement. For example, in 2015, 109 governmental delegations endorsed the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda, which identifies tools to help states prevent, prepare for, and address “protection needs of people displaced across borders in the context of disasters and climate change.” 

In 2016, The Platform on Disaster Displacement was launched to ensure implementation of a Protection Agenda. This platform helps affected States with tools such as humanitarian visas or temporary protection and stay arrangements, but implementing these facilities is often difficult. To support this effort, the UNHCR developed guidelines for temporary protections for those displaced across borders and is working with governments to promote coherence on protection for disaster displaced people across other policy agreements, such as the Sendai framework on disaster risk reduction, the global forum on migration and development, the Global Compacts on Refugees and Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. However, universal, governmental buy-in is needed if communities around the world are to be adequately protected in the face of a natural disaster.

As Erica Bower, an Associate Climate Change and Disaster Displacement Officer at UNHCR explains; “Climate change is clearly one of the largest challenges facing our planet in the 21st century. One only has to turn on the TV to see storm after storm and flood after flood and drought after drought and wildfire after wildfire.” Therefore, as the effects of climate change worsen, we need to ensure that those affected have a way of protecting themselves. Work must therefore be done to mitigate the adverse structural factors that hinder people from building sustainable livelihoods after a disaster, reduce the risks and vulnerabilities refugees face at different stages of migration by respecting, protecting and fulfilling their human rights and providing them with care and assistance. 

Indeed, at the heart of this issue is the need to consider migration through an entirely new lens – instead of regarding displaced people as a burden on resources, we should create conditions that enable migrants to enrich their existing or adopted societies through their economic and social capacities. In doing so, we can facilitate their contributions to sustainable development at a local, national, regional and global level.

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