Climate Induced Displacement or Anticipatory migration? Time to decide!

Door: Mariya Gromilova | Categorie: Uncategorized

For a long while, environmental degradation, climate change and its impacts were primarily on the scientific—not public—agenda. The topic was surrounded by much scepticism and policy-makers had little interest to act upon it. Of course, the situation changed dramatically, with climate change now acknowledged as one of the central global challenges.[i] The impacts of climate change go far beyond damaging flora and fauna. Already in 1990, the IPCC predicted that one of the greatest impacts of climate change will be on human migration.[ii] People will be induced to move as a result of such factors as increasing intensity of extreme weather events, sea-level rise, droughts and accelerated environmental degradation. Although it is complicated to estimate the precise amount of those likely to be displaced as a result of global warming, according to the UN this number will range between 50 million and 350 million by 2050[iii]

From the legal perspective, people relocating or being displaced due to climate change fall in something of a limbo, not fitting under existing international legal frameworks. While several approaches to conceptualize this group of people have been suggested, no solution so far has been found. Despite the differences, existing approaches (for example, expanding the 1951 Refugee Convention to include people displaced by climate change, creating a separate convention, or drafting an optional protocol to the UNFCCC) tend to treat climate induced migration as a protection issue, where people affected by climate change need to be protected through this or that mechanism based on this or that grounds. This approach, as McAdam explains, is based on “the assumption … that movement is forced and should be treated as a refugee-like nature, with binding protection obligations for States … with respect to those displaced.”[iv]

At the same time, achieving any success through this protectionist approach appears hardly realistic. States are reluctant to accept responsibilities towards people affected by climate change, to develop new treaties, or to expand existing ones.[v] Furthermore, still very little is known about this type of movement, empirical data is limited, and proving that climate change is a “push factor” for migration is not possible.[vi]

The hopeless protectionist approach means, in reality, a “wait-and-see approach”. While negotiations and political debates remain stuck, the situation of people living in the areas affected by climate change will continuously worsen. At some point this will leave these people with no other choice than to look for a better and more secure livelihood elsewhere. Since they largely lack any legal grounds for relocation, they will use any opportunities, including dangerous and illegal.

Developed countries, particularly the USA, Australia and the EU’s member states, as top destination countries for migrants, have a choice to stick to the wait-and-see approach or to start taking anticipatory measures to mitigate the upcoming migration crisis. The examples of the Lampedusa and Christmas Islands, and the facts that there are already 16.7 million refugees and 51.2 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide who have no durable solution in sight, are just some of the arguments against waiting until people affected by climate change will join the fate of “boat people”.[vii] Another argument is that, as McAdam has warned – “a wait-and-see approach” with respect to movement … could ultimately stimulate a dynamic interpretation of human rights law so as to provide a remedy for people whose homes have become uninhabitable. This, in turn, may create a precedent for accepting people from other affected States (with much larger populations, such as Bangladesh).”[viii]

Tuvalu (Creative Commons license. Photo: Tomoaki INABA at Flickr)

Tuvalu (Creative Commons license. Photo: Tomoaki INABA at Flickr)

These concerns are in fact no longer just theoretical, since the first case has already been ruled, with a Tuvaluan family getting a residence in New Zealand on humanitarian grounds. The “decision of the New Zealand Immigration and Protection Tribunal does not grant the applicants refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention.The bases for humanitarian status were the applicants’ strong family ties and community connections in New Zealand, and not the climate change claim[ix]. Therefore, the applicants are not the world’s first climate change refugees, contrary to the numerous headlines of the media.[x] The decision of the New Zealand Immigration and Protection Tribunal has no impact at international level. As Corendea, a legal expert at the United Nations University, said in that regard, “It is not significant for the international arena, as this is an isolated rule … and the decision of the court may not set a precedent, but an example at best.”[xi] However, this doesn’t mean that the case is internationally irrelevant. “Tribunals and courts in other countries looking at similar issues could find the reasoning persuasive.”[xii] Furthermore, as François Gemene argues while the legal implications of this case are yet small, the political ramifications may be vast.

At first glance, one of the remedies against the escalation of the migration crisis can—paradoxically—be anticipatory migration. In fact, there is sufficient evidence that promoting migration—i.e. allowing temporary, seasonal labour migration of people leaving areas affected by climate change, giving them opportunities to improve their economic situation and to mitigate the risk that they will be induced to relocate—can be an attractive way to diminish the crisis. Besides the fact that allowing for legal immigration will mitigate irregular migration, it can generate a triple-win and be beneficial for migrants, sending countries, and destination countries.

The potential benefits of migration and its positive influence on development are in general well-acknowledged. As Kofi Annan, ex-Secretary-General of the UN emphasized, “The potential for migrants to help transform their native countries has captured the imaginations of national and local authorities, international institutions and the private sector.” Migration is acknowledged as the most effective mechanism to rapidly increase the incomes of poor people. [xiii]

For people affected by climate change, the most important benefit is that labour migration contributes to the adaptive capacity and resilience of places affected by climate change and helps to develop responses against climate change.[xiv] As Adger explains, the capacity of a system to respond to climate change to moderate or avoid its negative consequences is a function of a number of properties, including: financial resources (to pay for adaptation); governance (to steer the adaptation process and how legitimate that process is); information (to anticipate climate risks, devise appropriate adaptations, and learn from their implementation); social resources (to network and form bonds among people and groups so that social responses to climate change are cohesive, equitable, and robust); infrastructure; and technology (to provide tools and crafts that help adapt)[xv]. Migration can therefore make significant positive contributions to many of these determinants of adaptive capacity. For example, remittances increase financial resources, and migrants can increase a community’s access to information and expand social networks. [xvi] In this sense, migration can offer a “brain gain” rather than merely a “brain drain” (ADB, 2012).[xvii] Job opportunities abroad can also help motivate the young to acquire the appropriate skills.[xviii] Furthermore, even short term migration reduces stresses on the environment, and helps mitigate overfishing and water pollution.

However, it is not only the sending countries and migrants which benefit. Differences in the supply of and demand for labour across countries present opportunities for mutual benefits from mobility.[xix] The current world population is projected to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years and reach 9.6 billion by 2050. This growth will be mainly in developing countries, with more than half in Africa.[xx] Therefore, the growth will mainly take place in the countries which may not be able to offer sufficient resources, infrastructure, and institutes their to populations. At the same time, the working age population in the high-income countries will be declining due to low fertility and aging of the population.[xxi] This will necessitate greater flows of workers from low-income to high-income countries, as the latter seek to maintain the size of their workforces. For destination countries, well-managed migration can help bridge labour market gaps, provide labour to fuel structural economic transformation, drive innovation through migrants’ dynamism, and contribute to social security systems.[xxii]

Therefore, creating migration schemes and expanding existing ones can help the development and adaptation in the countries affected by climate change countries, fill the labour shortages in the developed countries, and diminish the risk of illegal immigration of people living in the regions affected by climate change.

Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that promoting migration on the regional level is not a panacea for a global migration crisis. The challenging nature of climate-induced displacement and migration requires complex solution. The negotiations on the international level must continue, and the international community must start acting. However, giving an anticipatory chance to some victims of climate change to migrate can positively contribute to the global solution.

[i] http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/

[ii] IPCC, Climate Change: The IPCC 1990 and 1992 Assessments (IPCC First Assessment Report Overview and Policymaker Summaries, and 1992 IPCC Supplement)

[iii] United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Climate change and its possible security implications, 11 September 2009, UN document A/64/350, 15.

[iv] Jane McAdam, Refusing ‘Refuge’ in the Pacific: (De)Constructing Climate-Induced Displacement in International Law, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1636187

[v] Philippe Boncour & Bruce Burson, Climate Change and Migration in the

South Pacific Region: Policy Perspectives, in CLIMATE CHANGE AND MIGRATION: SOUTH

PACIFIC PERSPECTIVES 5, 21 (Bruce Burson ed., 2010); Jane McAdam, Refusing ‘Refuge’ in the Pacific: (De)Constructing Climate-Induced Displacement in International Law, p.5 http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1636187; Bonnie Docherty & Tyler Giannini, Confronting a Rising Tide: A Proposal for a Convention on Climate Change Refugees, 33, HARV. ENVTL. L. REV. 400 (2009). Challenges of Climate-Induced Migration, Colo. J. Int’l Envtl. L. & Pol’y, Vol. 22:3, 408

[vi] http://www.nanseninitiative.org/, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/migration-and-global-environmental-change-future-challenges-and-opportunities

[vii] http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/dec/31/stopping-the-boats-a-fiction-as-australia-grows-ever-more-isolationist-on-asylum

[viii] Jane McAdam, Refusing ‘Refuge’ in the Pacific: (De)Constructing Climate-Induced Displacement in International Law, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1636187

[ix] Zeke Simperingham, an international lawyer with NGO Displacement Solutions – See more at: http://www.rtcc.org/2014/08/14/why-new-zealand-did-not-accept-worlds-first-climate-refugees/#sthash.YXnbhrfc.dpuf

[x] Some examples are: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/worlds-first-climate-change-refugees-were-just-granted-residency-new-zealand-180952279/; http://grist.org/news/the-worlds-first-official-climate-refugees-land-in-new-zealand/

[xi] http://www.rtcc.org/2014/08/14/why-new-zealand-did-not-accept-worlds-first-climate-refugees/

[xii] Zeke Simperingham, http://www.rtcc.org/2014/08/14/why-new-zealand-did-not-accept-worlds-first-climate-refugees/

[xiii] http://www.un.org/esa/population/migration/hld/Text/Report%20of%20the%20SG%28June%2006%29_English.pdf

[xiv] Migration as a contribution to resilience and innovation in climate adaptation: Social networks and co-development in Northwest Africa, Jürgen Scheffran, Elina Marmer, Papa Sow, http://www.zef.de/module/register/media/9892_Scheffran-Marmer-Sow_2011_Migration%20as%20a%20contribution%20to%20resilience%20and%20innovation%20in%20climate%20adaptation.PDF

[xv] Neil Adger et al, ‘Assessment of Adaptation Practices, Options, Constraints and Capacity in Jon Bartenett

[xvi] Accommodating Migration to Promote Adaptation to Climate Change Jon Barnett Michael Webber, 2010 22

[xvii] Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABM) and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) (2011a). Climate Change in the Pacific: Scientific Assessment and New Research: Volume 1 – Regional Overview.

[xviii] The Development Impact of a Best Practice Seasonal Worker Policy, David McKenzie John Gibson, http://elibrary.worldbank.org/doi/pdf/10.1596/1813-9450-5488

[xix] World Bank,

[xx] https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/un-report-world-population-projected-to-reach-9-6-billion-by-2050.html

[xxi] World Bank. Global Economic Prospects 2006: Economic Implications of Remittances and Migration. Wachington DC: The World Bank, 2006, 29

[xxii] http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/communication-maximising-the-development-impact-of-migration_en_11.pdf

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