Extreme climate events are turning out to be the new normal. One important indication of the effect of climate change on human populations could be the increase in the number of migrants escaping extreme weather events or gradual environmental degradation. Climate-induced migration is not new.
Communities have often moved from place to place driven by environmental and climatic factors, according to a 2008 report of the International Organisation for Migration. Recently, however, the number of people escaping such adverse situations has been increasing. In the 1990s, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) observed that millions of people will be displaced in this century due to long term and short term effects of climate change.
In spite of growing evidence of such a humanitarian crisis, the international community has been slow to recognize the problem. Even the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951, also known as the Geneva Convention, allows only those people escaping fear of persecution or armed conflict, or serious public disorder to be recognized as refugees.
In fact, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) rejects the term environmental or climate ‘refugee’ due to concerns that the rights of refugees strictly falling under the Geneva Convention will get diluted. It is only in 2020 that one could observe a shift in attitudes towards climate migrants in the UN Human Rights Committee landmark ruling of Teitiota v. New Zealand wherein the need for applying refugee laws to those who are facing imminent threats from climate change, was recognized. One major reason for this state of affairs could be a lack of understanding on the different factors which motivate climate-induced migration.
Absence of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction measures in times of environmental disasters could cause people to move. Apart from environmental causes, drivers such as water shortage, unhygienic living conditions, food scarcity, poor health and general disregard for human rights should be considered. Migration may be temporary or permanent in nature depending on the weather event. For instance, people escaping riverside settlements during flood season intend to return once the water level subsides. This may not be the case with those migrants whose lands have been lost to coastal erosion.
There are also many instances of people moving within a country than across borders. In India, for example, there is a huge influx of migrant labourers moving from rural areas to urban settings looking for better opportunities due to drought/famine conditions and resulting food scarcity. Thus, efforts to capture empirical evidence on these aspects are a need of the hour to allow countries to take an informed decision. It is vital to understand that unplanned migration by people, forced by conditions beyond their control, can lead to problems.
Chances for conflicts between such migrants and communities residing in the destination country/region due to resource scarcity and socio-cultural differences will be very high. For instance, ethnic communities in the state of Nagaland fear that settlement of outsiders in these states has already marginalized such communities from their traditional resources and diluted their ethnic identities, according to a study. Forced migrants will often have no support system or financial resources in the destination country/region, making them prey to human trafficking, gender-based violence and sexual crimes. At the end of the day, migration should be a planned choice and not a last option so as to avoid further vulnerabilities for the affected communities. A way forward to address this crisis can be found within the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration of 2018. Herein, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are directed to coordinate with the UNHCR and International Organization for Migration to create plans that prevent climate-induced displacement and provide handholding to those who have already migrated as a result of climate change.
Further, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, prescribes the need to increase resilience and adaptive capacity to climate induced extreme weather events and disasters in general. Such resilience can prevent and mitigate disasters, thereby reducing displacement. When migration is the only option, host countries must be suitably prepared with infrastructure and supported adequately by international bodies to prevent undue hardship to both the migrants and the host country. Further, countries must come to a consensus on the definition of ‘refugee’ to enable a more flexible and humanitarian approach towards helping all kinds of migrants.
To conclude, the international community needs to be mindful of the large-scale displacement that can be caused by climate change. Adequate energy and resources need to be devoted into further understanding this phenomenon to implement measures which are in line with ground realities. Recommendations towards stemming and managing climate induced migration can only be workable if there is a global recognition of this condition and coordination among all parties concerned.
(The writer is a senior project fellow at the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy in New Delhi)