A child in a Moria refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece 2018.
Climate change will displace people
– is the world admitting it now?
You have probably heard about the Global Compact on Migration. It is the UN compact that almost toppled various European governments last fall and was also the target of a major fake news campaign.
A process that was initiated in the UN by Obama in 2016, eventually led to an – unbinding – compact on migration that was accepted in December 2018. But not by all: it was opposed by the USA, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Israel, and or absence or abstention of tens of others, including Austria, Australia and Italy.
This was certainly in part because it caused so much public resistance, even if a lot of it was based on incorrect information, and the compact was a fitting target for the anti-immigrant ideological right.
All in all, many see it as a historical achievement that an agreement was even reached in this political climate. What you might not know, is that many see this compact as an achievement especially from the point of view of an environmental issue.
“It is the first international agreement that sees the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation as drivers of migration. It might be the most important thing in this compact”, says Ida Schauman from the Finnish Refugee Council.
The compact mentions in length, and in multiple passages, about the effects of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters, and their links to migration.
“There was a lot of interest by countries during the negotiations to highlight climate change and natural disasters. The issue is as well addressed as it could be in such a text”, says Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, a Thematic Specialist at the International Organization for Migration.
A change in thinking
“The thinking has really changed. Partly because climate change and environmental issues have gotten to the political agenda in a completely different way than in the past”, Palosaari says.
Mohammed, from Syria, washing his clothes in the refugee camp of Moria, in Lesvos, Greece 2018.
But what about refugees?
But what is striking following the commotion over the Compact on Migration, is that few people talking about it even knew that there was another one – the Global Compact on Refugees – that was negotiated alongside it.
The drafting of these compacts started at the same time, in 2016. However, one concentrates on refugees, people fleeing from their countries, and the other on migration at large. ‘Migrant’ as a term does not specify why people are on the move – it even includes people leaving for work or family reasons.
The compact on refugees hardly got any public attention or opposition, and no one demonstrated, at least very visibly, on the streets against it. Furthermore, last December 181 countries out of 193 voted in favor of adopting the Compact on Refugees – whereas the Compact on Migration got only 152 to votes in favor.
This might seem odd for two text with the same juridical status and similar themes. Interestingly, environmental issues are glaringly absent from the Compact on Refugees.
Consider the difference: climate change and environmental reasons for displacement are mentioned in at least seven chapters in the Compact on Migration. It has a whole section dedicated to the issue.
Instead the Compact on Refugees mentions climate and environmental degradation just once – and in a telling context:
“While not in themselves causes of refugee movements, climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements. In the first instance, addressing root causes is the responsibility of countries at the origin of refugee movements.” [emphasis mine]
This formulation carefully avoids mentioning environmental reasons or climate change as direct causes or drivers of refugee movements, unlike the compact on migrants. It also leaves the responsibility to the countries of origin.
Why? Are the facts not the same for refugees and migrants?
One important difference is that there is already an international, and binding, agreement on refugees and refugee rights, and a whole UN agency (UNHCR, UN Refugee Agency) that works with them. There isn’t any similar widely accepted international text or an organization – with similar duties – for migrants, or any specific migrant rights.
These Global Compacts now are both non-binding, but whatever is written about refugees, can be linked to these binding obligations much more easily, and could hint at the opening up of the definition of a refugee.
If it was stated in an international agreement that people flee from their homes for these reasons, it would create a basis for the idea of climate refugees or environmental refugees.
This would have direct consequences on who could get a refugee status and on what basis. Tens or even hundreds of millions of people whose homes are threatened by climate change might apply for asylum.
Climate refugees, climate migrants, people on the move…
“If you broaden the definition, some are afraid that the states will stop following it. And since we have reached a rather strong juridical status for refugees internationally, it is risky to open it up and broaden it”, she adds.
Children in front of a water tank in the refugee camp of Bar Elias, in Lebanon 2017.
His case was turned down by the national high court on the basis of the absence of international law that would tackle this issue.
There is talk about humanitarian visas, temporary work permits, or developing other solutions for people compelled to leave for environmental reasons. Of course, again, it remains to be seen if this will be actualized anywhere.
The burden of proof
And meanwhile, millions of people who will have to leave their homes because of floods, drought or disasters still have little or no hope of getting legal status elsewhere.