What's Happening to the Millions of People Displaced by Climate Change?


The World Humanitarian Summit, which concluded last month in Istanbul, aimed to reform the humanitarian system. But that system was created for a climate that no longer exists.

In 2015, disasters and climate change impacts led to the displacement of twice as many people as conflict and violence.

This is only going to increase. It needs more attention. 

While estimates vary, climate change will cause or contribute to the displacement of millions of people. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 21.5 million people have already been displaced by weather-related hazards each year since 2008. That figure does not include those forced to flee because of gradual hazards such as sea level rise. 

If countries are to be more resilient and able to contend with this expected large-scale increase in displacement then they need to act now.

The international laws and policies on human movement, in particular, need revisiting. 

One challenge that lawyers have been tussling with is how to protect and ensure the human rights of those who move due to climate change. People displaced by climate change have not been considered ‘refugees’ under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Judges have thus far refused to give refugee status to people displaced by climate change, arguing that they do not face state persecution of the kind that is necessary for a person to qualify as a refugee. 

In New Zealand, for example, a man from Kiribati, Ioane Teitiota, claimed refugee status and argued he could not return home because of rising sea levels and the threat of climate change. Domestic courts rejected his arguments; his final appeal was dismissed last year. 

Another policy challenge that must be addressed is whether solutions to climate displacement are best designed at the local, regional, or global level. 

International efforts to address climate change have progressed slowly. While regional agreements may face fewer obstacles and raise less controversy, they are unlikely to provide a complete solution for the problem.  

It is important that the voices from countries affected most by climate displacement are given prominence. 

Local solutions are not often acknowledged as important on the international stage. But grassroots movements are vital to building the community resilience needed to prevent displacement, and to ensure that if climate change impacts force people to move, they are able to do so in safety and with dignity. 

Itinterunga Rae Bainteiti, a youth activist from Kiribati, reflects on the critical role of civil society in local solutions after waves from Cyclone Pam pummeled his island in 2015. “Grassroots efforts”, he told us, “are very important so that people are resilient, educated, and prepared before the next disaster strikes.” 

These challenges—and many others—have not yet been the subject of enough discussion. There are, however, glimmers of hope. The World Humanitarian Summit sought to initiate concrete actions to make countries more resilient in the face of crises. Its process and outputs are controversial. 

One clear positive development—although not the result of work at the work the Summit itself—was the announcement that the Nansen Initiative would be maintained and revitalized as the ‘Platform on Disaster Displacement’, with Germany taking prime responsibility for steering the group. Launched in 2012 with Switzerland and Norway at the helm, the Nansen Initiative was a state-led regional consultative process that produced a ‘protection agenda’ on disaster-induced displacement. It was endorsed by 110 countries. 

The former Envoy of the Nansen Initiative, Walter Kaelin, called the launch of the Platform “a crucial next step”. He explained that it will provide continued focus and energy because “if there is a lack of political will, then things fade away. That is the important thing that the launch has done - ensure that the issue does not fade away.”

Displacement of people from climate was also referred to in an earlier draft text of the agreement reached in global negotiations in Paris last year. This text was removed in the final agreement, but a Climate Displacement Task Force was set up to further investigate climate-related migration and displacement.

But global leaders must do more. While the new Platform on Disaster Displacement and the Task Force are important steps to focus on climate displacement, it is clear that creating these new fora alone is not sufficient. 

Countries could treat this challenge as an opportunity to review and revise the overall framework for dealing with refugees and displaced people, which has proven to be inadequate in recent months. Adaptation measures, which are referenced within the Paris Agreement, could also be supported with an explicit concern for migration. Greater consideration could be given to the topic at the G20 and General Assembly meetings scheduled for September.  Candidates to be the new Secretary-General of the U.N. could also make this a priority issue. In all discussions, it is important that the voices from countries affected most by climate displacement are given prominence. 

Kaelin notes: “I am optimistic about the future of the disaster displacement issue compared to a few years ago. Things are changing.” But there is still more to be done. 

As three young people committed to developing solutions to climate displacement, we hope that politicians and policy-makers can play their part in putting this issue on the global agenda. Our generation, which has inherited a world deeply affected by climate change, demands – and deserves – nothing less.

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