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Is migration the elephant in the room?

A Syrian refugee detained at the border police station in Elhovo, Bulgaria on October 22, 2013
A Syrian refugee detained at the border police station in Elhovo, Bulgaria on October 22, 2013 (Jodi Hilton/IRIN)

The migration crisis that has preoccupied Europe for the last six months has highlighted how unprepared one of the richest continents in the world is to deal with what lies ahead as climate change steals away livelihoods, multiplies weather-related disasters and aggravates many of the socio-economic problems that drive conflict.

Weather-related hazards displaced 17.5 million people in 2014 alone, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, while droughts, flooding and rising sea levels may have played a role in the decision of millions more to migrate, either within their own countries or across borders.

Researchers and climate justice advocates are hopeful that any agreement reached at the summit in Paris over the next two weeks will not only recognise climate change as a key driver of migration but also outline steps to ensure future movements are planned for and well-managed.

The latest draft of the agreement that will serve as a starting point for the Paris talks includes a reference to migration as a consequence of climate change in its preamble. This in itself is “a major step forward”, according to Dina Ionesco, who heads the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva.

“No one was really talking about this five years ago. It was extremely sensitive,” she told IRIN.

THE FIRST IMPORTANT STEP towards recognising that climate change impacts human mobility came in 2010 with the adoption of the Cancun Adaptation Framework, which established a process for least developed countries to formulate national adaptation plans and to apply for funding to implement measures aimed at reducing vulnerability and building resilience.

““The state of the public debate on migration at the moment is still very tense in many countries. It could prevent meaningful action by governments.”

— François Gemenne, political science researcher - Paris Institute of Political Studies

While a number of countries including Haiti, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, and Vietnam have since identified the link between migration and climate change in their national plans of action, most still view it as a negative consequence, to be avoided at all costs. Experts say this is exactly the wrong way to look at it.

“Many governments consider migration as a problem and that the priority should be to keep people where they are, but given climate change, this will be counter-productive,” commented François Gemenne, a political science researcher at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. “They need to accept that people will be mobile, and rather than trying to resist migration, we need to help people and communities benefit.”

Gemenne is not confident that the reference to migration in the draft COP 21 agreement will survive the negotiating process in Paris. “The state of the public debate on migration at the moment is still very tense in many countries. It could prevent meaningful action by governments,” he told IRIN.

The draft agreement also refers to a proposed climate change displacement coordination facility that would provide assistance and guidance to countries with populations displaced by climate change. What precisely the facility would do is unclear, but according to Koko Warner, a leading climate change researcher from the Institute for Environment and Human Security at United Nations University, “the fact that the facility is in the text is a positive sign; it sends a signal to parties that human movement is going to be a part of climate change risk management.”

WHATEVER DOES OR DOESN'T MAKE IT into the final agreement reached in Paris, those working in this sector already have some grounds for optimism. In October, officials from 110 states came together in Geneva to endorse a protection agenda for people displaced across borders by disasters and climate change.

It was the final stage of a three-year process of regional consultations led by the Nansen Initiative, a Swiss- and Norwegian-funded effort to build consensus among states around how best to protect people displaced by climate change and disasters. Rather than attempt to persuade countries to commit to an internationally binding agreement that would grant legal protection to the displaced, it compiled best practices and effective policies that states were already using in the context of disaster and climate change.

While the legal gap remains, “we have a recognition across states that this is a challenge and a gap, and that we can more systematically use best practices,” explained Atle Solberg, head of the Nansen Initiative Secretariat.

Considering the lack of international consensus on how to deal with migration, the adoption of the protection agenda by so many states is a considerable achievement.

““It’s already a disaster affecting millions worldwide and therefore we need to find the best way to manage this disaster.”

— François Gemenne, political science researcher - Paris Institute of Political Studies

“The mood now is that countries don’t want to be bound to international agreements,” said Warner, adding that the Nansen Initiative “has expanded the willingness to talk and cooperate on efforts, and I think the next step – either in Paris or elsewhere – will be to inch more towards action.

“Some critics would say we want more and faster, but I think Nansen has created a space that wasn’t there before,” she told IRIN.

In Paris, IOM will be pushing for more emphasis on the positive dimensions of migration and the incorporation of migration policies into national and regional adaptation strategies.

Ionesco pointed out that climate change funding has yet to be used to finance projects that could boost the benefits of migration.

Pilot projects run by IOM in partnership with other agencies and governments are being funded primarily with development or humanitarian aid. One such project in Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Niger is encouraging migrants and diaspora networks to invest in activities back home aimed at reversing land degradation and adapting to climate change.

Another IOM project is building the capacity of policymakers in countries already affected by climate change, such as Bangladesh and Colombia, to help them integrate migration into their adaptation strategies.

ONE OF THE MAJOR CHALLENGES in addressing climate-related displacement and migration is the extent to which different sectors and policy areas need to work together.

Speaking recently at the European Institute, former president of Ireland and climate justice campaigner Mary Robinson pointed out that: “Migration rarely occurs as a direct effect of climate change; it is motivated by a range of issues that are environmental, social and economic. So addressing migration as a climate, development or human rights issue only is unlikely to be effective.”

Ionesco said progress was being made in stepping out of the siloes that traditionally separate the migration sector from other sectors. The project in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Senegal, for example, involves a partnership between IOM, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, and the Italian Development Cooperation.

Gemenne identified another challenge as the lack of data available either to determine the actual magnitude of displacement resulting from climate change or to make projections about future displacement. “It’s still a huge research challenge,” he said. “In many countries, statistical capacity is not up to the challenge.”

While the Paris summit is not expected to provide any silver bullets, Gemenne was hopeful that it would help people move towards the realisation that “climate change isn’t just a distant threat in the future that they’ll be able to avoid with a climate agreement.

“It’s already a disaster affecting millions worldwide and therefore we need to find the best way to manage this disaster.”



Edited by Andrew Gully. Cover photo by Jodi Hilton/IRIN.

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