WITH the conclusion of COP23, a sense of fearful apprehension has settled among researchers and activists of the climate change crisis. At the 2017 conference, political leaders and activists convened from around the globe to deliberate on the urgent threat of climate change. However, the agenda was dominated by matters of climate finance and climate risk insurance. Discussions revolved around issues that are characteristic of the classic economical and developmental approach to climate change.
The continued neglect of climate displacement is indicative of a fundamental disconnect between the global politics of climate change and local realities lived by those whose lives are upended by the changing climate. In spite of the 1990 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that identified climate migration to be the gravest effect of climate change, the issue remained ignored. The prediction presented in the reported since been consistently substantiated.
The magnitude of the crisis
GLOBAL negotiations over climate change continue to sideline, if not subverted entirely, the recognition of climate-induced forced migration. While the resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in June this year marked a progress, COP23 signifies a relapse.
Meanwhile, climate displacement has been widely evidenced. A recent Oxfam report shows that due to extreme climate change over 20 million people are displace in the period of 2008 to 2016. As stated by the UNHCR, ‘displacement linked to climate change is not a future hypothetical — it’s a current reality.’ Its data indicates that since 2008, 21.5 million are displaced due to climate change annually. Even the most conservative predictions suggest that climate change will displace about 250 million people by 2050.
The crisis is most dire in Bangladesh where climate displacement has begun taking its toll on the most vulnerable and marginalised factions of society. Internal displacement within Bangladesh is now an exponentially growing phenomenon. According to a slum census conducted in 2014, those living in the peripheries of cities have increased by 2.2 million since 1997. Figures from the International Organisation for Migration show that about 70 per cent of Dhaka’s slum-dwellers have taken refuge in the capital in order to escape natural disasters. And the status quo will only aggravate over time. It is generally understood that even a 3-foot rise in sea level would immerse 20 per cent of the country and compel some 30 million people to migrate elsewhere. Despite the immediacy of the threat and its potential for catastrophic damage, climate-induced migrants seldom feature on the international agendas or national development plans. The advancements made in climate adaptation process cannot match the magnitude and pace of the crisis at hand. Moreover, there are limits to the capacity for adaptation. It is, therefore, essential to focus on climate-driven migration.
There is a legal lacuna in that climate migrants have no recognised status in international law. As far as refugee law is concerned, the 1951 Refugee Convention protects those with well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. This definition is clearly a product of its times and the phenomenon of climate-induced migration cannot coherently be accommodated in this paradigm.
International human rights law is considerably better suited to protect the climate migrant, given that it protects against forcible return to life-threatening circumstances, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and also imposes positive duties on states to realise the right to life, right to food and so on. However, the slow onset of climate change adversities, such as land infertility and rise in sea levels is another limitation of international protection in this regard, since the law requires some degree of imminent danger.
Future prospects: COP24 and PDD
MOST policymakers anticipate that COP24 in 2018 will produce a binding instrument of international law for climate displacement, filling the lacuna in the present framework.
The Nansen Initiative was succeeded by the Platform on Disaster Displacement in 2016 for follow-up and implementation of the recommendations of the Protection Agenda. It is also expected to make substantial contribution to the protection of climate refugees by furthering understanding of the challenges of climate change in at risk communities around the world. It will be a way of formulating a global framework for meeting these challenges. For the most part, it serves as a tool for political consensus-building.
Protecting the climate migrant
AN INTERNATIONALLY binding convention akin to the Refugee Convention is often viewed as a panacea for climate-induced migration. However, such a right-based framework at the international level is ill-suited to present needs. The linear causality between climate change and forced migration presumed by such proposals is not empirically substantiated. There is an intricate web of causes that drive human movement. Moreover, the gradual onset of climate change means that displacement will usually and predominantly be internal, not cross-border. Perhaps most significantly, the political obstacles to the creation of a new treaty cannot be easily surmounted. Therefore, a treaty which would then not be widely ratified, implemented or enforced would be of little benefit.
At the international level, an incremental evolution is more likely to succeed, where initially voluntary guidelines develop to become clustered bilateral or multilateral treaties that could eventually metamorphose into an overarching international regime for protecting climate refugees. Presently, the scopes of humanitarian migration avenues must be expanded. There should be greater options for voluntary migration, facilitated by regional free movement treaties. Such treaties must have training facilities for working abroad and create special visa categories for individuals from regions identified to be at high risk from the impact of climate change.
While a right-based framework is currently unsuitable for the international arena, on the national front, it is precisely what is needed. Adaptation to climate change must be designed with a comprehensive view of its intimate connections to human rights and particular emphasis should be given to socio-economic and cultural rights. This is especially so given that the harshness of climate change manifests on preexisting socio-economic vulnerabilities.
A human rights’ based approach should be integrated into the adaptation framework of Bangladesh Climate Strategy and Action Plan and National Adaptation Programme of Action, with appropriate monitoring and review mechanisms. A comprehensive institutional framework is needed to identify specific duties for relevant state organs. Greater awareness of rights and duties in relation to climate displacement must be promoted and key bodies for enforcement must be accessible and fully resourced to address the concerns of the displaced.
Furthermore, there must be ‘just transition’ for the displaced, which is the crux of the rights-based approach. It is often the case that climate initiatives seek to overhaul current systems without being mindful of the impact these changes have on individuals’ lives. From basic necessities to material, cultural and spiritual dimensions of life, displacement must be addressed comprehensively.
In this new epoch in the history of human civilisation, the continued survival of our species depends on our ability to meet the novel challenges posed by climate change. It also depends, more fundamentally, on the realisation that human-made borders cannot be understood as the limits of our humanity.
Aisha Binte Abdur Rob studies human rights and transitional justice at the Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University, UK.
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