Migration and Climate Change: Shoring Up Communities and Commitments

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  • 2016•09•16

    UN Photo / WFP / Amjad Jamal

    World leaders gather in New York on 19 September 2016 for a summit on large movements of refugees and migrants. Through this blog series the United Nations University Migration Network (UNU MN) will reflect on the challenges and opportunities of the summit from various critical perspectives: migration governance and policy; forced migration; migration and environment; migration and health; migration and culture; and migration and development. The series will culminate in a single summary post shortly after the summit.


    A joint post by Julia Blocher, UNU-ONY and Cosmin Corendea, UNU-EHS

    In early September 2016, China and the USA – the two biggest producers of greenhouse gases – signed the Paris Agreement on climate change. It was a historic moment for the United Nations, for communities on the ‘front line’, and for millions of people already displaced by climate change.

    Why is it so important to cut global emissions? Because climate change reduces or reverses development through loss of resources and infrastructure; and because it forces millions of people to flee their homes, requiring them to adapt to new societies and unknown challenges.

    While migration is often presented as a failure to adapt to changing conditions, scholars increasingly recognise migration as a powerful adaptation strategy. There is therefore a need for better support and regulation of migration at both the regional and global levels; a need felt most keenly in states on the front line of climate change: mainly developing countries.

    For example, US financial and political support for ‘climate-resilience programmes’ in the Pacific Islands would help boost preparedness and reduce uncertainty. However, this long-term struggle requires more than bilateral aid from major donors. It requires a global migration compact – a comprehensive agreement for human mobility amid growing environmental challenges.

    Helping migrants to help their communities

    The summit’s draft outcome document is a road map for talks on the proposed migration compact. In line with past practice, it will build on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030; it will welcome the Paris Agreement; and it will reaffirm the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA).

    Crucially, the AAAA agenda recognises the contribution of migrants to inclusive growth and sustainable development in countries of origin, transit and destination. And here the evidence is clear. Migrants contribute financially, materially and/or politically to their home communities, not only in the wake of natural disasters but also in support of longer-term development and resilience-building efforts. To further promote these contributions, the AAAA and SDG target 10.c. commit states to cutting the cost of migrant remittances to less than 3% of the amount transferred by 2030.

    A global compact would go further in seeking to maximise the scope and benefits of social remittances – i.e., the skills and knowledge that migrants bring or send ‘home’ from abroad. This is key because social remittances are often just as important to community development as money wired ‘home’.

    Principled but patchy protection

    Right now if you lose your home or are forced to move due to a natural disaster, you are likely to face many challenges before receiving essential support – and this is mainly due to poorly regulated coordination at domestic, regional or international level. There is some progress in the form of legal instruments and international cooperation initiatives: from the States-led Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate (Nansen Initiative), to the Platform on Disaster Displacement, to the Migrants in Countries in Crisis Initiative (MICIC), to the Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD). However, this progress is always on the sidelines of core – and politically sensitive – migration issues.

    On the one hand, these initiatives represent important confidence-building, operational and procedural guidelines for states’ responsibility to protect; on the other hand, not all states have agreed to contribute, so protection remains patchy. Recognising them as good practices would elevate this issue in global compact discussions; in turn, this would structure the international community’s work towards more coordinated and principled guidance to protect and assist people before, during and after disasters.

    Leave no-one behind – regardless of borders

    It is important to note that most people uprooted by natural disasters are actually displaced within their home countries – i.e., they are ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDPs). Between 2008 and 2014, 157.6 million people were internally displaced by weather-related disasters.

    Yet despite the overwhelming numbers, the summit will not address protection and assistance for this group, partly because the focus is on ‘Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants’ (emphasis added). IDPs should not, however, be left out of efforts to alleviate poverty, instability, marginalisation and exclusion – because their vulnerability is not only clear but sadly also growing. All told, the process kick-started this month represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring countries together to ensure that every person on the move due to climate change can contribute to inclusive, long-term development.

    The global compacts to be discussed between now and 2018 should focus on two aspects. First, states should implement existing agreements and guidelines, including those addressing disaster risk reduction as well as protection and assistance of displaced people – wherever they may be and whatever their migration status may be. Second, states should pledge to improve and increase safe pathways for all forms of migration, while helping migrants to safely benefit from work in their destination community as well as to transfer financial, social and political capital back to their source communities.


    Summit Series #1: What Will be the Legacy of Alan Kurdi’s Death?
    Summit Series #2: How to Walk the Talk to End Forced Migration?
    Summit Series #3: Migration and the Power of Culture
    Summit Series #4: Why Migrant Vulnerability Is a Community Health Issue
    Summit Series #5: Migration and Climate Change: Shoring Up Communities and Commitments
    Summit Series #6: Why It’s Time to Get Serious about Migration and Development
    Summit Series #7: The New York Declaration: What Next for Refugees & Migrants?