Little interest in new treaty on climate-induced migration
By Brian Beary in Washington | Wednesday 04 April 2012
There is scant support among countries, including European ones, for drafting a new international treaty on migration caused by climate change. That, at least, was the consensus of a panel of experts on the issue who spoke at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, on 3 April. Instead, they advocated targeted, regionally-based solutions to address the most urgent cases, such as the sinking islands in the Pacific Ocean. With climate-induced migration forecast to increase in the future, they urged the international community to start making plans to deal with it.
According to Jane McAdam, a Brookings fellow based in Sydney, Australia, only four countries – Norway, Germany, Mexico and Switzerland – have voiced interest in advancing an international framework. The EU has not adopted a strong unilateral position yet, she said. Moreover, when the issue is looked at by Europe, it is often through a defence policy prism as officials look at its potential impact on national security. When discussed in the United Nations at committee level, there was “underwhelming support” for moving forward with a global guiding framework, McAdam said. The Permanent Observer to the UN from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Michele Klein-Solomon, said that governments were very reluctant to subject their determinations on who to admit to their country to a binding UN agreement. She noted that the IOM and UNHCR had asked organisers of the UN’s June 2012 Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, if they could hold a side event to raise awareness. Environmental factors have always been a motivator in migration but “it is clear there is more movement” due to climate change and “there is likely to be even more,” said Klein-Solomon. Brookings Senior Fellow Elizabeth Ferris noted that the World Bank had developed guidelines on resettling people forced to move by development projects – for example, deforestation – but there were no guidelines yet for climate-induced migration.
The short-term likelihood of entire islands being submerged was small, Ferris and McAdam agreed. The immediate challenge that islanders face, they stressed, was lack of fresh drinking water as supply becomes more salty due to soil erosion. From her contacts with islanders, McAdam learned that the term ‘climate refugee’ was offensive to many of them as they saw it as connoting ‘helplessness and a lack of dignity’. She cautioned against extending the 1951 UN Refugee Convention to cover their cases, arguing it was not a good fit as climate induced-migration was unrelated to a person’s background or beliefs. Such a widening of the definition of ‘refugee’ could inadvertently cause a loss of protection for political refugees, she warned. The other specificities of climate induced-migration that must be factored in, experts noted, were: that it tended to occur within a country rather than between countries; that it tended to be gradual and not sudden; and that it was usually combined with other factors in triggering migration.
CONCEPTUAL AND MORAL DILEMMAS
However the international community chooses to address the issue, it will be faced with major conceptual and moral dilemmas, the panelists agreed. Key questions to be addressed, according to Brookings’ Ferris, are: how to decide when land is uninhabitable, who takes that decision, how big a factor climate change is in triggering migration, and what phenomena ‘climate-migration’ covers – floods, droughts, landslides, etc. The IOM’s Klein-Solomon said that existential threats, such as the potential submergence of entire islands due to rising sea levels, tended to be the exception rather than the rule. Australian researcher McAdam, who has studied the Pacific islands’ cases in depth, including Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Carteret Islands, noted that the extent to which climate change was causing their submergence was not always clear. That raised the broader question, McAdam said, of whether countries should have to demonstrate that the threat they face is climate change-induced in order to be eligible for international aid.