Making climate migration people-centred: Giving climate refugees agency and voice
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Making climate migration people-centred: Giving climate refugees agency and voice

NO one knows how many people are likely to have to move temporarily or permanently as a result of climate change, though there is no doubt that migration and displacement will occur and that in many cases it will occur in a way that either creates or exacerbates social, economic, and cultural vulnerabilities.

Debates about how best to help, support, and empower those whose lives are thus dislocated are not helped by the kind of fearmongering associated with dystopian claims about millions and possibly even billions of people on the move. This is still the case even though experts agree that the drivers of both adaptive and forced migration and displacement in a climate change context are exceedingly complicated.

In the years since the 2010 Cancun Agreements – adopted under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Changes (UNFCCC) – called on governments to improve their understanding of and cooperation on climate change-induced displacement and migration, this landscape has become crowded with activity.

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Taskforces, advisory groups, adaptation plans, and frameworks have called on global actors to rally around efforts to overcome, or at least minimise, these kinds of adverse human impacts. All of the key intergovernmental organisations have a place at that table: the International Organisation for Migration, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Labour Organization, and the UN Development Programme among others.

Yet for the most part, intergovernmental action has not gone much beyond a general commitment to do ‘something’. Even then, the trajectory often looks more like one step forward, two steps back, and less like something that will both protect and empower those who are most at risk from the complex displacement and migration impacts of climate change.

Draft recommendations for a climate change displacement coordination facility did not make it into the final version of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Even the mandate for the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM) made only a passing and somewhat vague reference to the need for governments to consider climate change impacts on human mobility and displacement in their policy, planning, and action.


Meg Taylor (L), secretary-general of the PIF, and Nauru’s President Baron Waqa (R) attend the “Small Islands States” meeting ahead of the start of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) at the Civic Center in Aiwo on the Pacific island of Nauru on Sep 3, 2018. Official talks at the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) starting on September 3 will centre on the threat climate change poses to island states and China’s rising influence in the region. Source: Mike Leyral / AFP

Things have moved forward somewhat under the WIM with the appointment of an advisory task force on displacement (TFD) in March 2017. The task force is charged with developing recommendations for the WIM Executive Committee, which, in turn, makes recommendations to the Conference of Parties (COP).

But the framing discourse and expected outputs are fundamentally technocratic, focusing on data, knowledge, tools, guidance, capacity, awareness raising, baselines, and institutional mapping.

It requires a deep dig into this institutional apparatus to find any evidence of a normative framework that demonstrates a real commitment to those who are most directly vulnerable to climate change displacement. But it is there.

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The report of the TFD stakeholder meeting in May last year expressed wariness of national human mobility policies that focus too much on national security and sovereignty. It was critical of the lack of a system-wide strategy within the UN system, and called for stronger application of human rights-based approaches which put people at the centre.

It also sought policies that ensure the dignity and safety of those moving as a result of the adverse effects of climate change. Finally, it called for the specific needs of migrants, youth, children, indigenous peoples, and other persons in vulnerable situations to be taken into account.

The Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility – which includes a number of UN agencies as well as NGOs and academic institutions to provide technical support to the UNFCCC on these issues – has been even clearer, demanding a transformative rights-based participatory approach to policy-making on climate displacement and migration.

Thus far, little of this people-centred model has made its way into the COP process. As we move towards COP 25 in Santiago de Chile, solidarity rather than fear and a commitment to the agency and voice of those who are most affected, rather than the imposition of external assumptions and preferences, should be at the core of these global deliberations.

This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion. 

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