Migration needs a home in global climate deal: UN experts

One person is displaced by disasters every second, migration experts emphasised at UN climate talks in Bonn, as they called for climate-related migration to be more prominent in a new UN agreement to curb global warming.

Very few mentions of displacement linked to climate change now exist in a draft deal, set to be agreed by 195 countries at a summit starting in Paris on Nov 30, experts said.

“Climate change negotiations cannot only focus on targets, on billions. They must focus on people and entitle people to have their voices heard and taken into account,” said Marine Franck, a climate change officer with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Negotiators came up with a new version of the draft agreement on Friday afternoon, ending a week of patchy progress.

It includes a proposal from developing nations for a “facility” that would coordinate efforts to deal with people forced from their homes as a result of “loss and damage” caused by extreme weather events and longer-term problems such as droughts and rising seas.

Another from a group of developed countries, including the United States, calls on an existing “loss and damage” mechanism to strengthen understanding, coordination and cooperation on displacement and migration - but this would not be included in the binding part of the climate agreement.

Noelene Nabulivou, a gender and climate change expert from Fiji, said it was vital for low-lying island nations like hers that the Paris deal set up a climate displacement facility.

“There are people who are already being displaced right now in small island states,” she told journalists on Friday. “We need to address those irreversible and permanent issues of loss and damage.”

Koko Warner, lead scientist with the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security, suggested including climate-linked migration in the opening paragraphs of the agreement and in a section on adapting to climate impacts.

Warner said new wording could still be inserted in the text, and there was some indication of country support for that.

The Paris agreement will guide the trajectory of work for the next 30 to 40 years, she noted - a period when climate-related migration is expected to increase.

“Places that we call home today may not be hospitable in the future,” she warned.

“The fact that we see this much movement today, sometimes in crisis situations, catching us unprepared - on the brink of winter for example, in Europe - just points to the need to get prepared for what is coming in the future,” she said.

If governments put in place the right measures to help people move safely and with dignity, they could avoid the kind of dire scenes now unfolding in eastern and central Europe, as desperate Syrians seek refuge from conflict, the experts said.

“We can’t sit and wait until they talk about billions of people (migrating) - we are already talking millions, and we need action when we can still deal with millions, which we have big problems with,” said Nina M. Birkeland, disaster and climate change advisor with the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Choice not to move

Efforts to prepare for and manage migration are already underway in places like Micronesia, said Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, an environmental migration expert with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

A recent survey showed two-thirds of adults in that Pacific Island country talk to their families about climate change, including the option to move, she said.

The IOM is running education programmes in schools and communities to show the links between reducing disaster risk and climate change adaptation, while supporting local projects broadening ways of making a living and improving infrastructure and access to energy.

Such efforts to improve life at home “allow residents the possibility to make the choice to not migrate,” Chazalnoel said.

Franck noted that the French senate this week had voted for a resolution calling on the government to include the issue of environmentally displaced people in the Paris climate agreement.

“It is possible to reduce and prevent displacement if we act now,” she said.

Adaptation measures would help people become more resilient to climate stresses, potentially enabling them to stay in their homes. At the same time, governments should plan to protect those who do migrate, and even to relocate communities out of harm’s way if necessary, she added.

Other new international agreements - including the UN Sustainable Development Goals and a global framework to reduce disaster risk, both adopted this year - urge support for migration that respects people’s rights, she said.

The UN climate change process also “needs to take responsibility” in Paris for dealing with climate-related migration, she said. 

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