The international community has steadfastly dodged the issue of recognition and protection for “climate refugees” - people forced to relocate to another country as a result of the risks and hazards of a changing climate. Now, the first global initiative to address humanitarian options is underway, with discussions focusing on the Pacific Ocean states to take place soon.
The UN Guiding Principles on Internal displacement, international human rights legislation, and many national laws protect the rights of people displaced within their own countries as a result of natural disasters, but those prompted to move across borders have no protection and are particularly vulnerable.
"There are unclear mandates for [aid] agencies to respond to cross-border displacement, since no NGO or agency has responsibility for overseeing people displaced by natural disasters," said Walter Kaelin, a former representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and long-time advocate for people displaced directly as a result of extreme natural events.
Kaelin is also the envoy to the chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative, an intergovernmental effort named after polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees appointed by the League of Nations in 1921, who introduced the 'Nansen passport' for stateless people.
Rolf Vestvik, of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), says the lack of legal status inhibits agencies like his from raising money to help them. The NRC and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) are working to facilitate the Initiative's efforts, which started in early 2013.
Countries and agencies are wary of starting yet another, possibly lengthy, global process to deal with the legalities of assisting people displaced across international borders by natural disasters.
"There is simply no appetite among states for a formal process right now, and the Nansen Initiative tries to build the necessary consensus on what needs to be done in an intergovernmental process," Kaelin told IRIN.
Even the 2010 Cancun conference on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the first to acknowledge the possibilities of "climate change-induced displacement", shied away from saying how the issue should be addressed.
The Nansen Initiative was launched in 2012 by Norway and Switzerland with the aim of breaking this impasse and building consensus between countries on how best to deal with people displaced by sudden climatic shocks, or slow-onset ones like drought. "This is a necessary first step that may or may not lead to a new agreement," Kaelin noted. "There are no existing agreements that countries can emulate."
The Initiative will try to build on the three pillars identified as the "protection agenda": international cooperation and solidarity; standards for the treatment of affected people regarding admission, stay, status; and operational responses, including funding mechanisms; and the responsibilities of international humanitarian and development actors.
The work will be overseen by a Steering Group comprising government representatives of developing and developed countries, including Australia, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Germany,Kenya, Mexico and the Philippines. The first consultation will focus on Pacific Ocean island states, whose existence is threatened by a rising sea level. Kaelin told IRIN it could take place in the last week of May.
The first round
In 2012, New Zealand rejected an appeal from a citizen of the island of Kiribati for refuge from a changing climate.
Australia is a neighbour to many Pacific Ocean islands. A report in The Guardian newspaper said the Refugee Council of Australia had urged its government to become the first to formally recognize those fleeing the impact of a changing climate by creating a special refugee category that would enable them to access protection and support.
Countries' reluctance to deal with these problems was in evidence at the 2011 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ministerial Meeting to commemorate the 60th and 50th Anniversaries of the UN Refugee and Statelessness Conventions, Kaelin wrote in the Forced Migration Review in 2012.
The Ministerial Communiqué adopted at the meeting did not directly refer to cross-border movements triggered by climate-related and other natural disasters. "This was no accident, but rather the expression of a lack of willingness by a majority of governments, whether from reasons of sovereignty, competing priorities or the lead role of UNHCR in the process," said Kaelin.
Koko Warner, who heads environmentally induced migration research at the UN University (UNU) Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, told IRIN: "There is a policy space for the discussion… if states see their own self-interest in the issue, they may find more reason to get involved.” Projections of millions of people who would be forced to relocate as climate changes have caused concern in developed countries.
Joe Aitaro, a negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States representing the Pacific Ocean island of Palau at the UNFCCC, speaking in his personal capacity, stressed that "We need the presence of major developed countries and commitment to a process which will compensate our losses."
Kaelin said the consultation with Pacific Ocean island countries would consider three key issues: how to deal with the movement of people in adaptation plans and access funding; protect cultural identity, land and property in instances of displacement, voluntary migration and planned relocation; and the role of the Pacific Island Forum and other regional institutions in addressing these problems.
Aitaro said the process also needs to deal with the loss of sources of revenue and livelihoods in the form of mineral wealth and fishing when the islands submerge.
Scientist Steven Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Research Institute, an expert on the impact of climate change on sea-level rise, estimates that the sea could rise by one metre during this century, and low-lying Pacific island states would have to be abandoned.
"I think that planned relocations will be a response to the effects of climate change in some countries,” said Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow and co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement at the Brookings Institution.
“Particular care is needed to ensure community participation in the [relocation] process, to secure adequate land for resettlement and to restore livelihoods. Relocating people in a way that upholds their rights and maintains their dignity is a complex and expensive undertaking that requires commitment, expertise and above all, political will. It should only be used as a last resort."
Other remedies could be tried. Palau has sought opinion from the International Court of Justice on whether countries have a legal responsibility to see their greenhouse gas emissions do not affect others. The court's opinion would not be legally binding but could sow the seeds for international legislation and open the way to compensation, perhaps as formal acceptance of the people displaced by extreme natural events.
UNU's Warner and her research team are looking for links between extreme natural events and displacement that could help countries obtain compensation for loss and damage from climate change. At the UNFCCC meeting in Doha in 2012, it was agreed that a mechanism to address economic and non-economic losses, and possible technological interventions, would be discussed at its meeting in Poland in 2013.
Pinning down the cause
In the case of drowning islands it would be relatively easy to attribute displacement to climate change or extreme natural events, but trickier in instances where complex factors like drought and conflict are at play, as in Somalia during the 2011 famine.
"It is always... challenging to decide what motivates people to move,” said NRC's Vestvik. This is illustrated by the mix of people flowing daily across the Mediterranean. “However, with the right tools… it is possible to identify the different motivations for displacement, and thereby also the protection needs of the people concerned."