Migration, refugees and climate change: Big problems need big solutions

By Joana Alfaiate

As the end of the year approaches, now’s a chance to look back at what the international policy priorities have been in order to see what might lie ahead next year.

I was at COP23 last month, the 23rd meeting of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention Climate Change (UNFCCC). Based on this year’s event it seems that climate change might not be one of the global priorities for 2018. In spite of 2017 being the hottest non-El Niño year yet, international efforts to tackle climate change seem to be running out of steam.

At COP this year, a sense that other concerns might take precedent over climate and the Paris Agreement was pervasive. It was noticeable in the simplest things. Organisation was lacking, and the civil society and negotiation zones were more than a mile away, making access difficult and raising issues of transparency. And there were bigger concerns – such as complaints that there was no room on the agenda to address the neglected commitment of $100bn per year by developed countries by 2020.

Despite the general lacklustre atmosphere of the conference, there were a few positive steps to address long-standing issues. The global alliance to phase out the use of coal was formed, with more than two dozen countries, provinces and cities taking part. The Gender Action Plan was adopted, which requires gender to be a key issue for policy-making under the UNFCCC, indicating gender concerns as a continuing priority for 2018. Finally, the local communities and indigenous peoples platform was implemented, with the objective of giving indigenous people a voice in exchanging knowledge, technologies, practices and efforts to address and respond to climate change.

There are big policy concerns, however, that featured very little in negotiations, or at least didn’t feature as much as you might expect, considering their growing importance. Migration and the refugee crisis were one. Despite the decision to encourage the inclusion of migration into policy and planning for Loss and Damage mechanisms – established to address loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change – a substantive conversation that involves both climate and migration experts is missing. With the issue of migration, refugees and climate change very likely to remain some of the biggest global challenges for years to come, lack of understanding of how to tackle it in coordinated and mutually reinforcing ways could have devastating effects. Events and statistics from last year for children alone underscore this point.

UNICEF estimates that 500 million children live in flood-prone areas, 160 million children are exposed to severe drought, and 115 million children are exposed to tropical cyclones. The WHO estimates that every year, environmental risks take the lives of 1.7 million children under five years, representing the biggest global threat to children’s lives at the moment. At the same time, there are 50 million children in migration worldwide. One in every 200 children is a refugee. 20 million people were facing the threat of famine in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen early this year due to severe droughts and massive food shortages, combined with conflict and extreme poverty.

Despite the huge sense of urgency these situations bring, and the dangerous links between climate change, insecurity and migration and refugee flows, not enough is being done to coordinate international processes on climate change and migration. Recognition of this led in part to the creation of the Global Compact for Migration, which is being set under the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants to address all aspects of international migration, including those that are related to humanitarian, developmental and human rights concerns. However, progress on the framework so far seems to suggest the ‘climate-induced migration policy gap’ is still not being addressed.

As highlighted by research presented at COP23 by the Hugo observatory, there’s still a disconnect between views and objectives related to climate and migration, which might render frameworks less effective in tackling these problems. One essential mismatch is how migration is viewed. In migration talks, the focus is on mitigation of climate effects to reduce migration and displacement. On the other hand, in climate fora, migration is seen as an appropriate adaptation to climate change rather than something that should necessarily be avoided or stopped. Simply put, migration might be the only option for people who have lost their land due to sea level rise, for example.

Migration and the global refugee crisis will, and should, be global priorities for 2018. However, it is important not to neglect climate talks, and to ensure that the critical links between climate change, poverty and migration are understood and acted upon.