Rising Climate-Related Displacement Highlights the Need For a Human Rights-Based Approach to Protecting Migrants

With 2018 fast approaching, countries around the world are joining together to draft two global compacts, the first one for safe, orderly, and regular migration and the second on refugees. As countries deliberate on how to improve global governance on migration and displacement, they should specifically address the impacts of climate change on migration and take a human rights-based approach to dealing with the climate crisis.

The impacts of climate change take many forms, from contributing to more extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and floods, to causing slow-onset events such as sea level rise, desertification, and degradation of fresh water sources. Already, people are beginning to flee their homes because of climate change impacts, and the scale of climate-related migration is expected only to increase.

According to Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, an estimated average of 22.5 million people per year have been displaced internally or across borders by climate- or weather-related events since 2008. People displaced due to the impacts of climate change have no choice but to leave their homes and make the often perilous journey to faraway places. International law currently has no instrument to properly address this issue. The 1951 Convention on Refugees, which establishes the rights of refugees and the responsibilities of countries who receive refugees, does not include protections for people displaced by climate change. This means that climate migrants often suffer from severe human rights violations and are at risk of being marginalized or exploited during their migration or at their destination.

In this context, the UN Human Rights Council agreed in June to review the protections of the rights of persons displaced by climate change across borders. In early October, an expert meeting and a public panel (the intersessional panel discussion on human rights, climate change, migrants, and persons displaced across international borders) were held in Geneva to discuss best practices and identify gaps and challenges in protecting the rights of these migrants. One of the major themes of the session was the complexity of identifying the factors that push people to flee their homes, as climate impacts are often intertwined with other factors, including poverty and weak governance. This makes it difficult to create a legal definition that would establish whether an individual is displaced by climate change, instead of other factors, and what protections apply.

Legal norms also apply differently depending on whether someone is displaced within or across national borders. The Platform on Disaster Displacement focuses on cross-border climate migration and tries to protect these migrants through a soft law approach, using legal instruments that have no binding legal force. But the majority of people displaced by climate change remain within their national boundaries, meaning that more work needs to be done to effectively protect the rights of these migrants.

To respond to climate-related displacement and migration, international cooperation is key to providing a coordinated response and guaranteeing the rights of all migrants. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants adopted in 2016 could strengthen this coordination. In the Declaration, the UN General Assembly decided to develop two global compacts. The first one, which focuses on safe, orderly, and regular migration, will aim to strengthen international governance on migration and address some of the major challenges — like climate-related migration — that we face today. The second will seek to strengthen the international response to large movements of refugees. In 2018, countries will meet with the aim of adopting the two compacts. During the events held this month by the Human Rights Council, several experts stressed that the global compacts are a unique opportunity to adopt a human rights-based approach to protect all migrants — especially those most adversely affected by climate change such as women, children, and indigenous people.

CIEL has called for better coordination among the institutions mandated to promote human rights and to implement climate action, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration. These institutions are well placed to provide further guidance to states on how to better protect the rights of people displaced by climate change. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risks Reduction 2015-2030, and the Paris Agreement are among the frameworks that already exist that should inform this process. UN human rights treaties are also relevant in this context, even if they do not specifically address climate displacement. The Human Rights Treaty Bodies could play a more active role by highlighting how States’ legal obligations under these treaties should apply in the context of climate migration.

In order to limit the adverse impacts of climate change and to reduce future climate migration, countries must focus on human rights and the rights of migrants when implementing these frameworks. Many of the experts and stakeholders at the intersessional panel also emphasized the importance of integrating human rights into decision-making processes at the regional and local levels. For example, when implementing adaptation and mitigation policies, the participation of affected people and communities is key to coming up with adequate solutions.

Existing legal instruments and policy frameworks should serve as guidelines for States to fulfill their obligations to protect the human rights of people displaced by climate change. All agencies and organizations involved must place human rights at the core of their actions in order to guide all stages of the international response to climate disaster and migration.

By Mélissa Dumont, Geneva-based intern

Originally posted October 20, 2017