Vositha Wijenayake from Climate Action Network South Asia examines the issue of climate change induced migration, calling for reforms in laws and policies to ensure protection and humanitarian assistance for climate refugees.
Loss and damage and climate migration
Vositha Wijenayake - Climate Action Network South Asia
Despite both mitigation and adaptation efforts, it is now widely recognised that residual negative climate change impacts – or loss and damage (L&D) – cannot be fully avoided., thus increasing the need to focus on addressing climate change. Countries like those in South Asia represent almost a fifth of the world’s population (1.5 billion), with 460 million people living under the poverty line. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh alone account for 95 per cent of the region’s population. Poverty levels, coupled with the high incidence of extreme weather patterns, makes South Asia among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
The findings of the recently released Working Group II Report of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predict displacement of "hundreds of millions of people" due to land loss induced by climate change. The Report states, "The majority affected will be in East Asia, South-East Asia and South Asia. Rising sea levels means coastal systems and low-lying areas will increasingly experience submergence, coastal flooding and coastal erosion". These predictions point to the importance of focusing on the issue of climate induced migration, and more importantly the need to address it with a human rights perspective.
International law and climate induced migration
While environmental factors can contribute to prompting cross-border movements, they are not grounds in and of themselves for the grant of refugee status under international refugee law. However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does recognise that there are indeed certain groups of migrants, currently falling outside of the scope of international protection, who are in need of humanitarian and/or other forms of assistance.
A person who has been determined a refugee, should have satisfied the criteria under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1969 Organisation of African Union (OAU) Convention, or UNHCR’s mandate. For this reason, neither are ‘climate refugees’ nor ‘environmental refugees’, just as a reference to an ‘economic refugee’ is not a reference to a recognised term under international law. This highlights the need for reform in laws and policies that will encompass those that are victims of climatic impacts, and yet are not protected by the norms that need to be for their protection as well.
Loss and damage at COP20
The ‘Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change’ (Warsaw L&D Mechanism) can be considered as a landmark in addressing increasing L&D from climate impacts. However, it succeeded only in delivering the bare minimum that could be considered acceptable to developing countries. It also lacked reference to countries’ historical responsibilities for causing climate change, and a meaningful commitment to provide additional financial resources – including the resources to provide rehabilitation and compensation to those who experience L&D.
There needs to be clear progress on L&D at COP20, including the adoption of the Warsaw L&D Mechanism’s two-year work plan, its modalities – particularly the establishment of a financial and a technical facility – and the composition of the mechanism’s governance body. Further, L&D needs to be featured as a key element to the draft text of the 2015 Agreement with a focus on human rights. With human rights forming part of the agenda for the first time at COP20, it will be an opportunity to advocate for more focus on this issue of climate migration which is of great importance to the South Asian region.