This week began inauspiciously for those concerned that international policy on migrants and refugees is weak and wanting in the face of accelerating climate change.
A Monday meeting of European leaders once again failed to satisfactorily resolve continental disagreements about how to equitably share in the relocation of asylum-seeking migrants who have come escaping civil war and repression in Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea to safer ground in Italy and Greece.
The dispute follows a June summit of European Union members, convened to discuss the migration crisis that dominated headlines prior to the debt crisis in Greece. That meeting descended into a shouting match, as various heads of governments sought to avoid requirements to take on more migrants. Right now, EU rules require asylum-seekers to apply for asylum in the country in which arrive, burdening “border” states like Spain, Italy, and Greece. June’s meeting showed just how much other European states don’t want to help.
The lack of a consensus around a robust European response is a worrisome sign, especially as the number of migrants due to conflict and natural disasters (including those linked to climate change impacts) is expected to rise worldwide. This increasing trend toward displacement is expected not only across borders, but within countries as well, taxing the capacity not only of developing nations, but also developed ones.
On the same day the second EU meeting fell apart, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Centre (IDC) released a report on the extent of the challenge from natural disaster-induced migration. According to the report, natural disasters over the course of the past seven years have displaced an average of one person every second, including nearly 20 million disaster-displaced individuals in 2014 alone. The Asia-Pacific region accounted for the overwhelming majority of these: 87 percent, with the Philippines, China, and India leading the pack. While past research has suggested that disaster-displaced are often quick to move back, the IDC report demonstrates that this is not always the case; on average, nearly 715,000 people remained displaced years after the disaster they fled from originally.
The IDC report paints a sobering picture of how vulnerable human-built infrastructure and institutions are to extreme weather. Moreover, while the vast majority of displacement commonly ascribed to climate change factors is internal to affected countries, concerns about how to manage increased cross-border migration is also a serious long-term challenge, as demonstrated by the EU’s inability to manage migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. The lack of a cohesive and comprehensive policy to address this growing need is likely to magnify the already devastating impact of natural disasters.
Unfortunately, the legal framework governing the rights of migrants displaced by climate related stressors is practically non-existent. Climate migrants are not considered refugees under international law. Many who have fled low-lying islands have argued, to date unsuccessfully, that being forced to return to areas undergoing severe climate stress would negatively impact their lives.
A recent court case in New Zealand underscores the legal gray area raised by those attempting to escape climate change. Ioane Teitiota, a migrant from Kirbati who overstayed his visa in New Zealand, argued that his home country was unsafe to return to because of the impacts of climate change, including the sea level rise that was salinating the island’s freshwater supply. The New Zealand court rejected his argument Monday, though it pointedly did not rule out future changes to its interpretations to the law. Such sentiment, however, will come as little comfort to the appellant in this case and to the citizens of Kirbati.
The international community will come together in November-December of this year to agree on global emissions reductions goals. While the question of protection for climate migrants is not on the formal agenda, how to respond will undoubtedly be a critical part of global climate policy in the twenty-first century. These three stories, separate but related, demonstrate that we are not giving the problem the attention it deserves, despite the urgency of a looming humanitarian crisis.