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The Conversation on Climate-Induced Migration

Alev Kayagil, Researcher, Global Governance Program
December 15, 2015

From 2004 to 2008, 184 million people were forced to leave their homes due to floods, windstorms, earthquakes and other disasters. The concept of "climate migrants" and the term "climate refugees" have recently started to attract attention in the global discussion about climate change. This definition illustrates the reality of climate change of the forced migration of populations living in vulnerable and least-developed countries. Neither the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris nor the G20 have done enough to address displacement as a result of climate change.

Countries such as Tuvalu, Fiji, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Kiribati are among the highly vulnerable countries that have experienced obligatory migration from coastal to inland cities and, in some cases, the buying of land from neighbouring countries. In 2014 Kiribati purchased 20 square kilometres of land from Fiji in response to alarming rising ocean levels. These events and many others not only demonstrate the seriousness of the effects of climate change but also send a signal to developed countries — the highest emitters of waste and carbon — to invest in climate mitigation mechanisms. A comprehensive approach to the climate change crisis can only be made when global initiatives and frameworks address the interconnected nature of climate refugees, migration and displacement while taking the necessary measures to protect threatened populations.

At the G20 Antalya Summit in November 2015, the outcomes of the climate change discussion referred specifically to adaptation measures for the most vulnerable countries and to climate funds and financial measures in cooperation with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The G20 Climate Finance Study Group outlined measures for climate finance adaptation and risk management, with specific attention to the role of financial institutions in mobilizing these climate funds.

The Antalya Summit, however, did not link climate mitigation and adaptation efforts to climate migrants. Neither climate refugees nor people displaced as a result of climate change can return to their homes once they are forced to leave. The G20 communiqué states: "We also recognize the importance of creating conditions to enable refugees and internally displaced persons to safely and voluntarily return to their homes." The G20 must re-evaluate its commitments and mechanisms for supporting displaced persons paying attention to the types of conflicts and disasters that are prompting those people to relocate. Koko Warner, head of the Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability and Adaptation Section at the United Nations University Institute for Environmental Human Security, pointed to the significant policy gaps in conceptualizing climate change migrants stressed the need for an institutional framework. On providing support to migrants, the G20 communiqué listed the OECD/International Network on Financial Education Policy Analysis and Practical Tools on financial education for migrants and their families among its working group documents.

The final Paris Agreement from December 12, 2015, fell short of expectations on migration, migrants and displacement. More importantly, the references to developing adequate responses to the issue of displaced persons did not make it to the final text, which highlights the strong need for a differentiated approach to climate migration. (The two earlier drafts and the final the text are available from the UNFCCC here.) The debate between developed and developing countries in the negotiations focused mainly on loss and damages, with delegates and representatives from the global South repeatedly requesting compensatory measures given that the top 20 developed countries include the highest carbon emitters.

Moreover, the section on loss and damages was considerably shortened in the final text. References to addressing climate change–induced displacement, migration and planned relocation were removed. These changes nonetheless display a more inclusive nature and recognize the contributions by the least developed countries as well as groups outside the UNFCCC framework. The loss and damages section calls for a "task force to complement, draw upon the work of and involve, as appropriate, existing bodies and expert groups under the Convention including the Adaptation Committee and the Least Developed Countries Expert Group, as well as relevant organizations and expert bodies outside the Convention, to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change." Although this is a significant step forward in including those most affected into the conversation on prevention and mitigation, the text does not identify climate migration and planned relocation. These two references are connected to the issue of displacement and their removal displays the significant gaps in the development of support mechanisms.

The most significant failure on climate migration is the omission of the displacement coordination facility to assist organized migration and planned relocation. The omission of climate migration in relation to displacement points to the failure to develop a comprehensive approach. Climate migration and the plight of climate refugees cannot be addressed without acknowledging the connection to displacement.

A more comprehensive dialogue is needed and should be developed on climate migration. The issues of climate migration, displacement, planned migration and relocation must be addressed within a comprehensive framework by the top developed countries that make up the G7 and the G20. These countries should recognize the presence of climate migrants and displaced populations and should work to include references to the mitigation efforts of vulnerable states and risk management strategies in sustaining communities prone to natural disasters. Burden sharing and differentiated approaches in tackling climate migration through bilateral and multilateral cooperation should be high priorities both for the G7 and the G20.

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Alev KayagilAlev Kayagil is a researcher with the G7 Research Group and G20 Research Group based at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She is the director of the G20 Research Group's office in Istanbul and served as director of the G7 Research Group's home team for the 2015 G7 summit at Schloss Elmau. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a double major in European studies and history, with a minor in political science, and served as editor-in-chief of the European Studies Undergraduate Journal for two years. She recently completed an internship at the Istanbul Policy Centre where her research focused on democratization and institutional reform, climate change and development. She is currently working at Kagidar, the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey in Istanbul.

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