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Climate change: "last straw" pushes millions from their homes
"Climate change is looming as a potentially very serious and underappreciated complicating factor when it comes to international displacement," said Erika Feller, the assistant high commissioner for protection in the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
More is needed from the international community to address this challenge "in a coordinated and pragmatic manner", she told IPS.
Of paramount importance is that national authorities play a central role in developing appropriate responses to both the internal and external dimensions of climate-related displacement, while affected persons and communities must be made fully aware of their rights and given opportunities to participate in decision-making, Feller said.
"Decisions about where, when and how to relocate communities, for example, must be made in consultation with the affected populations and be sensitive to cultural and ethnic identities and boundaries to avoid possible tensions and conflicts," she added.
Last to Pollute, First to Suffer the Consequences
That the poor are always hardest-hit by natural disasters is a fact recently underlined by the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) Report 2010, which says that these nations "will be disproportionally affected by changing climatic conditions".
This despite the fact that LDCs account for less than one percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for heating up the atmosphere and altering rainfall and weather patterns.
The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in these regions are five times higher now (519 events in 2000-2010) than during the 1970s (116). In the last decade, about 40 percent of all casualties related to natural disasters were found in the poorest countries of the world, the report says.
Climate change affects LDCs in different ways. While Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are facing droughts and floods, some Asian LDCs, together with Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Pacific, are at risk particularly from rising sea levels and storms.
The 2009 "Human Impact Report - Climate Change" by the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Forum estimated that 2.8 billion people are living in areas prone to one or more of the physical manifestations of climate change.
"The global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, in accordance with their common but different responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions," declared the Istanbul Programme of Action agreed to at the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV) in Turkey in May and which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly.
The list of necessary actions outlined in the programme, especially by so-called development partners, hinge on an urgent demand for promised financial and technical support – which critics say the world's richest countries, and those most culpable for climate change, have been dragging their feet on.
Staying close to home
The overwhelming majority of people who are displaced by environmental factors become internally displaced persons (IDPs) within their own countries. Just a fraction will likely cross international borders, said Michele Klein-Solomon, director of the Migration Policy, Research and Communications Department at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
"[The latter group tends to move] from countries in the South, in the developing world, to other countries in the 'less emitting world', and it is also not likely to be the most vulnerable who move," she explained.
More frequent and severe floods, storms, landslides or land degradation, droughts and water shortages – so called slow-onset natural and human-made disasters – can all be triggers for migration.
Those most in need of protection tend to lack sufficient resources to adapt to the new living conditions, and that can include an inability to move away or migrate to other countries.
Speaking at a conference at Columbia Law School in May on migration and climate change, Klein-Solomon stressed that it was important to grasp these facts to counter "the overwhelming fears of the developed world being awash with people who are coming into their countries, taking jobs and burdening social security mechanisms".
Even under worst case scenarios, in which some 250 million people could be displaced due to climate change over the next 25 to 30 years, it still would be "a tiny portion of the world's population", she said.
"We are really not talking about enormous numbers relative to global populations and we are not talking about hordes of people flooding into the Western, industrialised, developed countries. We do not need further repressive legislation and xenophobic debates as a result of this discussion," she added.
Few legal protections
Rapid-onset disasters attract far more attention from the media, policymakers and researchers than gradual environmental changes – such as the human consequences of rising sea levels, soil salination, deforestation and desertification.
Precise estimates on climate-induced migration are hard to come by. However, recent events such as last year's nationwide flooding in Pakistan, severe mudslides following heavy rainfall in Brazil and Colombia this spring, and the ongoing humanitarian disaster in drought-hit Somalia show that millions of people are already being driven from their homes and property due to extreme weather patterns.
International protection strategies are often marked by a humanitarian focus on "the immediate need of the person without necessarily looking at the causes of the phenomenon nor to a response in a longer term," said Paola Pace, acting head of the International Migration Law Unit at IOM's International Cooperation and Partnerships Department.
When emergencies occur, immediate funding is provided which lasts about three to six months, but for the subsequent "recuperation phase" it is very difficult to find donor support. This wastes the knowledge acquired in the initial months and squanders an opportunity to "really tackle the causes that brought about that emergency", Pace stressed in an interview with IPS.
The lack of a long-term strategy is a major problem for those seeking to protect and support affected populations. A better approach would go beyond basic needs – food, water, shelter – to address trauma and stress-induced illnesses, and provide opportunities for sustainable development in a new environment, she said.
The climate-displaced also face an uncertain legal situation. Neither international humanitarian law nor international refugee law has a legal definition for this group, making it difficult to hold governments responsible for their wellbeing.
Often, there are multiple, complex, interconnected factors at work, from extreme weather events to land degradation or sea-level rise, and identifying the exact culprit is impossible.
"[I]t is a bit like the straw that broke the camel's back," said Jane McAdam, an expert on refugees and international migration law at the University of New South Wales.
"Climate change is never the only reason why people move, there are always other factors like underlying socioeconomic conditions, for example," she told IPS.
Finding appropriate legal and policy responses requires a combination of strategies, "rather than an either/or approach", she said.
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