The Paris Agreement: Spotlight on Climate Migrants

The Paris Agreement: Spotlight on Climate Migrants

Earlier this month, the world celebrated a great achievement- an international climate change agreement. While the Paris Agreement contains a number of ambitious provisions, there’s one urgent area where it doesn’t go far enough: climate-induced migration.

On December 10th, International Human Rights Day, I attended a COP21 panel that explored the links between human mobility and climate change. I learned that a staggering 19 million people from over 100 countries were forced to flee their homes last year for reasons linked to climate change. This amounts to one person displaced by climate change every second. Migration is the “human face” of climate change and it’s not receiving the international attention and resources it demands.

Climate-induced migration: What? Where? Why?

Climate-induced migration is a global phenomenon. To give a few examples: every year, an estimated 700,000 Mexicans must relocate because of natural resource depletion in the drylands. Cyclone Pam, among other tropical storms, devastated small island states like Vanuatu and displaced thousands of people in 2015 alone. And, across the African Sahel, desertification is contributing to food insecurity, loss of livelihoods, and a growing number of African migrants.

The drivers of migration are multidimensional and complex. It’s difficult to tease out environmental factors from the economic, social, political and demographic aspects that shape an individual’s decision to migrate. Defining who is a “climate refugee” (or if such a category even exists) has thus been an issue of hot debate. The UN, for instance, does not recognize climate or extreme weather as grounds for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Commission. As a result, those fleeing extreme weather events, or the deteriorating impacts of global warming, are not afforded the same social safety nets and legal protections given to those fleeing persecution.

Climate migrants therefore face many social and economic hurdles to integrating in new communities, which increases their vulnerability to exploitation, financial hardship and discrimination. This can also lead to instability. Many experts now agree that the roots of the Syrian conflict can be traced in part to an extended drought from 2006-2010, which led to rising food prices, urban migration, and increasing resentment at the ruling Al Assad regime for corruption and poor governance.

How can the international community respond to migration in ways that preserve human dignity, ensure protection, and enhance resilience?

A principal way the international community can address migration is by removing some of the triggers that make it necessary for people to flee. Enhancing disaster preparedness, promoting livelihood diversification, reversing environmental degradation, and securing land tenure will increase the likelihood that vulnerable communities will be able to adjust to climate change impacts at home. This strategy is also economical: For every dollar spent in the prevention phase, up to $7 is saved in response and recovery. Yet, only 1% of funds went to preparations between 1991-2010.

For those that do decide to migrate, they need policies that guarantee regular pathways of migration, legal protection and economic integration. For Michelle Leighton of the ILO, this means, “We have to stop seeing migration as a failure of development and have to start looking at it as a possibility and potential solution for a climate changed future.” Leighton noted that migrants bring skills and expertise; with the right opportunities, they can fill labor shortages and contribute to the economies they enter.

Lastly, there is great need to promote social cohesion and enhance collaboration. The tensions and challenges around migration can only be addressed through open dialogue, education and interaction. These conversations need to happen from the international to the local level, and should include governments and labor ministries, as well as civil society and private sector businesses. Migration poses a massive challenge involving millions of people and dozens of countries; it demands an integrated, collaborative, international response.

Where does the Paris Agreement fit in?

Members of the panel were united in their desire for mobility to be explicitly recognized in the Paris Agreement as a global challenge requiring institutional capacity at the national, regional and local levels. They wanted acknowledgement that those facing extreme environmental risks have: 1) the right to receive preventative assistance to avoid being displaced; 2) the right to get support if they’re forced to flee; and 3) the right to build, live, work and integrate in new communities if they cannot return to their homes.

In most of these regards, the Paris Agreement comes up short; it does not address the legal status of refugees or mandate their protection and assistance. However, it does mention migrants in the Preamble, and it calls for a task force to “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimise and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.” In addition, of the 185 intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) submitted, 20% of them mention migration.

Overall, the Paris Agreement lacks the urgency, depth and coordinated framework necessary for addressing the immense challenges of climate-induced migration. As Marine Franck, of the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility, said at a COP21 press conference: “Climate-related displacement is not a future phenomenon. It is a reality; it is already a global concern.”  The world needs to do better.

Photo of the island nation of Tuvalu: Horizons WWP/Alamy. Source: “The Pacific Islands: tomorrow’s climate refugees struggle to access water today.” The Guardian. 25 Feb. 2015. (Read at: