The world needs to prepare for climate migrants

The effects of global warming and the climate crisis affect every nation on every continent. But their impact on human settlement has still not been tackled by the international community in a coherent and comprehensive way. An opinion piece by T. Alexander Aleinikoff, Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, and Ottilie Bälz, SVP Global Issues at Robert Bosch Stiftung.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff und Ottilie Bälz
Laif, privat, Robert Bosch Stiftung
May 13, 2022

The people forced to flee their homes in Ukraine have rightly caught the world’s attention. But in the face of an unfolding crisis, looming crises should not be forgotten. Migration due to climate change is already a fact and is projected to increase dramatically in the years ahead.

By 2050, 216 million people could be forced to abandon their homes because of sudden-onset disasters like flooding and slow-onset changes such as sea-level rise and decreasing crop yields due to drought. The international community is inadequately prepared for the new and immense challenges ahead. We must develop a migration policy that protects the rights and dignity of those that are and will find themselves forced to migrate.

Two key issues

This month, nations of the world will gather for the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) to assess progress on the Global Compact for Migration. Adopted by the United Nations in 2018, it is the first agreement in which states commit to ensuring safe, orderly and regular migration through better international cooperation. Climate migration has to be high on the agenda at the meeting and deliberations should focus on two key issues: supporting states and cities that are at the forefront of dealing with climate migration and establishing legal norms and providing effective coordination at the international level.

In the Sundarbans Delta between India and Bangladesh, women plant mangroves as natural protection against flooding
In the Sundarbans Delta between India and Bangladesh, women plant mangroves as natural protection against flooding.

The international community has to step up

If properly prepared, many people facing the effects of climate change will be able to remain in their home communities. The vast majority of those compelled to leave their homes stay within their home countries – mostly migrate to already-stretched cities close by. This means that the international community has to step up direct technical and financial assistance to those on the frontline. One such initiative is the Global Cities Fund for Inclusive Climate Action, which is led by the Mayors Migration Council, in cooperation with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

We must also recognize that migration can be an appropriate adaptation strategy in the face of a changing climate. That means international policy needs to support the voluntary movement of people out of harm’s way, including across borders.

At the international level, the existing legal norms are inadequate to protect people who are displaced due to climate effects and cannot find safety in their home states. Access to other countries in which they can count on help must be guaranteed.

Extend the principle of non-refoulement

The legal guarantee of non-refoulement, which forbids the return of refugees to places in which they face danger, should also be expanded to protect climate migrants. Should going back home is no longer foreseeable, host states should offer permanent status. Other states should share the burden by giving climate migrants access to labor markets, education and family unification.

Additionally, climate migrants should be able to move to where work is available. At the regional level, this could be accomplished by giving climate migrants access to free-movement zones like ECOWAS in Africa, the Andean Migratory Statute in South America and the Schengen area in Europe.

The IMRF as an unpredecented opportunity

To help those threatened by or displaced by climate change, an international fund is needed to provide a variety of financing sources for all manner of projects. In parallel to this, the international community has to improve coordination between different actors and agencies at the global level to develop solutions that put the needs of the populations affected by climate change at the center, from helping people to stay home and assisting people who have been forced to seek shelter away from home.

This kind of coordinated action at the international level could best be achieved by setting up a global platform for environmental migration. It would bring together committed governments, international organizations, civil society and private actors. Admittedly, the successful implementation would require a huge joint effort by international organizations and governments. But at the IMRF in New York, the disparate actors working on climate migration will come together – and this offers an unprecedented opportunity to give this idea a shot. 

T. Alexander Aleinikoff

T. Alexander Aleinikoff is an University Professor and Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School, New York. From 2010 to 2015 he served as UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees.

Ottilie Bälz

Ottilie Bälz is Senior Vice President Global Issues at the Robert Bosch Stiftung. One of our topics in this support area is migration. Within this topic, we focus on future issues of migrant and refugee protection, human mobility in the context of climate change, the inclusion of cities in migration governance, and the role of technological change.

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