Should immigration laws cater for climate refugees?

New Zealand’s rejection of Kiribati man shows current system doesn’t work for those fleeing climate change impacts

Mangrove shoots planted by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and others during a trip to highlight climate impacts on Kiribati (Pic: UN Photo)

Mangrove shoots planted by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and others during a trip to highlight climate impacts on Kiribati (Pic: UN Photo)

By Alex Randall

New Zealand just refused asylum to Ioana Teitiota. He claimed that climate change had made returning to Kiribati impossible.

Globally, disasters have affected millions of people. Many will want to remain overseas, or move abroad as climate change impacts make their lives harder. But the  asylum system will be a fruitless way of providing safety for such people. We need a new and different approach to migration and development policy.

Ioana Teitiota’s case is unusual. He has moved across an international border and moved a long distance. Most people who move as a result of climate change impacts move within their own countries and tend not to travel far. When people are fleeing sudden climate-linked disasters like floods and typhoons they tend to move to the nearest place of safety. Often an evacuation centre, the homes of friends and relatives, and often to camps.

This is what happened during flooding in Pakistan and after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. When people move because of slowly unfolding disasters like drought or water stress the patterns of movement are different. People will often move alone, rather than with their family or community. They will usually be seeking work in a nearby city as the drought reduces income from farming.

Migration as adaptation

The focus of the climate and migration debate has often been about which countries will or won’t accept new waves of people. But as most of the movement is likely to be internal rather than cross-border, state-level responses are important.

In the case of sudden disasters, city and regional level disaster risk reduction is vital. Other issues emerge when looking as slowly unfolding disasters. When faced with repeated drought of desertification, migration may be the best way for some people adapt to climate change.

Governments often think of migration as a problem that has to be reduced or prevented. Development policy often focuses on helping people where they are and enabling them to stay. But for millions of people migration may be their best adaptation strategy.

When people move away from a drought hit area this can help them, and the community they leave, to  adapt. Out migration means there are fewer people in the disaster prone area. It also means there are fewer people to support from dwindling agricultural income. Migrants will often send remittances back to their family. This income provides some financial stability in the face of wavering income from agriculture. Communities sometime invest remittances in small scale adaptation projects.

Helping out

But what happens when people do cross international borders? As Ioana Teitiota’s case demonstrates, the existing asylum system is unlikely to help. Several considerations are clear:

We should think about people fleeing all disasters.  Any new legal framework should not only help people who are fleeing climate-linked disasters. It should help people who are fleeing any kind of disaster. This would help more people. It would also mean that it wouldn’t matter whether climate change had influenced the disaster.

We should look at existing areas of law that we could easily change. Many countries already have options for people to stay while their countries recover from disasters. This is useless for people whose homes are permanently affected by climate change. But could be a useful interim measure for millions of people who are already working abroad when a disaster strikes.

We should try to reach regional and bilateral agreements, rather than global ones. Six countries around a table is much easier than 192. A small number of countries may be able to produce a regional agreement. This could be quicker than reaching a global agreement. Given that most of the movement is likely to be between nearby countries this makes a lot of sense.

We should try to use existing or emerging international agreements. In 2015 (we hope) governments will reach an agreement on stopping and adapting to climate change. The draft text contains a section asking governments to consider displacement linked to climate change. Or, could the replacement for the Millennium Development goals include provision for migration linked to climate change? Or the new agreement on how governments work together to reduce the risk of disasters? These are all international process that already have momentum. Using them might be quicker and easier than starting a new round of talks.

All of this is cold comfort to Ioana Teitiota who will probably be returned to Kiribati. But it is vital that we consider the questions now to protect people who will move in the future.

Alex Randall works on climate policy at the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition, a project run by the Climate Outreach and Information Network

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