How a UN climate deal can help prevent refugee crises

As Syrian refugees flock to Europe, driven in part by drought, countries must plan for global warming-linked losses

A refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria (Flickr/IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation)

A refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria (Flickr/IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation)

By Isatis Cintron

Just this summer, 2,500 people have died trying to reach Europe by the Mediterranean, according to UNHCR. More than 19 million people have been displaced by conflict, abuses and persecution.

Ineffective hostile and anti-immigrant policies are at fault for the lives lost at sea and in trucks. Add climate change to the mix and you have the greatest European refugee “crisis” of our time.

As politicians scramble to deal with the influx, they also need to address the long term human cost of unavoidable global warming impacts.

Report: Climate change a likely factor in Syria civil war

For years now, groups of researchers have theorised a contribution of weather-related events to civil wars. Climate change has been linked to global insecurity, setting climate exile as the new normal.

More recently, we have seen what that looks like in practice. Multi-year droughts and “shocks” to the food production may have precipitated the Arab Spring and sparked the rise of ISIS. In turn those trends drove, to a great extent, the political instability forcing the ongoing displacement of hundreds of thousands of families.

The picture of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on a beach last week brought worldwide attention to this terrible issue. His family was part of the largest asylum-seekers’ group, Syrians, but others are looking for resettlement too.

A study in the Sahel region of Africa found that migration occurs when environmental degradation or extreme events affect people’s livelihoods. This is not to undermine the complexity of social, religious, repression and political dynamics involved, but certainly climate change is a “threat multiplier”.

Additionally, it aggravates exclusion and job insecurity forces that push people, in desperate situations, to ideological extremism. As already fragile governments fail to provide basic resources to their citizens, dissatisfaction and sympathy for non-state actors grows.

Report: EC president Juncker warns of “climate refugee” challenge

Refugees will keep pouring in EU at a rate greater than 42,500 per day. As soon as 2050, climate disruption is projected to cause the permanent displacement of 200 to 250 million people worldwide.

With these alarming numbers, its time that the international community stops shying away from effective intervention.

Human mobility has to be treated as a pressing issue in the national and international climate agenda.

An international mechanism to address the unavoidable impacts of climate change, known in UN talks as loss and damage, can provide resources to prevent instability.

Recent Bonn negotiations showed a step forward into finally accepting the need to include loss and damage in the global climate agreement to be struck in Paris this December. But little has been disclosed about the logistics, liability and compensation.

Even the definition of loss and damage has yet to be determined. A two-year work plan is in place, but is it enough?

An ambitious agreement should use loss and damage in the context of resilience to prevent, as much as possible, net losses and provide a coherent response to climate-triggered exile.

Report: Countries edge towards loss and damage deal at climate talks

The International Organization of Migration (IOM) has been working extensively to integrate human mobility into national environmental and climate adaptation policies.

Last year, an advisory group (created to frame human mobility in the context of climate change) pointed the need for an international climate change displacement coordination support mechanism. The least developed countries proposed the creation of this body as an element of the Paris agreement.

The role of this body would be to support with emergency relief, organised migration and compensation.

Although developing countries are particularly vulnerable to climate effects, the impact of migration on developed countries shouldn’t be underestimated.

Therefore a comprehensive and harmonised approach, focused on risk reduction, is in everyone’s interests.

Aylan can’t be just a symbol of a tragedy. His death deserves to be catalyst in the recognition of climate change as a cross-cutting issue and its relevance in our times, the present.

Hopefully, shining a light into the complex human dimension of climate change will raise awareness and empathy that translates into concrete action of integration and regeneration of communities.

We need constructive cooperation on water management and crop adaptation in order to guarantee a climate safe future.

We are moving forward, but we need to move faster in order to able to prevent more deaths. Let’s make Paris a solid stepping-stone.

Isatis Cintron is a PhD student at Rutgers University, New Jersey, studying the intersection between climate change socio-economic impacts and atmospheric chemistry. She is also a climate tracker for the Adopt a Negotiator project.

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