Archive for displacement

A Way Forward? Climate Change, Immigration, and International Law

“Climate refugees” will be the new face of immigration. Why isn’t international law prepared? This story is Part II of a two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law.

By Genevieve Zingg, editor of RightsViews and an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

A potential solution to the looming issue of climate migration has recently been put forward by a commission of academic and policy experts who spent the last two years developing the Model International Mobility Convention. The proposed framework establishes the minimum rights afforded to all people who cross state borders, with special rights afforded to forced migrants, refugees, migrant victims of trafficking and migrants stranded in crisis situations.

A Way Forward? Advancing the International Mobility Convention

The Mobility Convention broadens the scope of international protection by recognizing what it terms “forced migrants.” Climate migrants lacking legal grounds for asylum under the 1951 Convention would qualify for protection under the forced migrant definition it advances.

“We were looking for rules that will really improve protections for forced migrants and refugees,” says Michael Doyle, who helped develop the Model International Mobility Convention as the director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative and co-director of its International Migration project. “The moral claims that they make on us— environmental reasons— are not that different from the grounds of the 1951 Convention, which are just too narrow,” he said. “We have no expectation that Trump, Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Andrzej Duda in Poland will be interested. But this is a long game, so we’re visiting universities and NGOs to explain the logic behind this highly comprehensive convention that we’ve prepared.”

Doyle rattles off an enviable list of recently visited cities— Nairobi, Mumbai, Paris, London, Ottawa, Vancouver, Barcelona, São Paulo— where he’s travelled to spread the word about the convention. “The hope is to build a valuable network of alliances, building the kind of coalition that will get the attention of friends in government, a sufficiently significant number of them that this prospect might be established,” he explained.

He cites the landmark Mine Ban Treaty, signed in Ottawa in 1997, as exemplifying the power of academic and civil society organizations mobilized in pursuit of a common goal.

The Mobility Convention proposes key changes to international migration, for instance in terms of responsibility-sharing. “The current principle is responsibility by proximity,” Doyle says, referencing the disproportionate impacts of the Syrian conflict on neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. “84 percent of refugees live in developing countries nearby, and that is not sustainable.”

On the outskirts of Dadaab refugee camp, a family gathers sticks and branches for firewood and shelter. The carcasses of animals which have perished in the drought are strewn across the desert. //  Andy Hall // Oxfam East Africa, 2011

According to Susan Martin, founder of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and previous executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, the vast majority of climate migrants will be internally displaced, or will travel cross-border to a neighboring country that isn’t much better off than they are.

“Some are able to use their social networks and social capital, their skills and financial resources to move, but the most highly vulnerable people don’t have any of that capital – and if they can move, it’s not very far from where they’re already endangered,” she said. 

“Responsibility is nominally determined by your capacity to exist, but this top-down quota system fell flat in Europe,” Doyle explained. “We’re proposing using naming and shaming against a set of standards to encourage better behavior.”

The proposed system would have UNHCR annually identify refugee costs and the number of refugees needing to be resettled worldwide. The agency would then examine country population, GDP, past refugee loads and so on in order to determine a proportionate quota system based on each country’s capacity. Countries would be expected to make voluntary pledges in terms of dollars and resettlement based on the agency’s calculation. To create a naming-and-shaming incentive, UNHCR would publish a report at the end of each year revealing whether each country lived up to its commitments and resettled its fair share of refugees according to its socioeconomic capacity.

The political tensions that come with responsibility-sharing could be dramatically lessened if we start now. According to Martin, the key is building resilience early by focusing on increasing financial resources and human capital. Australia and New Zealand, for example, have begun admitting people in small numbers who can form the backbone of a diaspora for later climate migrants. Seasonal programs providing supplementary income for farmers and fishers affected by environmental impacts can similarly help raise financial and educational resources.

“This way, they’ll be better able to meet the standards of immigration in other countries rather than being treated as an emergency,” Martin said.

“It’s much better to help people qualify for legal immigration instead of responding to it as a crisis,” Martin emphasized.
“That’s what happened with the Syrian crisis – European countries, including those in Eastern Europe, could have easily absorbed those numbers.”

Conflict, Chaos, Money: Good Preparation is Good Politics

Governments have many incentives to prepare for climate migration. Climate impacts will exacerbate conflict, and failure to prepare legal avenues for displaced persons will only further increase the risks of regional destabilization. For example, climate-related conditions, particularly droughts, have driven conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and contributed to the outbreak of the Arab Spring across several countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010.

Man holding a boy during a clash near the border train station of Idomeni, northern Greece, as Macedonian riot police block refugees from crossing the border, August 2015. // AP Photo // Darko Vojinovic

“If no attention is paid and no relevant action is taken to resolve conflicts, you have thousands of refugees in the region with no solution and no prospects for peace to allow voluntary return,” Bertrand warned, highlighting that refugees now make up 25 percent of Lebanon’s population. “Those very numbers can destabilize the destination country – and these situations can last 15, 20 years.”

Bertrand pointed to Afghanistan to illustrate how protracted refugee situations can be. He was sent to Kabul in 1988 to repatriate Afghans after the departure of Soviet forces, as legal arrangements were made for UNHCR to open a repatriation office and ensure that displaced Afghans could return home. “But it’s been 30 years and there are still significant numbers in Pakistan that have not yet returned,” he explained, “and the situation is still triggering new movements.”

Second, contrary to right-wing rhetoric, immigrants actually have positive economic impacts on host countries. Doyle urges the implementation of labor-based migration. “Why not identify where a country is likely to experience shortages and open up visas for this?” he asked, pointing to Canada and Australia, two countries that have already started doing this.“Legal documentation is a win-win all around: design a better system, say, matching recent graduates with openings. There will be a large demand in many areas.”

Martin similarly highlights that many immigrants have the skills needed for the labor force in highly developed countries, especially when considering the implications of aging baby boomers. The reality is that immigrants are not often competing with natives for jobs. 

What now? Making Migration a Social Norm

To convince people opposed to migration,  we need to focus on making migration in urgent circumstances a norm. Looking at the populist boom in North America and Western Europe, Martin highlighted that framing migration solely in terms of international law and international frameworks can feel elitist, as it excludes large swaths of society who have been excluded from these types of issues and discussions. Rather than appearing as hot topics during sudden times of unrest, concepts of migration and displacement should be promoted at an earlier stage so people of all strata, education levels and belief systems grow up understanding the phenomenon to be natural and normal.

A “Refugees Welcome” sign displayed on the Palacio de Cibeles in Madrid, October 2015. // Harvey Barrison //  Creative Commons.

Doyle urges students to campaign in the human rights sense of climate migration, lobbying governments, forming campaigns, and mobilizing in support of low-hanging policy fruit like family reunification. He suggests looking to cities as bases of support. 

The private sector, too, presents a key partnership opportunity. Companies like Ikea, Google, and Uniqlo all have corporate social responsibility initiatives that can be mobilized in support of more adept immigration policies.

Over the next ten years, Doyle hopes that civil society and academia will mobilize in support of the Mobility Convention, urging cities and governments to adapt immigration policies and offer stronger protections to both conflict and climate-driven migrants.

“By 2028, we hope to have formed a coalition,” Doyle says. “A coalition that will see the value of bringing international law up to date.”

Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is editor of RightsViews. 

When the Wave Comes: Climate Change, Immigration, and International Law

“Climate refugees” will be the new face of immigration. Why isn’t international law prepared? This story is Part I of a two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law.

By Genevieve Zingg, editor of RightsViews and an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

“Climate refugees”— broadly defined as people displaced across borders because of the sudden or long-term effects of climate change—are not a future phenomenon. Climate migration is already happening in a growing number of countries around the world: the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that the impact and threat of climate-related hazards displaced an average of 21.5 million people annually between 2008 and 2015. In 2016 alone, climate and weather-related disasters displaced some 23.5 million people.

Floods, droughts and storms are the primary causes of climate-related displacement. In the coming decades, severe droughts are expected to plague northern Mexico, with some studies predicting up to 6.7 million people migrating to the U.S. by 2080 as a result. High-intensity storms like cyclones have already displaced thousands from Tuvalu in the South Pacific and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and rising sea levels are projected to put Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island with the smallest carbon footprint in the world, completely under water.

A woman and child walk through Chennai, India after severe floods in December 2015. // Anindito Mukherjee // Reuters

Projections of future migration patterns expect at least 200 million citizens to flee their homelands by 2050. Further, according to a recent paper investigating the correlation between migration and significant fluctuations in temperature, asylum applications will increase by almost 200 percent by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. 

“Climate Refugees” Do Not Exist  Technically

The problem, however, is this: under international law, there is technically no such thing as a “climate refugee.” The 1951 Refugee Convention and the Additional Protocol adopted in 1967 define the term “refugee” as “any person outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.” In other words, under the current framework, the millions of people soon to be displaced due to climate-related impacts will have no legal grounds to seek international protection.  

 


“It’s interesting how often the impact of climate change is illustrated by talking about the problems polar bears will face, rather than the much greater number of poor people who will die unless significant investments are made to help them.” 

Bill Gates, 2009

According to Pierre Bertrand, former Director of UNHCR in New York and Lead Rapporteur to the UN Global Migration Group, the “climate refugees” phenomenon is increasingly visible in the public discourse, despite its lack of legal status. “People are on the move for many compelling reasons. But what is more compelling than people whose country disappears?” he said.

The 2016 Paris Agreement, a landmark international climate agreement signed by 195 countries, failed to address climate-related disasters as a basis for asylum despite significant lobbying by international NGOs.

Bertrand says this was due to fears surrounding amending or expanding the definition set out by the 1951 Convention. “The thinking in UNHCR is that if we put this up for revision and discussion to adapt the Convention to contemporary forms of forced movement, it will risk downgrading the standards of the Convention itself,” he said. 

UNHCR// Ibarra Sánchez

Citing the current political mood towards migration, Bertrand highlighted the risk that opening the Convention to review may carry.

“Countries in the North and in Europe want to review the Convention to bring some limits to it, rather than improvements,” he said.

In December 2015, for example, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen suggested that the 1951 Convention might need to be renegotiated in light of the European migration crisis.

“In the discussion of migration, there is a divide between countries who export migrants, and the countries who receive them. Some are interested in how their nationals are treated in countries of transit and destination; they want the best treatment possible for their nationals,” Bertrand told RightsViews via telephone. “But then you have the elephant in the room: the countries in the north arguing that they have the competence to decide who to admit, which is a sacred principle. It remains the right of states to decide, based on the classic concept of sovereignty enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.”

He points to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, developed in 1990 and entered into force in 2003, to illustrate his point. “This Convention has 51 ratifications, all from the South. No developed country has ever ratified it,” he said.

Walls Won’t Work: Adapting National Immigration Policies

Despite the predictions of climate-fueled migration on the horizon, American and European political leaders are currently building walls and slashing annual refugee quotas. Among the most visibly anti-migrant is the Trump administration, which in only one year cut its federal refugee program by more than half, cracked down on undocumented immigration, deployed the National Guard to the Mexican border while the president’s controversial wall remains stalled, and proposed slashing legal immigration numbers by half over the next ten years. Anti-migrant policies are hardly unique to Donald Trump and strongly correlated with the rise of far-right populist parties across the European Union. The number of border walls around the world has jumped from 15 in 1989 to 70 today.

Flooding in the Walia neighborhood of N’Djamena in Chad, October 2012, caused by the rise of the Chari and Logone rivers. // Pierre Peron // OCHA

Susan Martin, founder of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and previous executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, notes that migration is a natural and effective adaptation process for environmental changes. “There needs to be preemptive action to provide legal avenues to facilitate those movements,” she said.

Some countries have already begun to adapt their immigration policies in preparation for climate migration, particularly those who have already experienced it. After a devastating earthquake in 2010 killed 300,000 Haitians and displaced more than one million, Brazil developed a policy issuing humanitarian visas and work authorizations for those arriving from the stricken nation. Argentina and Peru have implemented similar policies accounting for people affected by environmental disasters, and New Zealand recently became the first country in the world to introduce a climate refugee scheme by creating a special “refugee visa” for Pacific Islanders forced to migrate because of rising sea levels. Humanitarian visas, work authorizations, and other legal pathways are innovative policy options that states can institute even without an overarching international legal framework.

Other states, however, have responded to high rates of current asylum applications by closing existing legal avenues for climate migrants. In response to the European “refugee crisis,” for example, both Finland and Sweden— previously hailed as the only two countries in the world recognizing environmental disaster as a basis for protection— recently removed the clause from their respective immigration and asylum legislation.

Part II of the two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law coming soon.

Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is editor of RightsViews. 

 

Chitwan National Park & the Displacement of Tharu Peoples

By Erica Bower, student at Columbia College

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The following Photo Essay is an excerpt from a post I wrote on my blog while studying abroad through Cornell Nepal Study Program (CNSP) in the spring of 2013.

 Our stay in Chitwan National Park was truly a once in a life time experience—a scene straight from the discovery channel.

However, as incredible as this experience was from the perspective of a tourist, as a student of Human Rights and environmentally-induced displacement, Chitwan has an incredibly dark side.

In many ways, the case of Chitwan is the inverse of most instances of the environment-displacement under study in Nepal given that efforts for environmental protection, rather than environmental degradation, have caused massive displacement.

The brutal reality is that in order to create such a pristine National Park, the Nepali government has forcibly removed all of the Indigenous communities in the district.

The Tharu peoples have lived in the Chitwan region for hundreds of years, and have a rich cultural history tied to the jungle and physical location of Chitwan.

In fact, Tharu peoples are known throughout Nepal as “Son of the Earth.”

However, upon King Mahendra’s decision to make the park “protected,” the Tharu peoples were told they had to leave behind the land of their ancestors and every facet of their livelihoods.

During a visit to a Tharu museum, I was captivated by an exhibit about individual experiences of the Tharu peoples living outside of the National Park in “Buffer Zones.”  There are accounts of houses being burned and army officials dragging mothers and children away in extremely violent ways.

Today, there are efforts to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into conservation, as well as to ensure that displaced peoples retain their livelihoods and benefit from the increased tourism and income that is generated by the national park. For instance, the following photograph is a portrait of a Tharu family-owned business selling local honey.

I left the Tharu village and Chitwan Park with an immense sense of conflict.  As an environment appreciator, I am so amazed at the biodiversity and natural beauty of Chitwan, yet as a human rights activist, there is something deeply unsettling about this violation of rights and disruption of livelihoods.

While the discourse surrounding Climate Induced Migration and displacement considers the indirect anthropogenic contributions to Climate Change as a driver of movement to be a Human Rights violation, the parallel discourses surrounding the more direct development and conservation induced displacement must not be ignored.

As I kept finding again and again throughout my semester in Nepal, circumstances are far more complicated and deeply rooted in complex cultural histories than the surface “skin” that appears obvious to the naked eye.

Erica Bower is a senior at Columbia College majoring in human rights and sustainable development.  Her research interests focus on the nexus of environment and mobility, both in the context of climate-induced displacement in the mountainous communities of Manang and Mustang districts and the contrasting example of conservation-induced displacement in Chitwan National Park that reaffirms the inherent complexity in the displacement discourses.