A different kind of climate movement: the Kaldor Centre Principles on Climate Mobility

Dec 8, 2023
Map puzzle Asia Pacific view.

Every second, someone is displaced by a disaster. Each year, nearly three times as many people are displaced within their own countries by disasters than by conflict – the vast majority in the Asia-Pacific region. Climate change will amplify the problem as worsening cyclones, floods, bushfires, droughts and food insecurity force millions from their homes. Most people will move within their own countries, but some may be displaced across international borders. Yet others will be stuck at home, without the resources to move out of harm’s way.

What can governments, international organisations, civil society and affected communities themselves do to ensure that people who need to move in the context of climate change – or who wish to remain safely at home – can do so, with their human rights safeguarded and respected?

The recent Australia–Tuvalu Falepili Union Treaty has been welcomed by many as the world’s first bilateral agreement on climate mobility, whereby Australia will create a special visa arrangement to facilitate migration for the communities at the frontlines of climate change. Options like this are critical to ensuring that people in Tuvalu, and elsewhere, have choices about how to deal with the threats posed by climate change.

But addressing human mobility in the context of climate change is not only about establishing new migration pathways. A much more holistic approach is needed to ensure safety and dignity for climate change-affected people, both now and into the future.

For well over a decade, we have been working with affected communities, governments, international organisations, civil society and other academics to find strategies and solutions to assist those at risk of displacement. That is why last month, in the lead-up to COP28, we published the Kaldor Centre Principles on Climate Mobility. This document represents years of thought, analysis and reflection about how the world could – and should – respond to climate mobility.

What is ‘climate mobility’?

‘Climate mobility’ encompasses any type of movement – whether forced or voluntary, temporary or permanent, within or across borders – that may occur in the context of climate change and disasters. It commonly encompasses displacement, migration, evacuations and planned relocations, and implicates a wide range of policy areas – from development to human rights to climate finance. The Kaldor Centre’s new Climate Mobility Hub – launched this week – provides visual explainers about each type of movement, as well as video stories from people directly affected by climate change in the Pacific.

In mid-November this year, while much of the focus was on the Australia–Tuvalu agreement, the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum also endorsed the Pacific Regional Framework on Climate Mobility, which seeks ‘to guide Pacific Islands Forum governments, communities, non-state actors and partners in ensuring rights based and people-centred movement in the context of climate change, including staying in place, planned relocation, migration, and displacement through a proactive, inclusive and collaborative regional approach that reflects common Pacific interests in a culturally appropriate manner, while respecting national sovereignty and diversity’. The Framework provides important background and context to the bilateral agreement between Australia and Tuvalu.

Not all those impacted by climate change want to move to Australia – in fact, the vast majority would prefer to stay at home. Even among those who are forced to move, most will not go far, preferring to maintain their existing social and cultural ties. Indeed, even within Tuvalu there has been considerable concern about the details of the deal and how it will be implemented.

While migration arrangements can provide important opportunities for those most affected by the impacts of climate change, they are not a panacea. Much more needs to be done – not only in the Pacific but around the world – to assist climate-affected communities, whether at home or elsewhere.

What’s needed?

The Kaldor Centre Principles on Climate Mobility draw on a wide range of international, regional and national laws, policies and standards to provide evidence-based, legally sound tools for addressing all aspects of climate mobility. The Principles foreground the need for a rights-based approach to climate mobility, ensuring the fundamental rights of affected communities – including cultural rights and the right to self-determination – are safeguarded at all times.

The Principles reflect, and build upon, emerging examples of inter-governmental cooperation on climate mobility globally, including the new Pacific Regional Framework on Climate Mobility and Africa’s Kampala Ministerial Declaration on Migration, Environment and Climate Change

As the Principles make clear, solutions to climate mobility must include genuine efforts to avert the need for people to move in the first place, and to advance justice for the communities most affected by climate change. Mitigating greenhouse gases is crucial. But the extent of ‘baked-in’ climate change means that some human movement is inevitable, and a range of rights-based responses is needed to ensure that such movement is safe and dignified.

The 13 principles are accompanied by key priorities and concrete sample actions. They span a range of policy areas, from migration, displacement and planned relocation to citizenship rights, cultural heritage and community consultation.

Why Principles and not a new refugee treaty?

The holistic, interconnected and adaptable nature of the Principles is important: it reflects the diverse impacts and needs of communities dealing with the adverse effects of climate change. A ‘toolbox’ approach is critical to dealing effectively with climate mobility.

Despite this, there have been perennial proposals for a new protocol to the Refugee Convention to specifically address displacement in the context of climate change. However, there are a number of challenges with such an approach, not least the lack of political will to create new binding commitments. More substantively, though, it is not (yet) clear that a dedicated protocol would effectively meet the need.

To begin with, the vast majority of those displaced in the context of disasters and climate change will be displaced within their own countries. Existing international law frameworks – including the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement – already call on governments and others to take steps to protect internally displaced persons, as well as to prevent displacement through climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Even identifying the precise scope of a protocol to assist those displaced across borders would be incredibly challenging. It is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between those who move on account of climate impacts and those who move for other reasons. This is because climate change alone does not cause movement but rather exacerbates and overlays other existing drivers of displacement. The causal complexity inherent in climate mobility would be difficult to reflect in a formal, legal definition.

Furthermore, a more robust application of the Refugee Convention could provide better protection for some of those forced to flee across international borders. Climate change and disasters can exacerbate persecution and amplify vulnerabilities. While the term ‘climate refugee’ has no legal meaning, there are certainly refugees whose predicament is made worse because of climate change.

As the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has made clear, climate impacts

are often exacerbated by other factors such as poor governance, undermining public order; scarce natural resources, fragile ecosystems, demographic changes, socio-economic inequality, xenophobia, and political and religious tensions, in some cases leading to violence. As a result of these negative impacts of climate change and disasters, combined with social vulnerabilities, people may be compelled to leave their country and seek international protection.

This was exemplified by a recent case in New Zealand. There, the Immigration and Protection Tribunal held that an elderly couple were entitled to international protection on the basis that, if returned to Eritrea, they would face ‘conditions of abject poverty, underdevelopment and likely displacement’ which would be ‘further heightened by climate change’. As older persons, they were ‘at heightened risk of dying from climate-related disasters’. Interestingly, there have been thousands of other cases around the world in which past or ongoing impacts of disasters, environmental degradation or climate change have been raised either as an element of a protection claim or – more commonly – as relevant background.

Human rights law extends this even further, prohibiting governments from removing people to situations where they face a real risk of inhuman or degrading treatment or arbitrary deprivation of life, including on account of climate impacts.

This is why the Kaldor Centre Principles on Climate Mobility recommend specialist training of immigration officials, judges and other decision-makers about how States’ existing non-refoulement (non-removal) obligations apply in the context of climate-related displacement. It is why we are also currently developing legal and practical guidance (together with the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California and the School of Law at the University of Essex, and the support of UNHCR) to better support legal practitioners, decision-makers and other officials dealing with cross-border protection claims in the context of climate change and disasters. It forms the basis of our pledge to the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva this month.

Refugee law won’t help everyone, though. A broad approach to dealing with climate mobility is needed – one that emphasises the critical need to support those who want to stay at home, as well as protecting those who move. That is why the Kaldor Centre Principles on Climate Mobility contain a range of complementary tools for action.

What’s next?

When it comes to mitigating climate change and preventing displacement in the context of climate change, governments bear the primary responsibility. They cannot work alone, however. Genuine collaboration with affected communities, including indigenous peoples and marginalised or vulnerable groups, is critical to ensuring that measures to address climate mobility not only take advance of up-to-date science and technologies, but also maximise the benefits that traditional knowledges and practices bring to dealing with climate change.

International and regional solidarity is essential to advancing equity and justice in the context of climate mobility, where historical and structural inequalities leave some groups at greater risk than others. The Principles provide a principled and practical guide to ensuring that measures to address climate mobility safeguard principles of justice and people’s fundamental human rights.

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