As work begins on a new climate change and migration report commissioned by the Biden administration, Refugees International is urging the White House to turn the initiative from “some sort of risk scenario and planning exercise” into a gateway to real solutions.
Given that there are “currently no policies that allow someone who’s been displaced by climate-related disasters to apply for a visa, green card, or refugee protections in the U.S.,” the report “could be a game-changer” for climate refugees, writes The Verge.
“I’ve worked on this very intersection of issues for over a decade, and I never thought that this would be a part of any American president’s priorities,” said Kayly Ober, the group’s climate displacement program manager. “So I am delighted and surprised.”
But the key, The Verge writes, is to make sure the report “leads to an actual pathway to resettlement in the U.S.” The latest statistics show that about 21.5 million people annually are sent fleeing for their lives by climate impacts like cyclones and flash flooding, but that count is likely far too low, as it “doesn’t include people on the move because of the slower-moving consequences of climate change like drought and rising sea levels.”
The problem will require a global effort, said Ober. But if the U.S. takes serious action, other countries may follow.
“If the U.S. plants a flag that says that they’re willing to figure out a way to offer refugee-like status to people who are displaced by climate change, it will allow other countries to take up their fair share of that burden as well,” she said.
That’s why her organization has produced an extensive brief aimed at the policy-makers working on the U.S. government report. Existing refugee conventions are predicated on protecting those who have fled persecutionand do not make room for climate change impacts, Ober explained. That means the United States “has a moral and practical responsibility to lead on issues of climate change, migration, and displacement”—particularly given its mammoth degree of responsibility for the very existence of the climate crisis.
First on the list of RI’s recommendations: the U.S. must strengthen the capacity of its agencies to deal with climate-related displacement and migration, and “encourage re-engagement and leadership on key multilateral agreements and processes in addition to the Paris Agreement.”
Refugees International puts much of the onus on “two agencies in particular”: the Department of State and its Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), and USAID. The latter “has acknowledged in the past that its mission to end extreme poverty could be compromised by climate change impacts,” the group writes.
The brief also recommends that the Biden administration formally back a series of critical global policies and task forces. Those include the Global Compact for Migration (GCM), which RI describes as the “first international document of its kind to explicitly acknowledge climate change as a driver of migration”; the UN High Commission on Refugees’ new Strategic Framework for Climate Action; the work of the “Group of Friends” of the Platform on Disaster Displacement;and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (an original source of the Build Back Better motif that Biden and many others have since adopted).
Biden’s climate and migration strategy must also include a “dedicated and substantial commitments on climate finance for climate change adaptation and resilience measures in affected countries,” Refugees International says. First on that list is closing the climate adaptation finance gap, recently confirmed by the UN Environment Program as being some US$40 billion short of the $70 billion currently needed. “This is worrying because costs are set to increase further, to between $140 billion and $300 billion by the end of the decade.”
Refugees International also calls for the U.S. to “bolster and expand international and domestic legal protections and opportunities for refuge and resettlement for those who have been displaced by climate change.”
In particular, the United States will want to re-assess the “temporary” aspect of its existing Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation, which “offers protected status to people already in the United States who are affected by ‘environmental disasters’ in their countries of origin.” Given the evolving nature of the climate crisis, RI notes, “safely returning TPS holders to their countries of origin may become more challenging” as slow-onset climate effects take hold.
“Refugees International believes that no TPS- older should be in temporary status indefinitely—and certainly not for over a decade or more, as has been the case with some populations—whether return is continuously prevented due to climate-induced disaster or other factors,” RI states. “Thus, the administration should work with Congress to develop means to guarantee against this outcome.”