With the meetings and talks at COP 26 expected to sidestep any action on the growing climate migration crisis, experts are calling for new legal approaches that might better protect climate refugees.
By 2050, more than 200 million people will have fled their borders, driven into foreign countries by climate crisis ravages such as drought, wildfire, extreme weather, and escalating levels of want-based conflict. Unless world leaders rally to their cause and update national and international policies, these refugees will have little to no protection under current laws, writes Inside Climate News.
In 1951, most national governments signed the Refugee Convention, which offers some protections to those fleeing persecution within their home country. But, writes Inside Climate, “hurricanes, floods, droughts, or the inability to grow crops do not fit neatly within this definition.”
Since then, some regions have moved to expand the definition of who can be considered a legal refugee: both the African Union’s Refugee Convention of 1969 and Latin America’s 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees include severe disruptions to public order as sufficient grounds to apply for refugee status.
Now, some scholars are arguing that “severe disruption” could apply to climate disaster. The UN’s 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration does also mention climate migration, and urges signatories to embrace measures such as humanitarian visas and temporary work permits. However, notes Inside Climate, the compact is a non-binding agreement.
To try to bridge such gaps in protection, organizations like the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) are working to find laws that could be used to help migrants. Ama Francis, a lawyer and climate displacement project strategist at IRAP, pointed to the promise that can be found in regulatory structures like the Free Movement Agreement, which applies to the 26-country Schengen Zone in Europe and allows for short-stay visas.
“In the most ambitious version of this proposal, you would have countries with greater resources agreeing to participate in freedom of movement agreements with countries that have fewer resources,” Francis said, adding that such agreements could act to increase regional solidarity.
In the Caribbean, notes Inside Climate, such agreements “allowed people displaced by hurricanes in 2017 to move more safely, to access labour markets, and sometimes to stay in a new location long-term.”
As for what is likely to be done for climate refugees at COP 26, which is scheduled to continue through November 12, Inside Climate writes that while discussions about climate migration are taking place, “none of these events are designed to come up with or help implement legal mechanisms to protect climate migrants.”
And there is a good reason for that, said Michael Gerrard, a climate litigator and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. In 2015, Gerrard authored an op-ed for the Washington Post suggesting that “industrialized countries accept a number of people displaced by climate change proportional to how much a country has contributed to the emissions causing global warming.” Were such a policy to be put into effect, the U.S. would need to take in 27 million refugees by 2050.
“The math is very easy but the politics are inconceivable,” said Gerrard.