Climate Justice and Migrant Rights

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Climate change, global migration and human rights ARE linked. As global warming advances around the world, increasing numbers of people are being displaced from their lands, livelihoods and homes, becoming “internally displaced peoples” within their own countries, for forced to migrate across international borders. And as they are displaced, access to human rights becomes an even more important challenge in the pursuit of safety, work and a new home.

Read NNIRR's Fact Sheet on "Climate Change, Global Migration and Human Rights" (Sept. 2018)

We may be more familiar with situations in which people may be displaced because of natural disasters, such as massive earthquakes or hurricanes or other examples of “rapid onset” climate change. People may become temporary, or long-term refugees. However, today, many more people, particularly among large movements of “forced migrants”, are also displaced due to “slow onset” climate change, in which rising temperatures and sea levels, drought-rain cycles and other phenomena have robbed people of access to arable land or fishing, their homes and livelihoods.

The crisis of displaced populations raises familiar concerns: on the one hand, how to adequately address immediate and emergent issues for these vulnerable populations, including humanitarian responses, while understanding and comprehensively addressing the underlying factors and long-term consequences. It is an increasingly urgent issue, and we have a lot of work to do!

While there isn’t an easily countable number of climate migrants displaced due to slow-onset changes, a 2017 Greenpeace study concludes that approximately 25.4 million people are displaced every year; this is an estimated 60% higher than the rate of climate displacement four decades ago. Most of this population displacement is taking place in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America—three “hot spots” that represent over half of the developing world’s populations. These “climate migrants” are often rural or coastal residents who migrate to safer urban areas. Skills such as fishing and farming are not useful in urban areas, leaving many jobless. This means that a displaced climate migrant may have difficulty finding work which matches their skill set and experience, adding to the economic adversities faced by those displaced. Assimilation into a different lifestyle while living without a home, many belongings or employment can be extremely traumatic and challenging for unaided families and individuals. In addition, accessing even basic necessities, such as decent housing, health care, and education, can be out of reach.

While international climate migration issues rise to the forefront of these discussions, they exist very much in the domestic U.S. sphere as well. Indigenous reservations and communities of color are often situated near environmentally hazardous areas like coal plants and mines. As of 2017, African Americans are exposed to 38 % more polluted air than whites, and are 75 % more likely to live in chemical-factory “fence-line zones” than the US average (Latino communities are 60 percent more likely). As extreme weather events increase in frequency, already vulnerable communities will become even more so.

These issues have been addressed to some degree at an international level in documents like the Paris Climate Accords and the Global Compact for Migration. The most recently negotiated Global Compact has established a general non-binding agreement of participating countries to  “integrate displacement considerations into disaster preparedness strategies and promote cooperation with neighbouring and other relevant countries,” as well as to “address the vulnerabilities of persons affected by sudden-onset and slow-onset natural disasters, by ensuring they have access to humanitarian assistance that meets their essential needs.” While this is a start, it does leave a lot to desire in terms of concrete commitments to the populations most severely in need.

These topics will also be addressed at the Global Climate Action Summit this September, being held in San Francisco, including in a parallel forum on global climate change and health. Bay Area-based It Takes Roots will also concomitantly be holding a week of activities offering a more grassroots-centered week of activities.

Check out these documents for your orientation. A brief "fact sheet" from NNIRR on Climate Change, Global Migration and Human Rights, and the second, a more in-depth briefing paper, Environmental Degradation, Climate Change, Migration & Development, drafted by Stephen Castles and former NNIRR staffer Colin Rajah, in 2010.