International Responses to Climate-Related Migration

Walter Kaelin is a Swiss international human rights lawyer, legal scholar, and presently the Envoy of the Chair of the Platform on Disaster Displacement. Before that, he served as the Envoy of the Nansen Initiative on disaster-induced cross-border displacement. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Kaelin on climate change and its effects on displacement and migration. 

Walter Kaelin
February 14, 2020

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Can you describe the work you do? Can you describe your work at the Nansen Initiative and the creation of the platform on disaster displacement?

Walter Kaelin (WK): In 2004, I was appointed representative of the UN Secretary General on the human rights of internally displaced persons. A few weeks after I started my mandate, the Indian Ocean tsunami happened, and this triggered a large-scale internal displacement, so I immediately began advocating for the protection of the victims of this disaster. That’s how I got involved with the protection of people affected by disasters, both climate-related and otherwise.

Later on, I worked with the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Director of the International Organization for Migration on lobbying the climate negotiators to recognize that displacement in the context of climate change is really an issue. This was quite successful. In 2010 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the Cancún Climate Change Adaptation Framework, which contains a very short paragraph recognizing that forced displacement, voluntary migration, and planned relocation are among the challenges of adapting to and dealing with climate change.

My mandate ended in 2010. Around then, Switzerland and Norway launched the so-called Nansen Initiative on disaster-induced cross-border displacement. The Initiative was an attempt by a group of states from different parts of the world to build, through a series of consultations in particularly affected regions, consensus on how to conceptualize displacement in the context of adverse effects of climate change and other disasters as well as to identify effective practices and measures to prevent and mitigate such displacement. During that time, I acted as Envoy of the Chair of the Nansen Initiative. When the Initiative ended in 2015 with the adoption of a Protection Agenda endorsed by more than 100 states, Germany and other countries felt the work had to continue. Thus, the Nansen Initiative became the Platform on Disaster Displacement. I am now acting as envoy of the present chair of the Platform, France. This Platform consists of a group of states working together to strengthen the protection of persons displaced across borders in the context of disasters and the adverse effects of climate change, and to prevent or reduce disaster displacement risks in countries of origin. 

JIA: What is the link between migration and climate change? 

WK: Climate change is not a future problem, it is a current challenge. Every year, millions of people are displaced by weather- and climate related disasters. Science tells us that the increasing intensity of tropical storms, erratic rainfall patterns or stronger storm tides are at least to some extent linked to global warming. However, climate change, as such, does not displace people. It’s the adverse effects of global warming that may force people to leave their homes. In Alaska, for instance, sea-level rise, coastal erosion and permafrost thawing threaten the village of Newtok and villagers are presently relocating to a safer place. 

However, displacement is always multi-causal. People have to flee when they are exposed to a natural hazard and are too vulnerable to withstand it. Natural hazards can be sudden onset, like a tropical storm, or slow onset, such as in the case of sea level rise. Slow and sudden onset hazards often interact, such as sea level rise leading to more serious storm tides or drought that can turn into famine. 

It is important to look at communities’ vulnerability to natural hazards, though. People have to leave their homes when they live in areas particularly exposed to natural hazards and are not resilient enough to withstand their impact, for instance due to poverty, lack of development, or failure to implement building codes. Thus, it is the interaction of natural hazards with exposure and vulnerability, that actually leads to displacement. While hazards are natural, disaster are not as they are the consequence of these human factors. 

JIA: What role does international law play in situations of displacement due to disasters?

WK: Although they can invoke international human rights guarantees, there is no international convention explicitly protecting persons displaced by disasters. However, there are “soft law” instruments such as the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction which can play an important role in reducing hazards. Together with the Cancún Climate Change Adaptation Framework which provides measures to build resilience, it can help people to stay. 

We can reduce exposure to natural hazards by helping people move out of harm’s way, for instance through planned relocation. However, planned relocation is often problematic. That’s where legally binding human rights guarantees kick in, to protect the rights of people who are relocated. Helping people to move out of harm’s way also has to do with opening pathways for regular migration, a commitment enshrined in the UN Global Compact on Migration. While the Global Compact is legally non-binding, bilateral or regional migration agreements are “hard” law. The Marshall Islands and the U.S., for instance, have a bilateral agreement that allows people from the Marshall Islands to emigrate to the United States. In the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region in West Africa an agreement on the free movement of persons allows people to find work in another country during times of drought or flooding and then go back when the situation improves. A similar agreement is being negotiated in the Horn of Africa. The current draft contains a specific provision addressing disasters and climate change. Negotiations just started and it remains to be seen whether countries will accept that. 

The majority of displaced people remain within their own country. They are covered by the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which builds on international human rights law and spells out what these legally binding guarantees mean for internally displaced persons. The big gap is when people are displaced across borders. There is no international instrument governing this scenario, just a set of domestic laws in different countries that allow people who have been displaced due to the adverse effects of climate change to enter and receive some protection. But these laws are not coordinated and do not grant rights; their use is up to the discretion of individual governments. 

JIA: When so many international agreements are non-binding, what is the path to concrete change? 

WK: There is absolutely no political willingness right now to adopt a binding instrument at the global level. Even if we were to get such an instrument, many states would not ratify it, particularly countries that would be the destination of displaced persons. 

“Soft” law certainly has limitations. However, these instruments are usually accepted by most countries and thus can be confronted with what they have agreed to. This is not ideal, but it beats simply having a country refuse to ratify a binding agreement and thus perfectly free to refuse any dialogue. 

What is more promising is the development of binding regional agreements. In Africa, the so called Kampala Convention protects persons internally displaced due to adverse effects of climate change and it has already been ratified by more than half of African countries. And I mentioned previously the agreements on the free movement of persons with their potential of allowing affected persons to legally enter other countries in the region. 

The big problem with a binding global agreement is that situations are so varied in different places. Drought in the Horn of Africa and sea level rise in the Pacific are two very different challenges, and they will require very different answers. That is another reason why this bottom up, bilateral, regional approach, is probably more promising than trying to have a global convention. 

JIA: How does culture tie into climate change and displacement? What level of importance should we give it when we construct regional or global agreements? 

WK: For many Indigenous peoples, attachment to their land is absolutely important. If one fails to consider this dimension when talking about relocation as one measure to adapt to climate change, then it will not work and not be in line with the rights of Indigenous peoples. 

In the end, it is communities that have to play an important role in finding their own solutions. Again, this means that you have to build on social capital. Social capital, very often, is cultural capital. You cannot just impose top-down solutions, because these textbook solutions don’t fit all contexts. It is important to make sure communities have a voice when legal frameworks and policy frameworks are developed. 

JIA: Are we moving fast enough in acting on climate change? If not, what can we be doing to accelerate climate action? 

WK: We have to define what we mean by “fast enough.” I think we are certainly not moving fast enough when it comes to mitigation. When it comes to human mobility issues, it again depends on the region. Some areas are more pressing, others are less pressing. There is a lot of resistance from different quarters; that’s the way it is, but that should not be an excuse not to work on the issues.

JIA: Which countries or regions are setting a good example in terms of natural hazard response and displacement? 

WK: Central American states are at the forefront of implementing laws to protect persons displaced across borders. They have adopted a guide to effective practices to protect such persons. South American countries recently adopted guidelines on the same topic. In order to train officials on how to handle such situations, Costa Rica and Panama conducted a cross-border simulation exercise that, for the first time, included the migration authorities.. Early next year, Colombia and Costa Rica will also do this kind of simulation exercise. The idea of the simulation exercise is to learn the lessons and then integrate them in the standard operating procedures. It is very hands on and practical.