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Climate refugees from SIDS: nipping the problem in the bud

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By Galit Palzur

· 7 min read

Climate change is reshaping the world as we know it, giving rise to an array of environmental and social challenges with profound implications. The impacts of climate change are not uniform across the globe, and regions experience varying degrees of vulnerability. There are certain regions that are notably prone to the ramifications of climate change primarily due to their geographical placement and distinctive climate characteristics. For instance, coastal areas are confronted with the perils of sea-level rise (SLR) while arid regions are contending with prolonged droughts, placing water supplies and agricultural productivity in jeopardy.

The effects of climate change can directly or indirectly force people to migrate. Where the decline in agricultural productivity is the issue, such as in several hotspots in parts of Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, climate migrants are more likely to relocate internally to areas that have better climatic conditions for agriculture as well as to cities which can provide better livelihood opportunities. In U.S. states like Florida and Louisiana, which are susceptible to SLR and frequent hurricanes, there has been a notable increase in the number of residents choosing to move away from high-risk coastal areas.

Assuming a pessimistic reference scenario that reflects high GHG emissions and unequal development pathways, the Groundswell Report asserts there will be 170 million potential climate-related internal displacements by 2050 across six regions around the world. Yet in low-lying small island developing states (SIDS), internal relocation will not be feasible as the encroaching waters threaten the countries' very existence. Tuvalu, a low-lying island nation in the Pacific, has taken a proactive approach in seeking alternative relocation options for its population. Kiribati, another Pacific Island nation, has purchased land in Fiji as a potential future home for its citizens in case SLR renders their islands uninhabitable.

While some SIDS seek relocation in the event of their countries' potential annihilation, it is also in the interest of the receiving states to proactively consider creating national strategies to address future waves of climate refugees in a mutually beneficial manner.

Developed countries would also benefit from addressing in advance the issue of climate refugees 

If we first look at the international arena, climate change-induced migration is already addressed in multiple international frameworks. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Global Compact for Migration address climate-related migration and through the UNFCCC, the issue appears in the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM) and the Paris Agreement. As the WIM serves as an international platform to address loss and damage associated with climate change, it is suggested that developed countries, if they choose to do so, could utilize favorable migration policies to fulfill part of their Loss and Damage commitments.

Accepting climate refugees from SIDS should be recognized as part of the developed countries’ commitments in the field of Loss & Damages

However, currently, most countries prefer aiding adaptation measures in climate-affected areas rather than dealing with relocation. Understandably, most countries see accepting refugees as a last resort. Countries prefer sending international assistance to affected areas due to reasons such as sovereignty, legal issues, resource constraints, cultural differences, and the temporary nature of disasters, as affected populations often return home once the situation stabilizes. The IPCC's Working Group II report (2022) also favors enhancing adaptive capacities of communities over their relocation. The report also highlights that most often communities themselves favor in situ adaptation options over resettlement, as relocating can lead to tensions with host communities. Nevertheless, receiving countries need to understand that certain future catastrophes will not allow the return of populations to the affected area. In those cases, a proactive transparent, forward-looking approach is needed. 

The German Council on Foreign Relations urges the German Government to integrate climate migration into its foreign policy before humanitarian emergencies escalate into security crises

A policy brief (April 2023) by the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) emphasizes the growing significance of climate migration and urges Germany to integrate this issue into its foreign policy to prevent humanitarian emergencies from escalating into security crises. The brief also mentioned the need for a pragmatic approach as cross-border migration is likely to rise. The brief proposes facilitating labor migration to establish regular, safe, and orderly migration pathways for individuals severely affected by climate change. 

Following the DGAP's logic, countries can proactively chart their course today by choosing which populations to accept in the future based on historical, cultural, economic, and other connections, instead of waiting for a flood of climate refugees and mounting international pressure. Host countries can take preemptive measures today to ensure their smoother integration in the future. As Holliday explains, planned migration has been found to be more successful for both the migrants and host populations, "as they foster more proactive steps to retain migrants’ economic and social agency and help to prepare them for the change in lifestyle and culture upon arrival."

In addition, many countries are experiencing a negative birth replacement rate, leading to an aging population and strain on social welfare and healthcare systems. This results in a smaller workforce, labor shortages, reduced consumer demand, lower investments, tax revenues, and slower economic growth. Unless technological advances such as (re)generative AI replace human capital, countries must address their negative birth rate and attract immigrants to sustain economic growth. That is, at least as long as economic growth is defined in terms of GDP and not in terms of Green GDP or Inclusive Wealth Index, for instance.

Planning for climate migrants is practical as governments anyway actively seek immigrants to meet needs, removing barriers to job market access. Therefore, aligning migration policies with climate aspects is simply a continuation of countries' current migration policies and it serves the countries' best interests. However, current policies are inadequate for climate-related displacements. For example, Constable highlights that the current migration policy in New Zealand allows only 75 Tuvaluan citizens per year entry, subject to specific age, job offer, income, and English proficiency requirements. This approach favors the educated and financially privileged, leaving the most vulnerable behind. A similar example is that of the Compact of Free Association which provides visa-free entry to the U.S. for Marshall Islands citizens, but the lack of financial assistance restricts eligibility to those with existing resources or family networks.

If you've read this far, you would probably ask yourself why would countries, which have internal economic problems such as low economic growth, rising interest rates, and high market volatility, want to address an international issue that does not directly affect them despite the logic explained above.  Well, the answer would be that some receiving countries, more than others, would probably see climate refugees on their doorsteps in the years to come. The war in Ukraine demonstrates the strain caused by refugees seeking safety and the spillover effects of war from one place to others. One must remember that migration caused by climate change can be positive or negative, depending on the manner and timing of relocation. Rather than waiting for crises to emerge, host countries can take proactive measures and utilize tools like bilateral agreements with the sending countries. Roberts (2015) brings the example of the bilateral agreement between Kiribati and Fiji where the latter is willing to host Kiribati citizens if and when their country will sink.

As achieving an international agreement on climate migration is difficult and not a key topic for COP28, interested countries can utilize bilateral agreements instead

Critics would argue that the extensive use of bilateral agreements for future climate migration could be seen as immoral, favoring some communities over others. The fate of communities without relocation agreements raises concerns about fairness. An answer to these critics would be that historically, accepting refugees due to humanitarian crises has been the exception rather than the norm, leaving many communities helpless after countless catastrophes. Due to inappropriate policies on climate migration, scholars like Heyward and Ödalen (2016) propose a 'Passport for the Territorially Dispossessed' for citizens of SIDS which all states would be obliged to recognize. Such ideas pose a threat to sovereign countries as they create a slippery slope that no sovereign country would accept since they might also create potential future demands from other communities facing other types of climate catastrophes. We don't need to go to extremes: implementing a forward-looking migration policy to reduce uncertainty about the future, especially for communities that are faced with a gloomy future, is better than what we have today. Such actions could be pursued through bilateral agreements between countries or as a global solution discussed during the UNFCCC meetings, such as COP28 in Dubai later this year.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Galit Palzur is an economist and a board member at Forum Dvorah, the Israeli Energy Forum and Kessler Projects for the World. She specializes in risk management of natural disasters, sustainability and climate change, and climate finance. She was the Director of the Economics Division of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Chair of the Bureau of the OECD Working Party on Climate, Investment and Development. Galit also mentors cleantech startups.

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