Ronald Jumeau is Seychelles Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador to the United States and former Ambassador for Climate Change and Small Island Developing States (SIDS); Leisha Beardmore is human rights professional focused on Humanitarian Protection and Empowerment. Former Seychelles Lead Negotiator on Loss and Damage for the Paris agreement
The world is not made up of any single story. What has been done today will affect what is done tomorrow, and what is done in Europe will affect what is done by the rest of the world.
An estimated thirteen-and-a-half million Syrians need humanitarian assistance due to the 2011 conflict, and while most Syrian refugees remain in the Middle East, in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, slightly more than ten per cent have fled to Europe.
The last three years have seen the largest wave of migration across European borders since the Second World War. The movement of more than 1.5 million people has required both the provision of urgent assistance and the cooperation of support across a series of states. This has proved logistically and morally challenging for the European Union; and all while the world watches on, observing the choices made and the way they affect the EU’s politics, economics, societies and security.
The reception of these refugees and asylum seekers has been mixed, ranging from local populations opening their homes to hate speech and growing right-wing rhetoric. The politics of migration in Europe speaks deeply for the future potentially facing those forcibly displaced due to climate change.
In geopolitics, there is a tendency to forget the past and assume that the latest crisis is unprecedented. However, as we consider the challenges that climate migration will pose, we can find strong parallels in the challenges that Europe has faced historically and continues to face today.
When forcibly displaced, refugees from island states become dependent on, and vulnerable to, the capacity of receiving states to host them
In just two decades the population of forcibly displaced persons has doubled from 32 million in 1997 to 65 million in 2016, larger than the total population of the United Kingdom. The 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and the correlating 1967 Protocol have been critiqued for their inability to address transnational challenges such as climate change. So, in a global order already struggling to support existing refugee claims, what can be done for people forcibly displaced due to climate change?
As sea levels rise, food production collapses due to salinity and drought, ecosystems are rendered uninhabitable and human populations are forcibly displaced. But in the case of small island states, large scale internal displacement is not possible as they simply do not have the land to move elsewhere. When forcibly displaced, they become dependent on, and vulnerable to, the capacity of receiving states to host them and ensure their rights are protected, a challenge many refugees are facing in Europe today.
Given the possible disappearance of island states such as Kiribati or Tuvalu, sea-level rise presents out-migration as the only possible option, with the inability to return leading to the threat of permanent displacement and ‘statelessness’ for entire nations.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a sea level rise of between 30 - 80 centimetres by 2300, with populations living at an altitude of less than one metre above sea-level directly vulnerable within a few decades. This would directly affect 146 million people and would have potentially severe consequences for island states who do not meet the criteria for refugee status.
Such people are theoretically discussed using highly politicised terminology such as ‘climate migrants’, falling under the highly wrought Loss and Damage component of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. Such language aims to raise the question of responsibility for climate change as a source of migration, and the distinction between a choice to migrate, and forced migration.
At the EU level, there is currently no distinct instrument applicable to ‘environmentally displaced individuals’ despite estimates putting the number of those migrating due to climate change at 200 million by 2050, with caps on the protection able to be offered to them due to the difficulty in proving the migration was forced.
While Europe did not choose to be in this position, its treatment of those seeking asylum must be observed closely, and must serve as a lesson. Think-tank Bruegel describes Europe’s response to the refugee crisis as “slow and disorganized”, but this does not take into account the complexities of this unprecedented crisis as a humanitarian emergency in a northern state.
Estimates put the number of those migrating due to climate change at 200 million by 2050
Based on data from Bruegel and the European Commission in 2016, if relocation continues at the current speed it will take 100 years to achieve the planned relocation from Greece alone. And if Europe cannot forcibly repatriate 200,000 people, what then of the challenge of climate migration, an area unprecedented in national or international law?
Professor Alexander Betts of the University of Oxford’s Refugee Centre provides an overview of lessons learned from our collective humanitarian histories. An example of this is the creation of the 1998 ‘Guiding principles on internal displacement’ as a ‘soft law’ framework to address the gap in international law and provide necessary human rights coverage and needed humanitarian protection for internally displaced persons.
Similarly, climate-induced displacement requires us to change the way we consider both policy and practice. When the nationals of small island states are forced to leave their homes and their land, the examples Europe sets now and in the future will set the precedent for the support and protection received in the absence of binding international law. International law is inherently fragmented, loaded with disputes, with many states unwilling to be bound to action.
Europe’s role goes beyond best practice; it must also recognise lessons learned and move to change the rhetoric beyond bilateral solutions towards understanding cross-border migration and displacement as the global issue it is.
This is not an issue which can be contained within national borders. It requires integrated solutions, a rights-based approach, and a conscientious political understanding of the necessity for integration between local populations and those seeking refuge. Only through reform of both policy and practice can the needs of those displaced by climate, today and in the future, truly receive the support they deserve.
This article was first published in Europe's World print issue number 35.
IMAGE CREDIT: Brians Photos, Bigstockphoto