International Migrants Day — Addressing Humanitarian Needs of those Displaced Due to Climate Change

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Abhiruchi Chatterjee

International Migrants Day — Addressing Humanitarian Needs of those Displaced Due to Climate Change

On December 18 — International Migrants Day — we bring you an article that looks at migration as a consequence of climate change and the role humanitarian actors can play in such situations. The humanitarian challenges that result from such migration make a person vulnerable and exposed to hardship, uncertainty and, often times, even the risk of death. The ICRC neither tries to prevent nor to encourage migration, but focuses on helping the most vulnerable migrants and their families, regardless of their legal status.


One of the most notable impacts of climate change is the displacement of populations. Forced displacement may occur due to natural disasters or the long term impact of climate change. The United Nations has estimated that climate change forms the direct or indirect cause of the displacement of about 20 million people every year. Extreme weather events cause sudden and unplanned displacement, while long term impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise or the degradation of the soil quality demand relatively more planned movements.

Climate change could have implications on economic and food insecurity, which, in turn, could potentially transform into political conflict.  The interlinked causal factors make it challenging to precisely identify the reasons for displacement. This makes it more difficult to address the rights of the displaced people and understand the state obligations. South Asia, inherently prone to various natural disasters, and one of the most populous regions in the world, finds itself grappling with bigger disparities and newer challenges of larger scale as migration and displacement are on the rise due to the numerous effects of climate change.

The need for International Law

While there is growing awareness about the different ways in which climate change impacts us, and a realization that climate-related migration is one of the unavoidable consequences, there is still no international law addressing the rights of persons displaced specifically due to climate change, and the consequent obligations of states. Present international laws on climate change focus primarily on its environmental impact, neglecting the migration aspect. Migration and displacement related laws, on the other hand, do not address climate related migration as it is a new phenomenon, a non-traditional challenge faced only recently. Some proponents argue that the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees should be altered to accommodate protection to the cross-border displaced people due to climate change, what many term as ‘climate refugees’. On the other hand, many scholars and practitioners are also cautious about altering the existing Refugee Convention fearing that making any changes would result in further shrinking the existing rights granted to existing refugees, instead of truly expanding its scope. In other words, the depth of the rights granted in the Convention might be affected by attempting to alter its breadth.

Presently states lack political will to develop an international law on this issue. This is further reinforced due to the lack of a notable trigger event that would jolt the international community into action. How should climate-induced migration be effectively managed? This is where states need a strong support structure in the form of international and regional organizations on the one hand and humanitarian actors and non-governmental organizations on the other.

Role of Humanitarian Actors

The government and humanitarian organizations step into crucial roles for immediate response and long term disaster relief and rehabilitation, long after these incidents fade from media headlines and public memory. The role of non-state humanitarian actors is especially important when areas that are already under political strife are affected by natural calamities. The humanitarian actors are able to expand their reach through impartiality and neutrality, with the sole objective of delivering humanitarian aid and relief services, as opposed to the state, which might have underlying security considerations overriding human security in such cases. Furthermore, a global presence and network helps humanitarian actors leverage transnational and global support quickly.

Yet, climate related incidents often occur without explicit warning. Therefore, states alone will not be equipped to deal with the consequences of climate related migration, and would require the support, professional competence and advocacy of humanitarian actors to navigate through this challenge. Humanitarian actors also reinforce the importance of meeting their human rights obligations to states to address the rights of the displaced people. At the same time, non-state actors need the skeletal structure provided by the state machinery for their advocacy to translate into effective impact.

Addressing the challenge of climate refugees requires, often, cooperation at the regional and sub-regional level, since migration due to climate change is likely to occur across areas with close proximity. Coherent co-ordination between the state machinery, international organizations and national and grassroots level organizations (which are more familiar and embedded in ground realities) would enable long-term and coordinated management of migration, which can empower vulnerable communities and populations likely to be affected by the impact of climate change as constructive voices in the changing dynamics. The vast networks provided by humanitarian organizations can help contextualise the experiences of these communities into broader patterns of climate related migration. Researching, assessing and addressing these patterns can translate into policymaking at the national level as well as can enable coordinate at regional and multilateral fora. Effective preparedness and preventive action to address climate induced migration at the regional level is crucial, particularly, due to the unforeseeable nature of natural disaster induced migration. This can not only help minimize damage, but also contribute towards ensuring long-term rehabilitation for displaced populations.

In conclusion, climate change induced migration is becoming a reality that the global community needs to acknowledge and accommodate into existing practices, mechanisms and laws. Instead of developing response mechanisms to hurdle it, state policies should be oriented towards addressing the causal mechanisms and extracting the most out of the changing situations. International and local humanitarian actors are best equipped to advise and aid states in carrying out such human rights-oriented policies.

Contributed by Abhiruchi Chatterjee, a former research associate at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The author can be contacted at chatterjee.abhiruchi@gmail.com

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the ICRC)


Also read:

International Review of the Red Cross edition on Environment

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