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Migration is never far from the headlines, but what practical steps are we taking to address migration caused by environmental and climate change-related factors?
That was the burning question at Friends of Europe’s Policy Insight debate “Future flows: forecasting and responding to environmental migration” on 8 November. Speakers and participants debated the complexities of defining, preparing and empowering those whose lives and livelihoods are impacted by environmental factors and called for a move away from mitigation and towards adaptation strategies.
One of the key challenges for addressing the issue of environmental migration is how to define – and therefore adequately cater for – a growing group of people who are migrating for reasons as diverse as devastating hurricanes and the slow strangulation of viable agriculture options.
Some argue that the adoption of the term ‘climate refugee’ could reflect the forced nature of such migration and possibly offer the chance of legal protections. Use of the term could also serve as a call to action, both in tackling climate change itself and by triggering protection mechanisms for those impacted, explained Caroline Zickgraf, Deputy Head of the University of Liège’s Hugo Observatory.
However others are more sceptical, she explained. Environmental and climate change-induced movements are not provided for in the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees, therefore there is no legal backing for use of the term ‘refugee’. Moreover, re-opening the Convention for inclusion of these causes could have dramatic consequences – potentially resulting in decreased support for refugees worldwide.
“It does not recognise that it is multi-causal. ‘Climate refugee’ does not recognise all the other things that interact – political forces, social inequalities, demographic variables, economic aspects,” she said. Furthermore, most such displaced people move internally and therefore do not qualify as ‘refugees’.
Sheila Sealy Monteith, Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of Jamaica to the EU and UNESCO, said she believed ‘environmental migration’ was a more helpful term, because when people do migrate across borders they do not necessarily identify the driver of their movement as a result of climate change.
“There is such a huge confusion about the effects of climate change, and it would be very difficult for people to accept that some environmental conditions such as floods and droughts… are actually climate change,” she said.
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