Climate-related migration pressing but poorly regulated

climate refugees
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  • Human rights, migration and climate change are interlinked, says study
  • But migration and rights are legally complex in the vulnerable Pacific islands
  • Regional-level migration approach could help avoid humanitarian issues

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[MANILA] Implementing climate change-related migration and human rights in the Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS), as mandated by the Paris Agreement, is challenging, partly because of legal complexities, says a new research paper released this month (9 November) by the UN University's Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).
Communities in the Pacific largely make their decisions on migration based on their traditional beliefs and values which are embedded in the local customary law that often contradicts national laws. Furthermore, migration is not properly regulated at the domestic level or at the regional level — though this is a growing necessity for the world's most climate-vulnerable states.  

“Even at two degrees, the coastal areas will be flooded and most of the islands will probably disappear under water”

Cosmin Corendea, UN-EHS


According to the study, in 2005—2015, over 90 per cent of households in Kiribati and Tuvalu, and three-quarters of households in Nauru, were affected by climate-related hazards like flooding, saltwater intrusion and storms. In that period, environmental stress was cited as a key factor in migration. In Kiribati, 14 per cent of all recorded movements were environment-related, while in Tuvalu the figure was nine per cent. Without any option to move internationally, migrating populations are concentrating in urban centres like South Tarawa in Kiribati and Funafuti in Tuvalu.  
The SIDS are implementing several adaptation measures, including building sea walls and planting flood-tolerant crops. But, about 30 per cent of people decide to migrate as soon as the first climate stress appears, according to Cosmin Corendea, senior legal expert at UNU-EHS and an author of the report.
If the key goal of the Paris Agreement — limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius — is not met, the SIDS will be among the first to be hit, Corendea says. "Even at two degrees, the coastal areas will be flooded and most of the islands will probably disappear under water — the problem will become even more tragic if you're going to have people who do not belong to a state," Corendea tells SciDev.Net.
Most governments in the Pacific are making "huge efforts" to harmonise the state and customary law from a human rights perspective, Corendea says.  For example, the US$9.2 million Fiji Access to Justice project, funded by the EU and implemented by the UN Development Programme since last year, aims to strengthen Fiji's Legal Aid Commission, the judicial department, and NGOs' access to justice.

A special initiative launched at COP23 in Bonn is designed to protect people living in the SIDS from the health impacts of climate change. "This is crucially important because climate change is exacerbating existing health-related challenges in Pacific island countries," Wesley Morgan, senior international relations expert at the University of the South Pacific, tells SciDev.Net. "Changes in climate can lead to changes in the distribution of vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria and affect health-related infrastructure."
Corendea says that important recommendations in the study include the acknowledgement that human rights, migration and climate change are becoming one big interlinked topic and that the governments of the Pacific islands should consider regional approaches with regards to migration. "Having migration regulated at the regional level will eventually, hopefully, avoid some humanitarian crisis," he adds.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.