Africa, Climate Change, Environment, Headlines

Need to Protect Millions Displaced by Environmental Disasters

OSLO, Jun 8 2011 (IPS) - Heavy rainfall means that over 500,000 people living in mountainous areas in Uganda need to be relocated as they live in areas at risk to landslides.

In 2010 over 300 people died on the slopes of Mount Elgon, eastern Uganda after days of heavy rains led to landslides on the mountain. Thousands more were displaced. This week the Uganda Red Cross Society warned that more landslides are looming in the Elgon area, placing thousands more at risk and in need of relocation.

The displacement of people due to climate-related disasters has not been just a local issue. Tens of millions of people around the world have been displaced by climate-related disasters over the last two years.

The challenge to come up with a new guiding framework on how to protect millions facing environmental disasters has been the subject of discussion among international agencies at the Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement in the 21st Century, which ran from June 6 to 7 in Oslo. It is the first global event to bring together environmental and migration specialists to explore the displacement dimension of climate change.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said there is a need to find new measures of protecting those displaced within and across borders.

This comes after a report titled ‘Displacement due to natural hazard-induced disasters’, released on June 6 by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, found that more than 42 million people were displaced in 2010 and 90 percent of these were victims of climate-related disasters. Of the 42 million plus, four percent of the displacement happened in Africa and 77 percent in Asia.

Guterres said that while much of the displacement is largely internal and required governments to carry out their primary responsibility, he warned that increasing numbers of people will be displaced across borders and may be unable to return home.

Those displaced by climate-induced disasters across borders lack protection because they do not qualify for refugee status under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention. To address this, Guterres proposed the development of a global guiding framework. He said such a framework should contain arrangements for “temporary or interim protection for people who flee natural disasters.” He also suggested that relevant existing treaties could be invoked to address the problem.

Guterres urged the international community to switch from the emergency-mode response to natural disasters if they are to help countries adapt to climate changes.

“Traditionally the international community has responded to disasters and displacement in emergency mode, establishing camps, distributing food and water, building schools and clinics, the billions of dollars spent on relief in recent decades have evidently not led to the sustainable strengthening of national and local capacities,” he said. “National adaptation plans should take full account of the linkage between climate change and human mobility.”

He explained that the UNHCR has refused to embrace the new terminology of climate refugees or environmental refugees fearing this will complicate and confuse the protection of victims of persecution and armed conflicts under the 1951 Refugees Convention.

He warned that reaching a new international instrument that could protect many displaced by environmental factors could lead to hostility towards migration from host countries as it would increase their responsibility.

“In the current context it will not be easy to establish a binding new international instrument relating to rights of such people. Xenophobia is already widespread, fuelled in many instances by populist politicians,” he said.

Kenya’s commissioner for Refugee Affairs Peter Kusimba said the country needed to address climate- driven migration, which has affected northern Kenya.

Northern Kenya has been host to Somali refugees for the last 20 years and Kusimba says that the communities in that area need a lot of support to adapt to the demographic changes and its impact on the environment.

“We have a ministry for northern Kenya and we are addressing the environmental issues. The local population have knowledge of environmentals and seasonal changes. We need to enhance this and support them to survive the increasingly harsh droughts,” he said.

Kelly David, the head of the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Southern and Eastern Africa said lack of data made it difficult for governments to respond to climate-induced migration.

“There’s lack of data of the movement of people in the region who are pushed by climate changes and this is in part due to conflicts. Most refugees from the horn of Africa are simply taken into neighbouring countries because of the war,” said David, “this lack of data makes regional governments not respond effectively to climate-ridden migration.”

David said that many people were increasingly migrating from east Africa and the horn of Africa to southern Africa due to prolonged droughts. David indicated that southern African governments have tightened their border controls, which is not a solution as people look for alternative routes to get in.

“We have seen build up in northern Mozambique of Ethiopians and Somalis who travel down the coast by boat and then walk inland,” she said.

The Cancun adaptation framework achieved at the 2010 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) recognised the increasing challenge of climate-induced migrations both internally and across borders. The adaption framework called on parties to “enhance action on adaptation taking… measures to enhance understanding coordination and cooperation with regard to climate induced displacement, migration and planned relocation where appropriate at national, regional and international levels.”

However, the framework lacks the specifics on how the displaced will be protected.

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