Asia-Pacific, Climate Change, Environment, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

ASIA-PACIFIC: Refugees of Climate Change Rising Steadily

Rousbeh Legatis*

NEW YORK, Nov 16 2011 (IPS) - Asian countries, home to about 60 percent of the world’s population, will be hit hardest by changing weather patterns and a degrading environment, research indicates.

A whopping 90 percent of all disaster displacement within countries in 2010 was caused by climate- related disasters, the international body Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reported. That year, 38.3 million women, men and children were forced to move, mainly by floods and storms.

Out of 16 countries with the highest risk of being severely affected by environmental changes in the next 30 years, ten are in Asia, according to the 2010 Climate Change Vulnerability Index, released by global risks advisory firm Maplecroft.

In Southeast Asia alone, extreme weather events like rising sea levels and storm surges “could cause economic losses of 230 billion dollars, or equivalent of 6.7 percent of GDP, each year, endangering the livelihoods of millions of people”, as Bart Édes, director of the Poverty Reduction, Gender and Social Development Division of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), told IPS.

Climate change adaptation costs for Asia and the Pacific are estimated in the order of 40 billion dollars annually, the expert said.

Sea level rise particularly affects the poorest of the poor living in coastal areas 10 metres above sea level and in small island states.

Already facing the consequences of a changing environment, some Pacific Islands, including Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, are also considered among the least developed countries, meaning they possess limited resources to implement measures to effectively support those in need.

“About 100 million people would be affected by sea level rise of one metre. There are more than 30 small island developing states that would be impacted by sea level rise as well as the populations of large delta systems in Egypt, Bangladesh, Niger and Vietnam,” said Mary-Elena Carr, associate director of the Columbia Climate Centre in New York.

In the early 21st century, frequent flooding in most small island states is likely to be a reality, added Carr.

Off the radar

A clear understanding of the situation of people’s livelihoods in the Pacific region remains elusive so far due to a lack of data. Although the Islands are spread over a vast geographical area, their population and combined area make them an otherwise comparatively small region that tends to be overlooked in international discussions on climate change.

The infrastructure and housing of the poor cannot withstand cyclones, floods, landslides or king tides, all of which have been exacerbated by accelerated sea level rise.

In the region, climate change-related migration follows inward paths, meaning people flee from outer to main islands, as they typically lack the means to move abroad.

Protection issues can arise from this situation. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are not protected by any internationally binding legal framework. They frequently face discrimination as well as increased vulnerability to exploitation and violence.

IDPs are often deprived of rights to social services, livelihoods, housing and property.

“Specific strategies need to be developed to ensure that disaster-displaced find durable solutions, including in situations where return is not an option,” explained Kate Halff, head of IDMC, in an interview with IPS.

Such methods include displacement monitoring systems to track population movements and ensure timely and adequate responses as well as joint approaches by disaster risk reduction, development and humanitarian actors.

The struggle to take action

To highlight the key characteristics and challenges of displacement, “Protecting the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in Natural Disasters – Challenges in the Pacific”, a study recently published by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), compared cases and responses in Samoa, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Indicating major flaws in governmental responses to the needs of IDPs, the study determined that planning and prevention measures to assist the displaced were inadequate.

Political decision-makers have not taken into account complaints from the displaced or even acknowledged them as “internally displaced”. They refer to them instead as “affected” or “homeless”, the UN report showed.

“A lot of change is happening within a country because of climate change. Lots of decisions need to be made about where, how and who to resettle,”  Matilda Bogner, regional OHCHR representative for the Pacific, told IPS.

Additionally, hierarchical traditional systems in some countries exclude certain groups from decision- making. “Women are fairly systematically excluded from decision-making within most countries of the Pacific,” Bogner said.

Resettlement efforts are further complicated by land issues on the Islands, where the majority of territory is commonly owned by different communities and individuals and not available for public use.

Since regional governments depend heavily on international development assistance, “donor governments in the region also have a particular responsibility to promote and protect human rights within the Pacific,” the OHCHR study emphasised.

Understanding environmental migration in Asia and the Pacific is of paramount importance in adopting policies and programmes capable of coping with future migration flows in the region, stated an ADB paper in September.

As the number of people displaced from their homes by both sudden and slow-onset climatic events will increases, multiple aspects of migration policies – including financial – will have to fall into place to create solutions beneficial to both guest and host communities.

*This is the second in a three-part series on the impacts of climate change in the Pacific region.

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