Last week, the first-ever International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) took place in New York. The follow-up to the 2018 summit held in Marrakech, where the trailblazing Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM) was agreed, the IMRF was a crucial spot-check of the state of international migration policy.
For people who remember the discussions in Marrakech, there was something strikingly new at the New York meetings. Four years ago, the relationship between climate change and migration was virtually absent from discussions. At the IMRF, in contrast, it was very much on the agenda. Of the 64 in-person and virtual side events, 10 had “climate” or “environment” in their title, and these topics were frequently mentioned within the high-level roundtables and country statements. So what was discussed, and what still needs to be done?
How was the relationship between climate change and migration discussed?
Climate change was characterized at the IMRF as a, but not the, driver of migration. While some places will become genuinely unliveable as a result of climate change, in most places it will “merely” exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. Women were noted to be especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as were existing refugees, the poor, and those who depend on subsistence agriculture or nomadic herding. These vulnerabilities increase someone’s propensity to migrate in the face of climactic changes.
While some people will be able to move, others will not. This issue of “trapped populations” was frequently raised, as was the need to help them to adapt where they live now, or to be assisted in moving. Yet such planned relocation did not receive much attention, with two exceptions. A representative for Fiji shared that following the development of Fiji’s 2021 Climate Change Act, 43 communities in need of being moved had been identified, and six already have been. The UNHCR, in one statement, described planned relocation as a solution of last resort: giving people agency to move themselves is better.
Many speakers raised the notion of “migration as adaptation.” These discussions followed the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in recognising that for people in areas badly affected by climate change, the ability to move elsewhere, or to send a member of the community to work elsewhere and send money back home, can make a big difference. (If that movement can also contribute to the green economy, so much the better.) In the high-level statements by country representatives, however, this recognition was sometimes lacking: the perception of climate change driving a problematic wave of migrants remains hard to shake.
Finally, as is usual for these types of events, data gaps were frequently mentioned, including as an impediment to policy progress. We know very little about who is most vulnerable and who might therefore need to or choose to move. While gaps exist across the board, those geographic areas that are likely to struggle the most with climate migration are the same areas for which the data is worst.
What did we learn about policy?
In one side event, the Platform for Disaster Displacement (PDD) released a new report mapping countries’ efforts to integrate migration into national disaster risk reduction and climate strategies. Professor Walter Kälin, representing the PDD, noted that countries have made progress on objective 2 of the GCM—minimising the adverse drivers compelling migration—but less progress on objective 5—increasing access to regular migration pathways. That being said, the report also noted that many policies have only just been implemented, so monitoring will be important to follow up on these commitments.
Some policies do look promising. At the country level, Argentina has created a new “Special Humanitarian Visa” allowing entry to nationals and residents of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean displaced by natural disasters. Peru is creating a policy on climate-affected migration; Chile is considering one. The United States is evaluating reforms to temporary protected status in the context of climate change.
At the regional level, the Regional Free Movement Protocol created by the Horn of Africa’s Inter-Governmental Authority on Development was frequently cited; it allows regular movement in anticipation of disasters, during disasters, and post-disaster. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), similarly, allows adaptive movement through its own Free Movement Protocol.
There was also an increased emphasis on who should respond. Several speakers noted the impact climate change will have upon food production, and the expectation that this will incentivise migration to cities. The impact this will have on both rural and urban areas, as well as how this intersects with different vulnerabilities and opportunities, needs focus. The presence of many mayors was useful in reminding everyone of the importance of local policy and the support cities will need. As Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, remarked, “local action is national success.”
What needs to be done?
François Gemenne, of the Hugo Observatory, noted that there is still a tendency to see climate-affected migration as “a kind of future risk,” which can still be avoided. Given the fact that much climate-affected migration and displacement is already underway, and the limits of adaptation efforts, this notion will need to be combatted.
Many speakers remarked on the existence of “policy silos”; the same questions are being debated from different angles producing different—even contradictory—recommendations. For example, disaster risk reduction frequently doesn’t consider conflict as a factor that interacts with climate change to affect migration patterns. The phrases “whole-of-society” or “whole-of-government” were frequently used; in Egypt, a representative remarked, “every minister is a climate minister.” In practice, this collaboration was held up as an aspiration (and a necessity) by most speakers, but not something that has been achieved yet.
Anticipatory action was agreed to be important; representatives of both Germany and Egypt proposed that COP27 could discuss preparations for climate migration. The need to increase access to regular pathways—to “ensure that people can move, leave, and work in a safe and dignified way,” as a representative of the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights observed—is crucial, but this requires better data and more political will. In the meantime, decisions have to be made in a slightly foggier environment.
So what did we learn? Climate change is clearly being taken far more seriously by migration policymakers: this is new, and very welcome. But there is a lot still to be done. The IMRF has set the tone, but the discussions can’t stop there.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.