AU Pushes the Envelope on "Climate Migrants"

(IRIN) October 29, 2009 – An African international agreement has opened the door to a debate on the rights and protection of people displaced by natural disasters, with a nod to migration as a result of climate change.

The Kampala Convention, a ground-breaking treaty adopted by the African Union (AU), promises to protect and assist millions of Africans displaced within their own countries. Significantly, the treaty recognized natural disasters as well as conflict and generalized violence as key factors in uprooting people.

Jean Ping, chairperson of the Commission of the African Union, told IRIN that “more and more people are likely to be displaced” as Africa experiences more frequent droughts and floods brought about by climate change.

He said the inclusion of displacement by natural disasters was informed by the global debate on the need to develop a framework for the rights of “climate refugees” – people uprooted from their homes and crossing international borders – because the changing climate threatened their survival.

The treaty also calls on governments to set up laws and find solutions to prevent displacement caused by natural disasters, with compensation for those who were displaced. Migration expert Etienne Piguet said with the Kampala Convention the AU had “once again” tried to push the envelope.

In 1969 the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, adopted by the then Organization of African Unity, had gone a step further than the 1951 UN Refugee Convention by using a definition of “refugee” that included not only people fleeing persecution but also those fleeing war or events seriously disturbing public order.

Piguet described the reference to people displaced by natural disasters as an “interesting attempt” to find “adequate answers to the new concern about migration linked to environmental degradation”.

In 2008 climate-related natural disasters like droughts, hurricanes and floods forced 20 million people out of their homes, while 4.6 million people were internally displaced by conflicts, according to a recent joint study by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

The Representative of the UN Secretary-General (RSG) on the Human Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in a submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change noted that people uprooted from their homes by natural disasters enjoyed protection under the existing human rights law and the guiding principles on internal displacement.

However, the Kampala Convention also calls on governments to “prevent or mitigate, prohibit and eliminate root causes” of displacement, and find “durable solutions” to them.

Moussa Idriss Ndele, President of the Pan-African Parliament, the legislative body of the AU, said the debate in

Kampala on the rights of people displaced by natural disasters did not “quite evolve properly – we did not address the issue of climate change” because most people still believed conflict was the biggest trigger of displacement.

Can of worms

However, it was unclear which events could be linked to climate change. “More and more people are being displaced by floods, which are becoming more and more frequent and intense,” said Rachel Shebesh, chair of the African Parliamentarian Initiative for Climate Risk Reduction.

The RSG said there was a need to clarify or even develop a legal framework to help people who moved inside or outside the country because environmental degradation and slow-onset disasters – like desertification, salination of soil and groundwater – made areas uninhabitable, and if displaced persons could not return to their homes they should be considered forcibly displaced.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected more frequent and intense floods and droughts in Africa during the next few decades, and the debate is not only set to continue, but to intensify.

Source: IRIN


  • Anne

    Hello and thank you for this article. So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmental refugees.

    Environmental migrants, therefore, are persons making a short-lived, cyclical, or longerterm change of residence, of a voluntary or forced character, due to specific environmental factors. Environmental refugees form a specific type of environmental migrant.

    Environmental refugees, therefore, are persons compelled to spontaneous, short-lived, cyclical, or longer-term changes of residence due to sudden or gradually worsening changes in environmental factors important to their living, which may be of either a short-term or an irreversible character.

    According to Norman Myers environmental refugees are “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty”.

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