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Following the Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development that was held from 20 – 22 June 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a report entitled ‘Climate change, vulnerability, and human mobility: Perspectives of refugees from the East and Horn of Africa’.(2) The report presents a perspective on how internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees have coped and responded to the increasing changes in climate patterns in the region. The report, though short on quantitative data, presents some of the environmental and human security concerns stemming from climate change, notably the issue of what are now being referred to in some circles as ‘environmental refugees’ and ‘climate change refugees’.
This CAI paper postulates that while events such as the Rio+20 Summit are useful to initiate dialogue; little has been done by the international community to prepare a response to the long-term implications of climate change on populations in the East and Horn of Africa. The discussion examines, through the analysis of the UNHCR report, how the new climate change narrative, coupled with endemic conflicts and violence, may shift the way in which parts of Africa will have to respond to future environmental and human security crises. It also addresses the dichotomy between the concept of ‘climate change refugee’, and the existing legal definition of ‘refugee’. The latter, bounded by international law, faces continued pressure from practitioners and policymakers alike to develop a general legal framework for a definition that would be inclusive of these new climate-induced migration movements.
Rio+20 and Africa: Failing to put promises into action
The Summit was the rally point for world leaders to renew their political commitments to sustainable development. The foreseeable goals of Rio+20 were outlined in seven critical priority areas: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans, and disaster readiness.(3) The initial step to achieving these goals was the drafting of a list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed towards “an integrated process leading to a single overarching framework post 2015,” which may bring into question the durability of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) post 2015.(4) The reality from a lived experience, away from the ambitious Rio+20 agenda, is a little different, showing that the great majority of African states continue to struggle to attain the MDGs.(5) Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive of Oxfam, summed this up by noting that “Rio will go down as the hoax summit,” in which world leaders “came, they talked, but they failed to act.”(6) In this respect, if looking at Rio+20 strictly through an African lens, it can be regarded as another summit where the decision was made to meet again in future summits for further discussions.
The first assessment to be made by the Summit is the failure of Africa to have achieved, let alone come close to addressing, inequality, hunger, and environmental issues as per the initial objectives of the MDGs. The second assessment made by the Summit was that there is little indication that Africa will be able to attain the objectives set out in the 2015 MDGs; instead numerous statements have continued to raise the alarm that Africa will likely continue “to suffer from deep, persistent and enduring inequalities” beyond the 2015 date.(7) The Africa Progress Panel released a critical assessment of the Rio+20 and therein “expressed [its] disappointment at the failure of the Rio+20 Summit to deliver meaningful and measurable commitments to combat climate change and its effects across Africa and in other developing regions.”(8) In this respect, the UNHCR report builds on an already growing body of literature on the links between climate change and forced migration in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).(9) It speaks volumes about the possible future consequences of climate-induced migration in an already weakened East and Horn of Africa, and the possible links to the deterioration of social agency and cohesion (read violence and conflict ) that may have an impact on millions of people in the region.
UNHCR: Addressing climate stress and refugees
The main aim of the UNHCR report is to “understand the extent to which refugees and IDPs have perceived, experienced and responded to climatic variability and long-term negative climatic change.”(10) While the methodology is limited to interviews with 150 people living in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Uganda, it provides a glimpse into various types of population movements in the region where upwards of five million people fall within the UNHCR’s scope of work.(11) For instance, the report notes that over the past 10-15 years:
Experts, as well as refugees, have observed significant changes in climate. They reported an increase in frequency and severity of extreme climatic events and observed shifts in seasons as well as unreliable and untimely rainfall. These climatic trends and events not only had a negative impact on agricultural production and food security, but also led to deteriorating social cohesion and the occurrence of resource-use conflicts.(12)
Another set of findings from the interviews that were conducted primarily with farmers and pastoralist families described:
A circular pattern of events in which most refugees first moved to temporary areas and then left their countries after insecurity affected these areas. Refugees described longer, more severe droughts and disrupted rainfall patterns as contributing to their decision to move, though none directly attributed these weather changes to violent conflict. Some refugees said severe drought led to scarcity of crops and food, which then exacerbated pre-existing conflicts, persecution and repression.(13)
Although the data obtained for the report are purely qualitative, the report identifies that in the great majority, migration developed following “several stages of localised, in country-migration” that were “internal, circular and temporary in nature,” in which migration across borders, due to a direct response to climate variability, was rarely mentioned.(14) Instead, many interviewees told stories of pre-existing conflict as having “exacerbated the effects of climate variability and accelerated their vulnerability to other more acute political factors” that often prompted people to move cross-border.(15) The report raises an important question: at what point does “perception of climate change” (used repeatedly in the report) quantify and/or qualify one to become a climate refugee under international law? More importantly, if climate-induced migration was to occur on a much larger scale, with interstate dynamics, the question arises as to what the exact status of these refugees might be, as well as what the impact on human security would be, should people be denied entry into a neighbouring country.
The thin line between refugee and climate refugee
While the UNHCR report adds supporting evidence to a growing body of empirical research on the links between climate change and its adverse effects on populations, and on migration in particular, it does little to spark a debate on the blurry legal terminologies such as ‘environmental migration’, ‘environmental refugee’ or ‘climate change refugee’. On that point, the UNHCR rejects any purposeful academic definitions and holds to the view that the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees does not warrant any amendment. The report specifies that the Convention “protects those fleeing from climate change-induced events” only in specific situations stemming from the interpretation of “persecution.”(16) The Geneva Convention defines these persecutions as the “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”(17) The UNHCR reaffirmed this view in a 2008 policy paper by noting that while “environmental factors can contribute to prompting cross-border movements, they are not grounds, in and of themselves, for the grant of refugee status under international refugee law.”(18) Proponents of the UNHCR cite that multiple factors and dynamics may affect people’s decision to migrate outside of their area of residence, such as financial resources and social support. Adaptation reduces the need to move away from affected areas.(19)
On the other hand, several researchers have argued in favour of a renewed debate that would recognise the legal status of climate change victims. In 1998, Andreas Metzner addressed the issue of ambiguity in defining environmental issues. He asked this simple question, “why are certain environmental phenomena diagnosed as problematic and brought towards a solution, while others – factually not less problematic or risky events – are hardly or not at all noticed?”(20) Currently, one such issue is that of environmental/climate migrants, who are excluded from the international debate with no legal recourse to plead their case.(21) The debate, if it were to occur, would invite national and international actors to revise the Geneva Convention, but would also signify that the looming spectre of emergency in the East and Horn of Africa is a reality with legal obligations. However, the issue of climate refugees should be approached cautiously, for it is the legal and the moral responsibility of the national Government to protect, and to provide measures and solutions to IDPs. History has, however, shown that many poorer Governments in the East and Horn of Africa either do not want to, or do not have the financial resources to provide these solutions.
The Rio+20 Summit, beyond its capacity to showcase its load of political bravado and promises, ought to draw our attention to how African leaders plan to ready the continent for the future impacts related to climate change and population migration, while at the same time dealing with often protracted cycles of violence and conflicts. Regardless of the current debate on terminology, another challenge for the continent resides in its capacity to showcase its willingness and readiness to develop a response system in case massive internal or cross border migration was to happen. The specific case of East and the Horn of Africa, although still lacking some data, sheds some evidence on the nascent repercussions of climate change on populations not only in the region, but also on the possible conflicts that may arise when populations resettle in new areas. The way forward might come from new initiatives and debates on an international level.
From a continental perspective, Africa, in collaboration with the African Union and other regional bodies, needs to continue working towards providing the impetus for good governance and best practices with regard to the environmental, but also to the human security, sector as they cannot be resolved on a case by case basis. The example of the East and Horn of Africa report beckons for national and regional decision makers to take a renewed vertical approach that lends itself to a participative role of civil society organisations, but also of local grassroots, community, and individual movements within the climate change debate. While some world leaders appeared too preoccupied by the current economic crises to even attend the Rio+20 Summit, the question for Africa is how much longer can it bear watching the international community constantly returning to the drawing board? The hope for Africa is that the commitments made at the Rio+20, along with the MDGs horizon of 2015, do not turn into another African fable that will fade into the pages of history.
Written by Sébastien Jadot (1)
(1) Contact Sébastien Jadot through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Enviro Africa Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) Tamer, A., et al., ‘Climate change, vulnerability and human mobility: Perspectives of refugees from the east and Horn of Africa’, UNHCR, 2012, http://www.unhcr.org.
(3) ‘7 Critical issues at Rio+20’, Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, 2012, http://www.uncsd2012.org.
(4) ‘CSO dialogue on Rio +20, sustainable development goals and post 2015’, Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, 2012, http://www.uncsd2012.org.
(5) Brooks, B., ‘Rio+20, the unhappy environmental summit’, Associated Press, 23 June 2012, http://news.yahoo.com.
(6) Gray, L., ‘Rio+20: Biggest ever UN summit ends with faint glimmer of hope’, The Telegraph, 22 June 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk.
(7) Camdessus, M. and Yunus, M., ‘Africa after Rio+20’, The Huffington Post, 22 June 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
(8) ‘Africa Progress Panel criticises failure of Rio+20 to deliver for Africa’, Africa Progress Panel, 25 June 2012, http://www.africaprog.
(9) Tamer, A., et al., ‘Climate change, vulnerability and human mobility: Perspectives of refugees from the East and Horn of Africa’, UNHCR, 2012, http://www.unhcr.org.
(17) ‘1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees’, Article 1A(2), UNHCR, 1951, http://www2.ohchr.org.
(18) ‘Guterres, A., ‘Climate change, natural disasters and human displacement: A UNHCR perspective’, UNHCR, 2008, http://www.unhcr.org.
(19) Tacoli, C., 2009. Crisis or adaptation? Migration and climate change in a context of high mobility. Environment and Urbanisation, 21(2), pp. 513 - 525; Hugo, G., 2008. ‘Migration, development and environment’, Draft paper for Research Workshop, Migration and the environment: Developing a global research agenda, Munich, 16 – 18 April.
(20) Metzner, A., 1998. “Constructions of environmental issue in scientific and public discourse”, in Muller, F. and Leupelt, M. (eds). Eco-targets, goal functions and orientors. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
(21) Cournit, C. and Mazzega, P., 2007. Refléxions et prospectives sur une protection juridique des réfugiés écologiques. Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, 23(1), pp. 7-34; Dochetry, B. and Giannina, T., 2009. Confronting a rising tide: A proposal for a convention on climate change refugees. Harvard Environmental Law Review, 33, pp. 349-403.