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The phrase "climate migrants" tends to conjure up images of people forced from their homes by storms, floods, drought or sea-level rise. Often they are living in shacks in city slums, earning a pittance from a roadside stall, labouring on a construction site or even selling their bodies.
Sadly, for growing numbers, such a harsh existence is the reality. But the message coming through loud and clear from researchers is that climate-linked migration isn't always - and certainly doesn't have to be - like this. Particularly if policies are put in place that make moving a positive option, experts told an online debate co-hosted by AlertNet Climate and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) this week.
"Resilient people migrate to capture adaptation opportunity. Vulnerable people migrate to avoid climate crisis," wrote Koko Warner, head of the environmental migration section at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS). "What can we do to make sure that migration remains one of a number of resilience and development-enhancing choices, rather than a last-ditch survival option?"
The discussion shone the spotlight on a number of efforts already under way. Perhaps most important in the international arena is the Nansen Initiative, launched in October 2012, which aims to support policy makers in deciding how best to respond to the protection needs of people displaced across borders by disasters, including the effects of climate change.
The initiative was sorely needed because currently there is no legal protection for people who flee to another country primarily because of extreme weather, longer-term climate stresses or rising seas. They cannot be classified as refugees.
Atle Solberg, head of the Nansen Initiative's Geneva-based secretariat, told our debate that while the process doesn't aim to create new legal standards, "its outcomes may be taken up at domestic, regional and universal levels, and lead to new laws, soft law instruments or binding agreements".
For now, it is organising five regional consultations. The first two were held in the Pacific and Central America last year, and three more are planned for this year in the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia. "We view this consultative process as an essential element of building a global consensus on next steps and what needs to be done," Solberg said, adding that governments have shown a high level of interest so far.
By 2015, the initiative plans to organise a global meeting bringing together government representatives, international organisations, civil society groups and research institutions to discuss "a non-binding protection agenda for people displaced across borders in the context of disasters", Solberg noted.
STATES GRIND INTO ACTION
In the meantime, a lot more is starting to happen within countries to alleviate the burden of climate-related disasters and longer-term environmental problems - both for those who prefer to stay in their current homes and those who decide to go.
"States like the Philippines and India have increasingly robust and effective disaster management systems," wrote CDKN chief executive Sam Bickersteth, noting the pro-active response to October's Cyclone Phailin which battered the Indian state of Odisha, but resulted in a relatively low death toll.
"Political will and leadership can make a huge difference in responding to extreme events - we saw this in Odisha," Bickersteth said. In the case of December's Typhoon Haiyan, however, the storm was simply "too extreme for the systems in place in the Philippines".
Bickersteth also mentioned work CDKN is doing with the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET) in Vietnam and India to design climate-resilient and cost-effective housing. "Recent results from extreme events on (the) coast of Vietnam are encouraging," he said.
Other examples of innovative approaches to climate-linked migration mentioned in the debate focused on remittances. For example, Warner said the Mexican government has matched contributions sent back home from the United States by "home town associations". And policies that provide "temporary protection status" can enable migrants to keep on working abroad so they can help their communities of origin get back on their feet after a disaster.
UNU-EHS has also been involved in a project in Bangladesh with Grameenphone and Flowminder to see how mobile data can be used to make livelihoods more resilient to cyclones and flooding, Warner said.
From the state perspective, "policy change is now unfolding in Bangladesh to tackle climate-induced migration", wrote Quamrul Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi negotiator at U.N. climate talks. "But a policy shift in a densely populated country like Bangladesh is not that easy given the very low level of per capita income and the stage of development."
Tackling climate-migration effectively in the South Asian nation "requires huge planning and financing", he added.
Elsewhere the Pacific island nation of Kiribati has a specific strategy called "migration with dignity" that aims to create opportunities for its people to migrate overseas and equip them with better skills so they will be more attractive as migrants to host nations.
But in a world struggling with multiple humanitarian crises, where the money will come from to help poorer nations deal with this looming problem remains unclear. Perhaps time for the private sector to step forward?
Warner suggested investors could support "innovative knowledge-to-action initiatives that involve the private sector - like using big data to enhance development, humanitarian and adaptation work".
'BIG CHALLENGES, BIG OPPORTUNITIES'
While exciting ideas like this might seem a long way off, debate participants agreed there's much that can be done by governments and aid agencies, both to prevent people being forced from their homes and easing their transition if they do want to leave.
"A big issue for governments is not only dealing with the impacts of migration on sending locations, but also on those unable to migrate because of a lack of resources or opportunities," wrote Dominic Kniveton, professor of climate science and society at the University of Sussex. Another challenge is "the impact on migrants from moving to regions where they are exposed to new types of environmental hazards - ironically not just migrating away from climate change impacts but into them," he added.
In a study his team did in Bangladesh, skills training and access to safe housing and education were "key priorities to ensure that the process of migrating was able to contribute to resilience".
Guillermo Llinas, CDKN's Colombia country project manager, said he had come across people living in Manati, Atlántico, who three years after migrating were still living in temporary shelters "that were very inappropriate and in which all sorts of social problems were happening". Thus adequate housing is an important aspect of any policy response, he argued.
UNU-EHS's Warner highlighted three major global processes through which policy on climate-induced migration needs to be advanced: the Sustainable Development Goals, due to kick in from 2016; a new agreement to curb climate change, due to be sealed in late 2015; and the next world framework for reducing the risk of disasters, due to be approved in March next year.
"Big challenges, but also big opportunities to shift ways of thinking and acting in the coming few years," Warner emphasised.
To read the full debate, visit the event page.
For more on the latest thinking about climate migration, read: Climate migration complex, but planning can help - experts