By Megan Rowling
The impact of climate and environmental change on migration is perhaps “the largest and the most problematic" emerging challenge for aid agencies dealing with displacement, says this year's World Disasters Report.
One reason it's so tricky is that disasters caused by climate shifts can take a long time to develop. What aid workers call "slow-onset" crises could be brought on by droughts, rising seas or other gradual ecological changes that make a place tough to survive in.
These contrast with "rapid-onset" disasters precipitated by flooding or big storms, for example, which relief workers are more adept at dealing with.
The report, issued on Tuesday by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), says slow-onset disasters caused by climate change are complicated by "great uncertainty" about how many people they will uproot and when.
Another problem is establishing the link between migration and climate change, because it is rarely the only factor pushing someone to seek a new home.
The report notes that prolonged or recurring drought is undermining how people like farmers and herders earn a living in large parts of East and West Africa, and driving many to seek work elsewhere.
"This displacement may often be mistakenly perceived as voluntary and anticipatory since the problems are less immediately visible and the urgency to migrate seemingly less pressing," it says.
In countries where there is also conflict, like Mali and Somalia, environmental and political tensions may combine to make getting enough food impossible, forcing people to leave their homes.
In many such cases - especially where there is no war - it can be hard to distinguish between forced migrants and others who choose to travel in search of better economic opportunities, says the report.
Given the ambiguities, the authors point to the difficulty of establishing a "precise category" for environmental or climate migrants, and advise caution in estimating the numbers who will be displaced by climate change.
"Certainly, doomsday predictions of hundreds of millions forced to migrate are wide of the mark, and the populist term of 'climate refugees' is profoundly misleading," they argue. "Nevertheless, the numbers and consequences will be very significant, posing humanitarian policy makers many challenges in developing coherent responses."
'RADICAL THINKING' REQUIRED
Despite the fuzzy nature of the problem, doing nothing is clearly not an option - and the report offers up some ideas on how aid agencies should act.
Lobbying for a new international convention on environmental displacement - like that for political refugees - is dismissed as no more than "an academic pastime". Instead, humanitarians can press governments to implement existing guidelines offering protection to people displaced inside their own countries (likely to be the most common form of environmental migration).
They can also support regional initiatives along the same lines and encourage national efforts to offer temporary protection for those fleeing disasters, as the United States did after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998.
And they should support the Nansen Initiative, launched this month by Norway, Switzerland and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), which aims to fill the legal gap in protection for people who are forced to cross borders by natural disasters.
Humanitarian agencies should also call for stronger international coordination between organisations that can support climate migrants - especially UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration - which are currently showing "reluctance" to work together, the report says.
It recommends that aid groups continue advocating for rich countries to curb their greenhouse gas emissions - the underlying cause of the problem - and for them to stump up money to help poorer nations adapt and develop in a cleaner way. Humanitarians can also redouble their efforts to help vulnerable communities become better prepared for disasters and longer-term climate shifts.
At the same time, they must accept that migration may be a "viable, often proactive, adaptation strategy" in the face of environmental pressures, the report says. But to avoid making people more vulnerable, migration has to be well-planned, it stresses. It cites an example from Vietnam's Mekong Delta where the government has provided some 33,000 households in Long An province with safer, affordable housing away from flood zones.
Overall, the biggest task is to find new ways of dealing with slow-onset disasters, the report says. This brings up the thorny question of where the responsibility for action lies.
Up to now, most of it has fallen into the laps of aid groups and government agencies that provide relief after emergencies. Because climate change has been less widely regarded as a development problem, those in power have been able to overlook the political rights of those affected by potential "solutions", such as resettlement schemes, the report says.
"This perspective demands radical new thinking, and humanitarian actors are perhaps best placed to break out of the rapid-onset disaster straitjacket," it argues.
Without that, millions more forced migrants risk falling ever deeper into poverty, it warns.