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  • Millions have been displaced by the effects of climate change.

    Millions have been displaced by the effects of climate change. | Photo: Reuters

Published 11 December 2018

As the U.N. Conference on Migration ends Tuesday in Morocco, a reflection on climate as a driving cause of migration is necessary. 

As the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration held in Morocco comes to an end Tuesday and countries, including the United States, Chile, and Israel have refused to adhere to the Global Compact. The United Nations is stressing the causal link between immigration and climate change.

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The conference was in line with the 2016 New York Declaration of Refugees and Migrants, which states that “some people move in search of new economic opportunities and horizons. Others move to escape armed conflict, poverty, food insecurity, persecution, terrorism, or human rights violations and abuses. Still, others do so in response to the adverse effects of climate change, natural disasters ... or other environmental factors.”

According to the conference's website, there are over 258 million migrants in living outside their country of birth and the figure is expected to grow.  

While a lot has been written about people fleeing from persecution or violence, this piece aims to look into the connection between climate change and migration.

“Climate change is having far-reaching effects on agricultural productivity and food security. It is among the main reasons for the record numbers of people compelled to migrate from rural areas to towns and cities around the world,” U.N. Migration Director General William Lacy Swing said on the World Food Day in 2017.

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According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 2015 there were 244 million international migrants, 40 percent more than in 2000. In the same year, over 19 million people were internally displaced because of natural disasters. Between 2008 and 2015, an average of 26 million people were displaced annually by climate or weather-related disasters.

The people who are forced to leave their country or regions are called “environmental refugees,” a term coined in 1985 report for the U.N. Environment Programme.

The much-discussed Migrant Caravan which started from Central American countries like Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala is evidence of climate change's effect on international migrations.

The “dry corridor” of Central America -a historically arid land that runs through Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua- has been hit by the worst drought in the last five years due to global warming- a concept that U.S. President Donald Trump and supporters like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro refuse to recognize.

The drought destroyed 80 percent of the region’s crops. By August Honduras declared a state of emergency. According to a report published by U.N. FAO in August, more than two million people are at risk for hunger in the Central American region.

"In some of these dry areas, we have seen events of children actually dying out of hunger. So, it is that extreme," said Edwin Castellanos, research dean at Guatemala's Universidad del Valle and a global authority on climate change in Central America.

This connection between migration and climate is not a current occurrence. The droughts of the 1930s in the plains of the American Dust Bowl forced hundreds of thousands of internal migrants towards California.  

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However, often climate change is the by-product of economic and political factors. For example, industrialization is one of the main factors of rising global warming. Environmental activists, rights groups have called on neoliberal countries to levy more taxes on profit making industries as part of their corporate social responsibilities. But that is not often the reality.

These capitalist ventures, which have a stronghold on countries’ politics bypass environmental regulation or derail attempts to pass environmental regulation. 

Even though the continuous immigration due to climate change has been a fact since the early 20th century, the U.N does not yet have a framework for protecting climate refugees. There are frameworks in place for people fleeing violence, war, conflict, but there is nothing on the former.

According to Lauren Markham, journalist, author, and an expert on international refugee issues and Central American and child migration in the United States, “Our current international framework for forced migration—which is routed in the 1951 refugee convention—provides no framework for economic migrants. The same goes for climate migrants… there is still no international protective framework for those fleeing because of climate change, or the millions more who will do so in the decades to come.”

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