Climate refugees set to raise legal issues


Intensifying climate change is going to lead to more people being displaced in the poorest areas of the world, requiring new responses to immigration, a group of researchers has warned.

A transatlantic study team set up by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) published the first results of its research into climate-induced migration in Brussels last week (30 April), stressing that climate change is going to create a growing new group of immigrants.

The worst impacts will be felt in the poorest parts of the world where people are already vulnerable, they warned.

Separating the impact of climate change from other factors driving immigration is difficult, the researchers said. They identified drought and desertification, rising sea levels, competition for natural resources and intensifying acute natural disasters such as cyclones as main climate scenarios likely to affect immigration in future.

"Our projection is that the most migration […] is likely to be internal movements, not international [ones]," said Susan Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University and a leader of the GMF team.

But she stressed that although most movement will be south to south, this does not mean the Western world can ignore the problem as the increased flow of people will create conflict and require humanitarian aid.

While drought and sea-level change are likely to lead to gradual migration, it will look much like economic migration except that the affected population will have no home to return to.

Rich countries are not equipped to deal with the new wave of immigration, the researchers said, pointing to major gaps in both international and national law covering international immigration.

"We tend to process people in boxes," Martin argued, stressing that climate migrants resist conventional definitions. She added that the temporary solutions and statuses often offered to such migrants are not enough to deal with protracted situations.

The study team called for more attention by industrialised nations to be given to indentifying likely patterns of migration.

They argued that migration could form part of adaptation strategies. Where possible, people should be given assistance to stay at home and in other cases, they should be helped to move in a "safe and dignified way". The large diaspora communities in many Western cities should be tapped into for technical advice in designing and funding adaptation strategies, they added.

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