Migration Issue: Why the Global Community Needs to Care About Climate Change?

1.0   What is Climate Migration?

Climate migration is the result of climate change effects causing population movements away from increasingly unviable or uninhabitable places. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted it as one of the greatest climate change impacts. Millions will be displaced due to coastal inundation, water stress, frequent flooding, reduced crop yields, disease outbreaks, among other climate change effects. Climate change will cause population movements by making certain parts of the world much less viable places to live in. 

Definitions and labels conferred to people displaced by climate change have very real implications for the obligations of the international community under the law. There are a lot of discussions surrounding it worth exploring and it is a highly contested debate amongst international rights lawyers. For the purpose of this article, we shall adopt the definition proposed by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) which states “Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons, who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or chose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad”. IOM in their study on Migration and Climate Change uses the term “forced climate migrant” acknowledging that it is not a universally accepted term but hopes that it conveys a reasonable and accurate impression of the increasing phenomenon of non-voluntary population displacement likely as the impacts of climate change grow and accumulate.

 

 

2.0 How Climate Migration Materialises in Asia

Asia is projected to be hard hit by climate change, more than most regions in the world. The Global Climate Risk Index 2019 forecasted that intense cyclones, excessive rainfall, and severe floods will make South and Southeast Asia among the worst affected by climate change. When adaptation measures fail to perform in one country, victims resort to migrating away from the disaster region. In some cases towards less affected parts within the country, and in the cases of international interest, across country borders. In 2019 we have recorded India and Pakistan baked in a heatwave, Chennai was hit by a water crisis, rising seas engulfed Indonesia’s coastline, powerful storms slammed into the Philippines, Indonesia’s forests were  ablaze, and torrential rains lashed Bangladesh, Nepal, India, and Pakistan. All of these contexts are important to illustrate how other neighbouring countries of affected states will be roped into this scenario.

As much as migration is seen as an important mechanism to deal with climate stress, people usually only resort to it when other means of adaptation are insufficient to meet their immediate needs, i.e when governments have proven incapable of giving assistance. In slower-acting climate processes or even in the most extreme of natural disasters, climate migrants would require money and networks like family, friends, or historical ties in a destination country they would settle in. These people displaced by environmental causes will mostly find new homes within the boundaries of their own regions. The 2004 Asian Tsunami for example killed more than 200,000 people and displaced twice as many. However, they were not displaced to OECD countries but rather were overwhelmingly borne by the local region. Those who are not able to find new homes within their own country usually seek refuge in places where there are existing cultural or ethnic ties to them. Therefore, Bangladeshis are likely to seek refuge in India or Pakistan, Indonesians from Sumatra would consider Malaysia and so on. As a country that is already struggling to  address humanitarian issues due to the influx of  hundreds of migrants/refugees, Malaysia must adapt itself for this larger  scale humanitarian issue involving tens if not hundreds of thousands of migrants/refugees driven by climate change.  

 

 

3.0 Impacts of Climate Migration

If climate migration follows the pattern of the existing civil and humanitarian crises migration pattern, the probable case would be that low to middle-income countries  will be the largest hosts of climate migrants. This is especially the case for Malaysia as our neighbouring countries are hotspots for climate disasters; from threats of inundation of thousands of Indonesian islands and more than 20 separate incidences of typhoons in the Philippines just last year. Climate migrants tend to stay within their borders or their cultural lines, or are flushed to the city, causing a phenomenon known as the urban flood. This could negatively impact urban welfare and service provision, with studies predicting a massive increase of people living in the slums, possibly up to  1.7 billion, if the phenomenon is unplanned and rapid. This is exacerbated by food and water scarcity caused by climate change itself, and increases the spread of disease with overpopulation.

In Malaysia, rapid urbanisation had resulted in  sprawling car-dependent low density areas with little public open space, often characterised by an exploding rate of land clearing with significant growth in population, like the Klang Valley. Urban sprawl is also the cause of several environmental adversities, like loss of green space, species habitat, and agricultural land in the wake of low-density sprawling development. The development of infrastructure such as  pavements increased the total surface area of  impervious surfaces, which leads to flash flooding that overwhelms the drainage system. 

Even though the number of people displaced through climate migration are in the millions, the normative frameworks and policy response remains scattered and inadequate. Addressing the issue today would minimise forced displacement and minimise the fluctuation in patterns of climate-induced migration, which is already incredibly difficult to keep track of due to lack of capacity. This results in the  inability to be spatially and temporally specific about the location, severity, timing, and nature of climate change and its likely impacts on different population groups, leaving us unable to predict and prepare for the impact.

 

 

4.0 Recommendation to Actors

Currently, Malaysia has no existing policy response to climate migration. It would be humane of us to start opening diplomatic doors for international climate migrants as done by countries like Australia and New Zealand, to save vulnerable people who would otherwise be at-risk of extinction. The lack of legislative or administrative provisions for refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia means that the burden of protection of the refugees, from reception, registration, documentation, and also refugee status determination would lie upon the 173 staff of UNHCR who are currently monitoring a total of 178,600 refugees from their 2 offices. In their report, they cited that the lack of funding hampered their effort to support the government. If the population of people of concern continues to grow with climate migration and the policy response remains dormant and inadequate, this support from UNHCR may shatter under the pressure.

To enable an easier transition for  climate migrants, pre-existing frameworks can and may be utilised. In assisting them, governments should be pressured to pursue efforts broadening the definition of refugee, constituted within the refugee law and to revise the principle of non-refoulement within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as  suggested by the United Nations Human Rights Committee following the case of the Teitiota family from Kiribati who sought asylum in New Zealand. 

Preservation of life should always be the priority of any government, regardless of its method as upheld in the European Court of Human Rights, in Budayeva & ors. v. Russia, that even inaction upon positive obligation is a breach of human rights. Such a precedent should be applied to climate change due to the repeated nature of failure of risk mitigation, warning issuance, as well as evacuation aid and negligence investigation when necessary. Whilst it may not be binding in Malaysia, this precedent could be persuasive in convincing the state and public to create a framework for adaptation should we wish to pursue and advocate for it.

In essence, climate migration is an inevitable effect of climate change. Legal frameworks and other means of adaptation are crucial in ensuring the preservation and protection of human rights. Therefore, the state must look into addressing this issue urgently. As individuals, we could contribute by volunteering via manpower, expertise, or even pecuniary means. Here are some UN-accredited organisations within Asia and the Pacific that you could contribute to: https://www.unenvironment.org/civil-society-engagement/accreditation/list-accredited-organizations.

Written byMahirah Marzuki, Azierah Ansar