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‘Climate migrants’ recognized in Paris draft agreement

Rights advocates say inclusion in draft deal advances migrants’ rights in ‘vulnerable climate situations’

The recognition of “climate migrants” and “climate migration” in a draft text of the Paris climate change agreement was welcomed by human rights advocates Friday, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which said millions more people will be displaced by the effects of climate change if world leaders fail to curb global warming.

World leaders have gathered in Paris to discuss efforts to stave off climate change and push a legally binding agreement to hold the biggest carbon emitters accountable for their emission of greenhouse gases.

“Now that climate change and migration are an integral part of the draft agreement, we can justifiably speak of 'climate migration’ and ‘climate migrants’,” said IOM Director William Lacy Swing in a statement.

Millions of people have lost their homes or land due to the rising sea levels in low-lying areas, such as the island nations in the Pacific. Others, especially farmers, are at risk of losing their livelihoods because of extreme droughts, acid rain and other environmental changes.

The inclusion of “specific language,” the IOM said, that enshrines the importance of “promoting, protecting and respecting…the rights of migrants in vulnerable climate situations” is a significant step toward protection migrant rights. Millions of people currently live in such vulnerable situations, most of them in developing countries.

The United Nations estimates that there will be about 200 million climate refugees by 2050. Last year, 19.3 million people were displaced because of natural disasters, the majority of which were caused by extreme weather events, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. The IOM said 192 million people will live in floodplains in urban areas in Africa and Asia by 2060.

“We face major migration and refugee movements, and climate change is among the root causes of the record number of persons forced to migrate,” Swing said. “By taking action to harness the positive potential of migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change we can support those who might need sooner or later to migrate with dignity.”

Citizens of island nations in the Pacific, such as the Marshall Islands, are already dealing with rising sea levels and forced displacement. Foreign Minister Tony De Brum of the Marshall Islands told reporters in Paris Wednesday his country would disappear and the entire population would be displaced unless leaders make a commitment to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“There is a clear recognition that the world must work towards limiting warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and that it would be much safer to do so,” he said in response to the draft agreement discussed in Paris Wednesday. “With this, I would be able to go home and tell my people that our chance for survival is not lost.”

Residents of Kiribati, an island nation in the central Pacific have similar fears, said the IOM’s Swing. If sea levels continue to rise, Kiribati might soon completely disappear. While not all of its 104,000 inhabitants will become climate migrants, “now is the time to get prepared in order to avoid future tragedies,” Swing said. 

The government of Australia in 2006 launched The Australia Kiribati Nursing Initiative to train citizens of Kiribati and offer them a job in Australia in an attempt to serve its ageing population while helping to mitigate the effects of climate change and high youth unemployment rates on the island. 

Renee Lewis contributed reporting.

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