Climate Refugees and Justice

By Helen Gutierrez & Adrián Martínez

Climate impacts are a push factor for human mobility and can play a direct and/or indirect role in migration patterns. Whether direct or indirect, it is critical that the role of climate change be addressed and acknowledged. Human mobility is a multicausal phenomenon and it is misleading to isolate push factors from the context in which it takes place. Thus, climate change is usually one of several push factors that lead an individual to leave their home. As such, mobility is a valid strategy for adapting to climate change, as long as it doesn’t contribute to existing vulnerabilities or create new ones.

Central America is impacted

In Central America, climate change, compounded with other existing social factors such as high poverty, violence and political instability, has played a critical role in mobility patterns in the last few years. Due to increasingly unstable and hostile conditions, the number of people migrating from Mexico and northern Central American countries (principally El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) has increased. Additionally, the profile of Central American refugees and migrants is shifting in larger numbers to women and children.

The primary climate impacts associated with mobility and migration are: a rise in intensity and magnitude of extreme weather events, torrential rains, flooding, drought, desertification, and sea level rise. These climate impacts are also the most commonly observed in Central America. Additionally, climate impacts are classified into two categories which have different effects on mobility patterns: slow onset and rapid onset events. Slow onset events, such as drought or sea level rise, are linked with more permanent resettlement, but are associated more as indirect push factors. For example, Central America, drought and temperature rise are of concern in the dry corridor because they are projected to get worse and they are already having devastating impacts today. On the other hand, rapid onset events, such as hurricanes or flooding, are generally correlated with forced, temporary resettlement, but are associated more as direct push factors. For example, in Central America, the rise in hurricane intensity and frequency is of concern, as demonstrated by the 2020 hurricane season and the widespread devastation caused. As one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, it is critical that strategies to address climate impacts in Central America include considerations related to human mobility.

Report Movilidad Humana: Derechos Humanos y la Justicia Climática

Responsibility and Justice

Climate Change has been caused by human activity and as such requires a societal response; it is an innately unjust phenomenon as the countries most affected have contributed least to the problem. It is well known that climate change has been caused by countries in differentiated proportions and the contrast among countries of their carbon emissions is stark. Given these differences, the historical responsibility of the largest emitters is significant. 

Responsibility regarding the climate crisis is closely linked to wealth and economic development, as emissions historically benefit people unequally. 10% of the wealthiest people (630 million) are responsible for 52% of accumulated carbon emissions, while 50% of the poorest population (3.1 billion people) are responsible for only 7% of cumulative emissions that cause climate change (OXFAM, 2020). To build a responsible and equitable response to climate change, it is essential to acknowledge the systemic inequalities behind the climate crisis. The response to climate change has been agreed to in international law to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

International Protection

International responsibility extends to climate impacts. Vulnerable populations who contributed the least to climate change  disproportionately bear the impacts. Climate impacts infringe upon human rights and threaten the wellbeing of people and communities. As an agreed common concern the rights of these populations must be addressed by the international community. As such, each member of the international community must meet this obligation to respond to climate impacts with regards to differentiated common responsibility.

Human mobility within a country or crossing international borders is a human right.

To find refuge to protect one’s well-being and life is also a human right. The international community is obliged to provide protection that enables the exercise of these rights. This must be the starting point of any discussion on human mobility and climate change. People have a right to move to secure their human dignity in response to climate impacts. Furthermore, the international community must allocate a differentiated responsibility for enabling people to find refuge and to justly respond to the loss and damage suffered. It should not be up to the most vulnerable countries to face this tragedy alone.

International protection for people crossing borders to safeguard their lives and wellbeing is part of the shared responsibility that the international community has agreed upon in the Paris Agreement and other human rights agreements. The extension of current legal definitions of refugees to adequately provide international regarding human mobility in the context of climate change has gained ground through regional declarations. As, in past crises the legal framework must follow the necessity to enable justice and responsibility, these must prevail as key pillars of the international community. There is not a lack of reasons or data to provide protection but a need of political will to safeguard human dignity.

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