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Summit on refugees remains silent on climate change
September 17, 2016, 4:00 pm

On Monday, 19 September, political leaders from around the world will gather in New York at the United Nations, where the UN General Assembly will be hosting a high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants.

The summit aims to bring countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach to one of the biggest crises currently facing the world — more people have been forced from their homes today than at any time since the end of the Second World War.  Photos of streams of people fleeing from their homes have become iconic images over the last 18 months. There are now over 65 million people in the world who have been forced from their homes.

It is anticipated that the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, as well as President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, to be held on the sidelines of the UN summit, will seek to better protect migrants and refugees during their perilous journeys.

However, a draft declaration — the final version of which is expected to be the main output from Summit along with individual announcements — has stopped short of including specific commitments.

The report prepared for the Summit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledges that the international community has been “struggling for years to find better ways to resolve violent conflicts in many parts of the world and to mitigate the impact of climate change and disasters. Alleviating extreme poverty, food insecurity, lack of decent work, inequality, tackling discrimination and human rights violations and abuses, establishing rule of law, mitigating the impact of disasters and climate change are all massive tasks.”

As a way to assist those forced from their homes and reduce necessity for people to flee, the report urges countries to come good on commitments already made, including meeting the goals in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and the outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit held in May.

While it is promising that the UN has noted the role of climate change impacts in driving people from their homes, and as a factor fuelling both disasters and conflicts, the Summit seems prepared to do little to head off these interconnected and burgeoning crises in a coherent way. Experts are calling for implementing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction to be added to that list. They point out that dealing with these problems individually and in crisis mode, will hamper the effectiveness of our responses.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has described climate change and migration as a ‘key risk’, with a changing climate having ‘significant consequences’ for migration flows at particular times and places, creating both risks and benefits for migrants and states.

Climate impacts such as more intense or frequent natural disasters, warming and drought, sea level rise, or competition over natural resources which can lead to conflict can all play a role in human movement. Communities, from small Pacific islands, to Alaskan villages are already relocating in response to the impacts of climate change.

At the Paris Climate Talks last year, it was agreed that a taskforce on climate displacement would be established to help deal with this issue, but work is yet to begin. Taking action on climate change by curbing pollution and building the resilience of communities are critical ways to reduce the risk of more and more people being exposed to such crises. As extreme weather events increase in number and intensity, we need to factor in early planning to protect migrants and refugees.


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