We know that climate change will force millions from their homes, but will they even be recognised as refugees?
The wealth gap that largely divides the world also manifests itself in the effects of climate change.
A United Nations report warned last week that the world is on course for “climate apartheid“, where the rich buy their way out of the worst effects of the escalating global warming while the poor suffer the most.
“Even if current targets are met, tens of millions will be impoverished, leading to widespread displacement and hunger,” Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said in the report, adding that many in disadvantaged positions will have to choose between starvation and migration.
It was just the latest in a series of warnings about the effects of climate change, including on those living in poverty and the ability of states to effectively respond to it.
And while estimates about the number of people who will be forced from their homes by climate change in the coming decades vary, an increasing number of human rights advocates and climate experts insist that the migrant crisis caused by environmental catastrophe can no longer be ignored.
According to the UN, there were some 41.3 million internally displaced people worldwide at the end of last year. An estimated 17 million are new displacements triggered by disasters in 2018, said Alexandra Bilak, director of the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
The so-called “climate refugees and migrants”, however, are facing a double predicament: not only do they have to flee their homes as a result of natural disaster and climate change, but they also have very little legal protection.
There is currently no international convention protecting the internally displaced. Meanwhile, terms such as “climate refugee” and “environmental migrant” are still not accepted as legal categorisations.
Experts say the vast scale of climate displacement, coupled with the lack of an adequate legal framework, calls for innovative thinking to mitigate the plight of climate migrants and help resettle them with dignity – and some countries have been taking the lead.
In particular, the low-lying country’s southwestern areas struggle disproportionally with the adverse effects of climate change on sectors such as agriculture and health, as well as access to resources such as water.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Bangladesh have been affected by coastal flooding and river erosion, with the majority of those uprooted ending up in informal settlements in the capital, Dhaka.
In a recent report, the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development proposed the setting up of climate funds on the local level in order to support resettlement practices and strategies.
Saleem Huq, ICCD director, estimates that over the next 10 years, many millions of Bangladeshis will move from their homes in low-lying areas to inland towns.
The ICCD is working making this process easier for migrants by working to create “climate-resilient, migrant-friendly” towns. It has identified a dozen inland towns which are far away from low-lying coastal areas and have populations of about 500,000 that can be increased to about 1,500,000 and transformed into climate-resilient towns.
Huq said the centre wants to turn what is seen as the negative phenomenon of climate displacement into a positive development. As part of the project, a number of initiatives aim to prepare the inhabitants of the identified towns to help migrants reintegrate in their new environment and make them feel welcome. Newly arrived migrants will be supported by local communities in ways that are compatible with their traditional cultural practices, Huq said.
The ICCD is also encouraging and supporting students from vulnerable coastal areas to move inland for studies.
“By providing scholarships, we are encouraging students to move from low-lying coastal areas, with the hope that their parents will follow them to the climate-resilient towns”.
In Japan, a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 killed thousands of people and displaced more than 300,000.
One of the worst-affected places was the coastal city of Rikuzentaka, which was “completely wiped off the map”, according to Kiyoshi Murakami, special representative and senior executive adviser to its mayor.
As in Bangladesh, the Japanese plan to rebuild the city centres on resilience.
Murakami, whose own family was among the many who lost their homes after the tsunami, said the aim is now to build a “resilient city” for future generations as well as strengthen its capacity to deal with future effects of weather change, including in the case of heavy floods like the ones that recently affected areas of southern Japan.
After the destruction, the city embarked on building 12.5-metre high seawalls surrounding the bay and elevating the city centre, among others, to make it more resilient against future flooding.
New businesses have sprung up on the elevated areas, as work is still continuing on certain areas of the city.
Authorities are also introducing counselling and support programmes to help people affected in the past or who might suffer from future climate crises.
“As part of reintegration efforts, cities such as Rikuzentaka have been providing counselling to help displaced people deal with the trauma they have experienced,” Murakami said.
Rukizentaka will also provide different levels of disaster prevention training programmes and development schemes for students and professionals.
Murakami acknowledged that the country’s strong economic position – Japan is the world’s third-largest economy – has helped it in making it more climate and disaster resilient.
But he added that some solutions, including a focus on education, do not require generous resources and could be adopted by poorer countries facing potential climate-related disaster.
“Japan has a responsibility to share effective practices with other countries,” Murakami said.