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Challenges of Climate Migrants for the G20 Community

November 29, 2020
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia


As the world stares at a rising rate of forced migration induced by climate change and climate-related disasters, policymakers need to take swift, decisive measures towards tackling this impending global threat. One of the key challenges towards addressing this issue has been the reluctance in providing climate migrants a “refugee” status, which in turn has made tackling this issue difficult under existing multilateral and legal frameworks. The G20 - an assimilation of the leading global economies, need to be an proactive platform for advocacy and supporting the development of required definitions, norms, and regulations, to ensure planned relocations for both internally and externally displaced migrants.


Mapping the Challenges

One of the acute consequences of climate change today is the rise in environment-induced migration– both forced and unforced, that is slowly festering under the radar. The UN International Organization for Migration predicts that climate change will generate 200 million to 1 billion migrants by 2050, in the best-case scenario. The issue of tackling climate migration has been hampered by a variety of reasons. Firstly, numbers regarding climate migrations are often underestimated as identifying the true cause of internal and external migration is rarely dictated by a single factor, and rather through the amalgamation of a range of complex social and economic factors.


Another challenge has been the incorporation of climate migrants as climate “refugees”. Debates have been vehemently ongoing in recent years on this topic as the incorporation of refugee status would open doors for climate migrants to receive various additional benefits. According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who has crossed an international border “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The convention did not take into account the impacts of natural disasters, which also can force people to move out of their places. Apart from this, no multilateral strategy or a legal framework currently exists to account for climate change as a driver of migration, even though the plights of climate migrants have been acknowledged in various forms by multilateral institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations (Podesta 2019). For example, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, adopted by 64 countries, have called nations to address the drivers of climate-induced migration and provide support to those who have been forced to migrate.

While international bodies such as the UN and IOM have repeatedly pushed for increased focus on climate migrants, paradoxically they have mostly refrained from providing them refugee status due to various reasons. Climate change as a sole driver of migration is often tricky in its identity, making it difficult to isolate forced migrants who would qualify as refugees. Migration due to environment-induced disasters often take years to materialize and are not always necessarily forced. Such forms of migration often happen usually internally, which means it is the local authorities (not international bodies), on whom the responsibility falls. More importantly, UN’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR is already stretched providing support to the world’s 22.5 million refugees; and adding climate refugees to the foray would make mobilizing the necessary resources and funding difficult in the current political climate.

However, one ray of light has been the UN Human Rights Committee’s acknowledgment in a recent ruling, of using climate change as a reason to seek asylum. While this decision is non-binding, it puts pressure on countries to consider climate-related asylum claims and opens the door for reinforcing this agenda further in global discourses such as the G20 forums.


Against the backdrop of the mentioned challenges, it is important that authorities under existing multilateral frameworks such as the United Nations and the European Union, provide the climate migrants their due recognition of refugee status, to enable support for stakeholder organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and others take concrete measures towards mobilizing financing and resources for the climate migrants. This goal falls in place with two of G20 2020’s agendas, i.e. Empowering People and Safeguarding the Planet.

The Case for G20

While the G20 nations are not among the worst impacted economies from climate change, climate-induced migration stands to pose a significant threat to them. In 2017, almost 8.5 million people had been newly displaced by sudden-onset disasters within the borders of G20 countries. China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and the US account for most of the displacement in 2016-2018. Climate and weather-related disasters represent the main drivers of these forced movements. For the world to tackle this crisis effectively, the G20 needs to take a lead role in promoting and reinforcing feasible, realistic, and actionable measures under existing multilateral frameworks to tackle this slowly brewing crisis.

G20 is comprised of high carbon-emitting nations (80% of all greenhouse gas emissions coming from G20), who bear responsibility in addressing the challenges of climate migration. G20 countries are also at the forefront of the latest climate adaptation technologies. As a group, the G20 has considerable clout to influence the agenda on climate change-induced migration and rally other countries into adopting a global agenda on helping resource-constrained nations manage this impending crisis. Most countries have already made commitments to address environmental migration and disaster displacement in international migration policy and disaster and climate change policies. In line with these commitments, G20 countries need to play an essential role at global, regional and national levels in promoting policies and measures supporting disaster risk reduction, climate-migration governance, which together can help to prepare for and tackle environmental migration and disasters displacement, while also minimizing the drivers of migration caused by climate change.


1. Developing Definitions, Norms, and Regulations for Climate Migrants

The first step towards addressing the issue of climate migrants is the acknowledgment of the problem, which most multilateral conventions and authorities have indeed done in the past decade. For example, even though the European Union has not recognized climate refugees formally yet, they have, on various occasions, voiced concerns on climate-induced migration, and called for global action to support climate migrants. In the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the signatories requested that the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change (WIM) develop recommendations for people displaced due to climate-related issues. The Executive Committee of the WIM established a Task Force on Displacement in 2015, which has completed its first phase of implementation, to generate recommendations on displacement related to climate change.

However, relying solely on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) is not sufficient to address the issue of displacement of migrants. They need to be supported by the UN’s Refugee activities to ensure the provision of due support. The UN developed the Global Compact for Migration (GCC), addresses this issue, albeit not being legally binding. It is thus necessary that the original 1951 Refugee Convention is amended to properly define climate migrants as refugees.

While the G20 cannot directly administer such amendments, the assimilation of the largest global economies under one platform means that a consensus on this issue in this platform and subsequent support towards identifying the definitions, rights, rules, norms, and regulations in the G20 will provide a much-needed impetus to bring necessary amendment in the 1951 Refugee Convention that incorporates the plights of the 21st century such as that of climate migrants.

2. Ensure International Protection for Internally Displaced Migrants

Existing frameworks and conventions such as the 1951 Refugee Convention do not by definition consider climate migrants as refugees. This hamstrings the efforts of multilateral institutions such as the UNHCR in providing support to the internally displaced climate migrants that do not cross borders. As a result, efforts mostly are confined at national or regional levels. In the interim, the UNHCR has produced a Guidelines on Temporary Protection and Stay Arrangements” to inform governments on possible responses to this issue. However, the national-level only will not be sufficient, and there is a need for international protection from multilateral bodies to protect the internally displaced migrants. To ensure the sustainability of the ongoing efforts, it is important for the G20 to support the amendment to the 1951 Refugee Convention that establishes a normative and legal framework to incorporate internal migrants as part of the refugee population.

3. Planned Relocations


Under current circumstances, it is almost inevitable that a large number of migrants will shift within and across borders due to climate-induced reasons in the upcoming decades. A recent study has highlighted a potential connection between climate and migration, stressing how, by the end of this century, climate change could lead to a significant increase in asylum requests in Europe. The UNHCR has developed a set of guidance and toolkit to ensure that relocations are planned considering the protection of the victims of disasters and environmental changes.

However, currently, there is no guidance or mandate that takes into account the planned relocation of cross-border migration stemming from disasters and climate change. Before establishing a legally binding framework, countries need to reach an agreement that allows for planned relocations across states. In that regard, the G20 should provide support for the establishment of a framework and agreement under UNHCR that guides the development of planned habitats for the migrants so that the burden of migration doesn’t fall onto the shoulder of a few countries. Under the framework, the G20 community can come together and agree on sharing the displaced population so that a few countries do not have to suffer from this crisis.

A planned relocation can be mutually beneficial for the G20 nations. For example, many G20 nations are suffering from an aging population and a surplus of jobs that are not desired by the existing working population. Once such issues are taken into context and the G20 community, in association with other affected non-G20 countries, can agree on a plan for relocations of the migrants with proper development assistance. In addition, countries that are unable to provide asylum may compensate through additional funding, training facilities, and capacity building, etc. to achieve the common goal of averting the crisis of climate migration.


4. Mobilizing Education Funds for Climate Migrants

As part of the rehabilitation process, one of the more efficient measures to integrate the migrant population into the host community is to invest in educational resources. For climate migrants, there is a lack of international coordination towards mobilization of sufficient funds, primarily due to their lack of refugee status. Compared to other forced migrants, climate migrants are thus left behind as educational integration of climate migrants has mostly seen siloed measures from the host countries so far. For instance, the European Commission (EC) has supported the education and training programs of climate migrants in its member states through the Commission Action Plan on the integration of third-country nationals (Commission, European Website on Integration 2018). While such measures are steps in the right direction, the developing and underdeveloped nations struggle to implement such measures due to their inability to mobilize funds.

In the coming years, a person is more likely to be displaced due to natural disasters, than wars (The Government Office for Science 2011). In the case of internal migration, more than 140 million people (around 3% of the population across Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia) may be forced to migrate within their countries by 2050 to escape the slow-onset effects of climate change. As we prepare to integrate an increasing number of climate migrants into host communities, the G20 community needs to reach an actionable consensus in using their bilateral funds to address the need to provide education and skill development. Such funds can also be channeled towards a dedicated fund established under multilateral institutions such as the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, UNHCR, and the World Food Programme (WFP). Under such an agreement, funds will be mobilized to set up schools and TVET institutions in host countries to enable proper schooling systems to equip the migrants with the proper skills necessary for employment. G20 leaders should commit to providing a much higher proportion of national contributions in the form of multilateral support through these formats. In addition, G20 needs to use its political and economic leverage to encourage international organizations to scale up their efforts to bolster the education system necessary for the displaced people.


Climate migration is one of the worst global disasters that will happen due to climate change, and unlike climate change in general, this is going to significantly impact the developed nations. The G20 needs to assume leadership of this global crisis and take concerted initiatives to support existing national, regional, and multilateral mechanisms in defining this crisis and develop a strong framework that focuses on labor market integration, education development, planned relocation, and regulatory streamlining, to tackle this impending crisis that will ultimately affect billions of people globally.

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