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At Davos, a Call for Solutions to Climate Migration and a Culture of Welcome Instead of Fear

The following was originally published by Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. 

ama frances speaking at an event
Ama Francis speaking in the “People on the Move: Seeing the Opportunities” session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 19 January. Copyright: World Economic Forum/Jakob Polacsek

In January, leaders in politics, business, civil society, media, and academia gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting to discuss some of the world’s most pressing issues. This year, I had the honor to participate in two panel discussions on climate migration in my role as climate displacement project strategist at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and a nonresident fellow at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

The attention on climate migration this year was rightly placed. The forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 identified the “failure to mitigate climate change” and “large-scale involuntary migration” among the top five risks facing the world in the next decade, even as a legal infrastructure for protecting climate migrants and displaced people remains almost nonexistent. While it was important to see the issue receive the needed space on the agenda, the annual meeting also showed that some calls for action on climate change seem to be more motivated by fear of those at the receiving end of climate migration and displacement rather than a genuine desire to find solutions for those most affected.

Involuntary migration due to climate change is hardly a new phenomenon. For people in regions particularly prone to environmental disasters, this risk has been acute and ongoing for many years. As Deng Dak Malual, impact officer at Kakuma Hub and my fellow panelist on the Open Forum: Pack Up and Go — Climate Migration, stated: more than half of the 200,000 refugees currently living at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya fled environmental disasters. Their homes and livelihoods were destroyed by droughts and floods, making it impossible for them to stay.

During the panel, I shared my own family’s story and how our home in Dominica was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017. This past Christmas was the first time since the hurricane that my family was able to spend in our house. I urged the attendees to “think of the comfort and security you get from having a stable house and […] what it might be like to lose that comfort and that stability. I think losing home is one of the most devastating things that can happen to us as human beings, and I think making sure that everyone has a safe place to live is one of the most important things we can be doing.”

The fact that migration is a form of climate adaptation is not new, but it is also true that—as climate-related disasters increase in frequency and intensity—climate migration and displacement is on the rise. I was therefore grateful for the opportunity to directly address decision-makers and other stakeholders from across the world and introduce them to the legal solutions that IRAP and our partners have identified as necessary, feasible strategies to support climate migrants and displaced people (see recent reports here and here).

The best way forward is not to make existing laws ever more complex, but to come up with creative solutions that will make it easier, not harder, for people to flee from peril.

The key to addressing climate migration and displacement is to create a legal framework that would allow climate migrants and displaced people to quickly and easily access pathways to safety. Unfortunately, international and domestic laws are wildly out-of-sync with today’s challenges and don’t adequately address current needs. For example, the climate-affected refugees that Deng met at Kakuma would not be guaranteed protection under existing refugee law. But even if we created a protected category specifically for climate refugees, the sheer complexity of the varying interlocking forces of displacement at play make it hard even for climate-impacted refugees themselves to identify as such.

The best way forward is not to make existing laws ever more complex, but to come up with creative solutions that will make it easier, not harder, for people to flee from peril. We could even establish mechanisms to support movement ahead of forecasted environmental devastation. As I said in Davos: “We let goods cross borders … but when it comes to migration, we make it incredibly difficult for humans to get from place to place, even though moving from place to place is one of the most natural things we do. Part of addressing this crisis is setting up safe ways for people to move easily before disaster strikes.”

Some of the solutions I shared in Davos were discussed with numerous legal scholars, practitioners, and advocates at a legal strategy convening hosted by IRAP back in October (see this summary report). They range from free movement agreements, and humanitarian visas, to student and labor pathways. Some of these options exist currently, but are too limited and not available to all those who need them. Others have yet to be designed and implemented by governments. But they all have one thing in common: without a culture of welcome, and without the political will to resource and implement these pathways, they will not be able to meet the growing challenge of climate migration and displacement.

“The problem with climate migration is not that we don’t have solutions,” I stated in one panel. “We have plenty of solutions. The problem is that we don’t have the political and cultural will to implement those solutions. Climate change necessitates so much transformation, of us as humans, to create societies where we are welcoming people.”

My call to the participants at Davos is simple: those in power have a lot of leverage to make these solutions a reality. What’s more, they can help change the narrative around climate migration and displacement from a rhetoric of fear to a culture of welcome and mutual support.

Ama Francis is a nonresident fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, which is an affiliate of the Columbia Climate School.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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