Left to Right: Ramu Damodaran, Barbra Lukunka, Ambassador Ali Naseer Mohammed, Scott Pohl. CREDIT: Juhi Desai.

L to R: Ramu Damodaran, Barbra Lukunka, Amb. Ali Naseer Mohamed, Scott Pohl.
CREDIT: Juhi Desai.

Unlocking Cooperation: Climate Change and Human Mobility

Jun 25, 2024 59 min watch

On World Refugee Day, Carnegie Council hosted a critical discussion on enhancing multilateral cooperation at the intersection of climate change and human mobility, the second event in the Council’s “Unlocking Cooperation” series.

As extreme weather events and rising sea levels increasingly threaten coastal and island populations, particularly Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the panel explored the urgent need for innovative and inclusive policies, guided by ethical considerations, to address climate-induced displacement and migration.

The discussion featured Ambassador Ali Naseer Mohamed, permanent representative of the Republic of Maldives to the UN, alongside experts from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the New York Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The conversation was moderated by University for Peace's Ramu Damodaran.

Unlocking Cooperation Climate Change and Human Mobility Spotify podcast link Unlocking Cooperation Climate Change and Human Mobility Apple podcast link

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Welcome. This is the second event in our Unlocking Cooperation series. My name is Joel Rosenthal, and I have the privilege of serving as president of this organization, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Our topic this evening is climate change and human mobility, two themes frequently discussed here at Carnegie Council, but until recently these two themes were not often discussed together.

Today is a particularly apt time for this conversation. On the UN calendar, today is World Refugee Day, a moment designated by the United Nations to recognize refugees around the globe. It was first held in 2001 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. On the Carnegie Council calendar, today also marks the beginning of the fifth meeting of our Carnegie Ethics Fellows, so welcome to all those Fellows out there. Thanks for coming.

As I mentioned when we convened the first event in this series, at Carnegie Council we believe that “unlocking” is precisely the right term we need to help us in the search for new forms of international cooperation. Unlocking suggests that success is within reach if we can find and foster the values and interests that we share by virtue of being human. Carnegie Council has been working on the challenges of human mobility for some time now. You will see our latest work within the Model International Mobility Convention, available in hardcopy for those of you here in the room and online for those of you watching virtually.

This coming fall, under the leadership of Senior Fellow Michael Doyle, the Convention will undergo a third revision, which will include a special focus on addressing the challenge of climate-induced mobility. As the Council embarks on developing the next version of the Convention, we invite our community, including everyone here today, to engage with us in this effort.

As part of this work Carnegie Council will seek to consider the distinctly ethical issues arising out of the intersection of human mobility and climate change. Among those issues are a recognition that it is refugees, and internally displaced people (IDPs), the stateless, and the powerless who are at the forefront of the climate emergency in understanding, that those who are being displaced are often the ones who did the least to contribute to climate change, and that climate change is not only driving displacement, but it also makes life much harder for those already forced to flee, who often find themselves in climate-vulnerable areas.

As climate change worsens, so will its impact as a driver of displacement. It is clear and irrefutable that greater global cooperation on this issue is essential, and that is why we are here this evening, to explore how we might forge this much-needed cooperative approach. Thanks to Kevin Maloney, our director of communications here at the Council, we have assembled an excellent panel of experts who have great insight and experience from across the UN system to share with us. We also have the expert moderation and inspiration of our good friend Ramu Damodaran, senior sdvisor to the University for Peace. Thank you, Ramu, thank you, panelists, and thank you all for joining us for this timely conversation.

Ramu, over to you.

RAMU DAMODARAN: Thank you so much, Joel. Welcome all of you joining online or in person, particularly the Ethics Fellows.

As Joel mentioned, today is World Refugee Day, and in less than a week from now, next Tuesday I believe, it will be United Nations Charter Day, the anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter. When you think of the Charter you will find how in a sense inherently contradictory it was because it spoke primarily about the rights and sovereignty of states, but then it had this beautiful phrase buried within about “the dignity and worth of the human person.”

Ever since then the United Nations has been trying to match those two, the inviolability of nation-states and the power and dignity of the individual. That has been done through a series of instruments, including the Refugee Convention of 1951, creating organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which Barbra represents, or creating forums where the worth of the person can be linked to the worth of people in similar circumstances, one of the most recent being the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) forums, which Ambassador Mohamed has been an active participant in.

Today we will be looking at what as Joel mentioned is unlocking that cooperation. I recall, Joel, how some years ago when you were speaking at Dartmouth you made reference to a lake in Massachusetts called Chaubunagungamaug, and the translation of that Native American phrase is: “I will fish on my side; you will fish on your side; no one will fish in the middle.”

That is the locking that we are trying to unlock, and when you talk of mobile people, whether involuntarily mobile as refugees are, because historically of persecution or fear but now also because of something which was not anticipated in 1951, the air we breathe, the sun under which we seek salvation, and the climate. We also see in that area of lack of cooperation the very ills that the United Nations anticipated in 1945 when it drew up that Charter, the idea that states are inviolate but human beings are even more so.

In that overall context I would like to begin our conversation today by asking each of our three distinguished panelists one very simple question: When did you first hear of refugees, in what context, in what circumstance, and how did that first hearing mold your attitude toward them? Maybe, Scott, I could begin with you.

SCOTT POHL: First of all, thank you very much, and thank you to Carnegie Council for inviting us, especially on World Refugee Day. We appreciate it.

You posed this question a few days ago, and I have wracked my brain and not been able to pinpoint the precise moment when I heard the word “refugee,” but what I did realize is that when I learned about the word “refugee” I realized at that time that my grandmother was a refugee, but I had not known that before because I did not know what that meant. She never talked about it, but she did talk about coming to the United States on a ship a child. She talked about only being able to bring as many things as the family could carry. It was not clear if it was because of poverty or because they were in a rush for some reason.

When I got older I started to ask questions and I learned about the term “refugee” at some point in there. I asked questions and found out that they were actually fleeing persecution. She was a refugee before the 1951 Convention. She was a refugee but never thought of herself that way. She was as American as can be.

I don’t know if that influenced my career choice, but it definitely influenced the way that I think about refugees. First of all, it made me realize that it could happen to any of us, and secondly it made me realize that refugees are not passive recipients of aid. They are not helpless people waiting to get assistance. They are strong and resilient people, but they need safety and just a bit of support. Then, like her, they can thrive and contribute to their communities.

I have always tried in my career to promote that perspective. I think that it changes the whole approach to humanitarian action for refugees, and I am sure in some way her story is what inspired that.

RAMU DAMODARAN: Thank you. Ali?

ALI NASEER MOHAMED: Thank you very much and thank you, Carnegie Council, for inviting me to have this discussion this evening.

The first time I heard the word “refugee” I think it was about 1982. I was a 12-year-old schoolboy at that time living in a very small island in the South of the Maldives. We heard in the news of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon. It was covered in the news in the Maldives as we were listening to BBC Radio from pocket radios. At that time the word “refugee” was used, but I did not know what refugee meant. What struck me was the number of casualties, the number of victims, was greater than the entire population of an island in the Maldives. The average population in the Maldives islands at that time was between 500 and 600, but the victims of the massacre at that time numbered about 2,000, I think. The talk among the students in school was that this was like the entire population of an island in the Maldives—even more than the entire population of an island in the Maldives—had been massacred at that time, and they were called refugees.

It was not until I actually joined the foreign service some years later that the concept of refugees came into discussion in a meaningful way to me. Maldives of course being geographically isolated in South Asia, we had no proximate experience in dealing with refugees.

RAMU DAMODARAN: Thank you. Barbra?

BARBRA LUKUNKA: Thank you so much, Ramu, and thank you to Carnegie Council for inviting IOM to be part of this discussion, especially on World Refugee Day. I think this is a really good time to reflect on how the conversation around people on the move has evolved.

When it comes to my experience, it started pretty early as well. I am from Southern Africa, I am from Zambia, and I moved to Ethiopia because my mother worked for an international organization, so around age 10 or 11 I believe I realized in the church that we attended that there was a group of people who needed support from the church community, and I heard friends and family speaking about these individuals as people who had fled Southern Sudan. I did not understand the word “refugee” at the time, but I understood very clearly that these were people who had forcibly left their homeland.

Growing up in Ethiopia was a great experience for me because I was exposed to different cultures from Africa and other parts of the world but also exposed to the human mobility phenomenon, and I was part of that. My family voluntarily moved because of my mother’s work to Ethiopia, but I also understood that there were people who were forced to move. That has significantly shaped the career that I have developed.

I went ahead and did a Ph.D. looking at forced migration and the meaning of “home”—there may be some issues there that I need to deal with, so looking at the meaning of home and what it means to be in a place that’s not from the ancestral land—and then ending up working for IOM, also looking at questions of human mobility, the drivers and the pull and push factors that allow people to move, and how can we make sure that the movement is voluntary and that those who receive the people who move are receptive as opposed to it being forced. That is my trajectory, getting to this point.

RAMU DAMODARAN: We have fascinating perspectives here. Scott said it could happen to any of us, and I think, Ambassador, you put it in very sharp context when you spoke about the equality, if you will, in size between the refugee population in one camp and that of the immediate neighborhood of the island in the Maldives, where people were listening to this. I think, Barbra, we often think about the pull factor when it comes to migration because people are attracted by the opportunity of a better life, a safer life, and a more remunerative life, but there is also the push factor, where people are driven to make these choices.

I want to place our conversation also in the context of the Summit of the Future, which the United Nations will be hosting in three months from now, in the last week of September. There has been a great deal of discussion on this, but I wondered if you take a telescopic view, if you will, of the future, where do we see refugees, migrants, and also in a sense the globally mobile in that context, and how is it going to impact the world that we live in, in particular from the climate dimension? Maybe I could begin with that. Would you wish to hazard a guess on that, Ali?

ALI NASEER MOHAMED: I speak from the perspective, first of all, of the Maldives, and also more broadly from the perspective of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). We are very closely associated with the phenomenon of climate change, in particular sea level rise. Climate change, sea level rise, and human mobility are associated terms that are used quite frequently.

We understand now from scientific estimates that by 2050 about 1 billion people will be left homeless as a result of climate change, in particular sea level rise. If sea level rise were to continue on the same trajectory as it is now, by the end of the century, by 2100, the rise would be about 1 meter, and that would be bad news for SIDS and the Maldives as well. The average elevation in the Maldives is about 1.5 meters above sea level.

I can speak for the Maldives. Maldivians do not want to be climate refugees. We refuse to leave our home. Sea level rise is a slow-onset event, and building adaptation to that is difficult and challenging because it is a slow-onset event. We are wired to react to sudden-onset events. That is why slow-onset events are so challenging to respond to.

Also, climate change and sea level rise do manifest themselves at times with sudden-onset events like the storm surges we experienced in the Maldives in 1987. Immediately after that we started constructing a seawall around the capital Malé, which took about 15 years to complete, and the seawall is about 15 feet high. That was the adaptation pathway that we chose. We started that in 1987, and we have continued with that.

Now, as a result of the initial investment we made, key infrastructure in the Maldives is protected by these types of investments. We are also ensuring that other adaptation includes protecting key population centers and key infrastructure such as the airports and ports. Also the building codes in the country take into consideration the rapid changes in the climate that will impact countries such as Maldives.

We are going nowhere. We do not want to be climate refugees, but that does not mean that we will not talk about climate refugees. Indeed, we have to talk about it because it is a global phenomenon in which countries do experience it and communities in various parts of the world are experiencing it and are forced to leave their homes as a result of climate change.

Unlocking international cooperation—I like the word “unlocking,” because it is currently locked—requires a lot of diplomatic effort in order to unlock it, and how can we do it? First of all, it is global, it is possible, but it is difficult. But if we use an inclusive, participatory manner to start the conversation and bring in those people who are actually impacted by the phenomenon of climate change, starting that conversation from the grassroots level onward, we believe that we will be able to address the key challenges that we are facing in forging international cooperation to address this issue.

RAMU DAMODARAN: That is very powerfully put. I think at the SIDS Conference the vice chancellor of The University of West Indies Hilary Beckles made reference to how adamant the small island states are: “They tell the mighty ocean: ‘If you want to pass, go around. Don’t cut short through us.’” Thank you for bringing that in.

Scott, the issues we are discussing now and in the Summit of the Future, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the issues you deal with.

SCOTT POHL: I think it is important to begin by understanding the scale of the displacement crisis. I am going to maybe bombard you with some numbers, and I apologize for that in advance, but currently there are 120 million refugees and IDPs. That is 120 million people who have fled their countries or within their countries because of conflict, persecution, and violence. If that were a country of its own, that would be the 12th largest country in the world. That is about the size of Japan. So we are talking about a massive situation, and it requires multilateral cooperation and engagement in order to solve a problem like this. I shouldn’t say “problem;” I should say an “issue” like this because these are human beings, and we need to always remember and not see it as a problem.

This is the highest number there has ever been in terms of recorded refugee and IDP populations, and what a lot of people do not realize, particularly in the West, is that 75 percent of them are living in low- and middle-income countries. Those low- and middle-income countries are dealing with their own challenges but at the same time are providing protection to people who are displaced who need it. There is a responsibility I think for other countries in the world to see, support, and share that responsibility with them.

More and more what we are also seeing—and this is a challenge that the low- and middle-income countries face—is the impact of climate change on top of that. Climate change affects all of us, but it has a particular impact on the forcibly displaced populations. It impacts them, as I think Joel said in his introduction, throughout the cycle of displacement, prior to them leaving and after they have become displaced.

Again, a few numbers: 84 percent of all refugees, again who have fled due to conflict, violence, and persecution reasons, are living in countries that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and 75 percent of all refugees and IDPs in the world are living in countries that are also highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and in that case they are often living in areas that are environmentally degraded already or in areas where climate shocks are more prevalent or both in the worst cases; 50 percent of all refugees and IDPs are living in places where they are exposed to both climate and conflict, so they have escaped a conflict and ended up seeking safety in a place where there is also an ongoing conflict with climate impacts on top of that, so of course there is a possibility again for people to continue moving.

It may sound cynical, but it is also important for the West to understand that if they are going to support people where they are they need to do something about supporting them now because they will continue to move because the situation is not getting better. Then, in terms of return, in 2022 90 percent of the refugees who said that they want to return would have to return to a place that is also severely impacted by climate, meaning that it is also a difficult durable solution to find for them. It has really changed the way that we work. We have a long way to go, but I think it needs to be also something that the whole international community rallies behind.

One thing I will highlight quickly is that we are working on predictive analytics and foresight. What we are trying to do is identify where are the intersections between conflict, displacement, and the impacts of climate change. We did a first pilot in the Sahel, where we brought together academic institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and the United Nations, and we gathered historical data for analysis related to food security, conflict, and climate—things related to historical droughts, floods, heat, et cetera—as well as displacement patterns.

The researchers that we worked with were able to then identify what we called “vulnerability hot spots,” places within the Sahel where those vulnerability factors all converge and where they have already caused displacement. Then the researchers have been able to project into the future where further displacement will happen and even, to the extent it is possible, the scale of that displacement.

In the meantime, we have started as the United Nations to use this information for our own planning in terms of development, disaster, risk reduction, etc., and also governments in the region, so it is important for planning purposes, but it is also very important because it starts to build an evidence base which we can then use to let’s say convince donors and international financial institutions to direct climate financing to fragile and conflict-affected areas which are far, far underserved in terms of climate finance.

I have much more to get into in terms of the UNHCR’s work, but I will leave it for now, and we will get to that during the next question.

RAMU DAMODARAN: Thank you. I was struck by the human story behind those percentages and statistics which seem to suggest that countries and populations which themselves are in precarious straits or dire situations are the most welcoming when it comes to absorbing refugee populations because of climate change. In fact, in an article which Barbra wrote, she spoke very vividly about this town Nyala in Sudan, which received so many displaced persons from Darfur that its population trebled, and yet they soldiered on. They were willing to absorb what, with all respect, many affluent countries and communities in the world would not have been able to.

Barbra, what is your perspective on this and the Summit of the Future?

BARBRA LUKUNKA: Thank you for that question. I think from IOM’s perspective, going back to what you spoke about originally, the IOM joining the United Nations in 2016 and then in 2018 we saw the Global Compact for Migration, and this really enabled us to be part of the UN family but also the UN discussions and also be able to socialize a lot of our migration work and human mobility expertise. Some of the things we have been doing recently, especially as it relates to climate change and human mobility, is talking about the work that we are doing in the Sahel, and that is what I would like to focus on today.

The work that we have done in the Sahel—and, by the way, it is Sahel and East Africa, so we have the same sort of work being done in Somalia as well—is work that is related to farmer-herder conflicts, focusing on transhumance conflicts, transhumance being a livelihood sort of process of seasonal migration, where herders move seasonally based on the calendar. Traditionally we have known that when herders move they often go to sedentary communities where their cattle grazes on land, and in return their cattle provide manure for the land, so it has been somewhat of a symbiotic relationship. We have noticed over the last few years an increase in intercommunal conflicts when seasonal migrants are moving and then reaching farmers or other sedentary communities and having clashes and deadly conflicts.

IOM has traditionally been an organization that has supported in terms of providing data. We map out the flows of migration. We map out displacement flows and things of that sort, and we are able to provide that to the United Nations and others to be able to understand exactly how migration is happening, and we use that data in order to have tailored an appropriate humanitarian and peace-building support.

What we started doing is using that migration-monitoring pattern to monitor the flow of transhumance herders. What we are trying to do is understand how exactly these herders are moving and when they are moving so that we can perhaps anticipate when they will reach a sedentary community so that we can prevent conflict, and what we noticed was that they were moving outside of the seasonal calendar. Why is that? Rains were shorter. Droughts were happening.

The other thing that we noticed is that they are moving not using the predetermined transhumance corridors that they have agreed to use. They are using other corridors because they are not able to use the agreed corridors because of environmental degradation and that sort of thing, so they are using different corridors.

What happens is that the receiving communities, the sedentary communities, are not ready for them because they are moving too early or they are using a route so the people they are going to meet along that route are not ready for them, and clashes happen. This has been important work for us because we are using our migration-monitoring tools to anticipate and understand when conflict can happen and what are the triggers.

Of course, the consequences of climate change are determining human behavior. These herders are making a decision to move early or to move in a different way because of how they are reacting to how climate change is impacting their livelihood. I think we have to nuance this. That is not the only thing that has led to clashes. We always say “the consequences of climate change” as opposed to saying “climate change leads to conflict.” It is the consequences of climate change that are doing this, and we need to think about those things very carefully.

The other thing is that in the Sahel in particular as well as in East Africa we are working in an environment and spaces that are already fraught with drivers of conflict. These are spaces where there is lack of state capacity and authority and lack of basic services, so there are already frustrations happening. These are spaces where there is a proliferation of arms in circulation, and these are also spaces where violent extremist groups are operating.

So you are already working in an environment that is fraught with these challenges, so when these individuals or these groups, herders and farmers, link up we are finding that they are having conflicts and using arms, for example. This has been something that we have been tracking and trying to understand.

I will wrap up here quickly just to give you a little bit of the mechanics of how this works. We are an organization that works at a very local level. We work with communities and we ensure that everything we do is within the communities, informed by communities, and using a community-based approach. So what we do is work with a network of herders, and they are our counterparts where there are counterparts in this effort, and when they notice that a herd is coming too soon, is too large, or has used a different route, immediately conflict-resolution mechanisms are activated. These are endogenous conflict-resolution mechanisms, of course, that are within the communities, to bring communities together to enable to them to resolve the conflicts together and perhaps even go a step further in many instances and come up with a resource management plan: How are we going to share this land or work with the two groups that need to use this land, the herders and the farmers? How are we going to share this water source, for example?

Those are some of the things that we have been looking at, using our tools that have enabled us for many years now to monitor how movement is happening, whether it is forced or voluntary, but this one is very interesting because we are starting to see the interlinkages between the consequences of climate change and human mobility.

RAMU DAMODARAN: That is beautifully put. I think especially as someone who has been fortunate to work with the United Nations for a number of years it is very moving to realize that we often have this phrase, “Think global and act local,” but what you are saying is really a reverse of that. What is happening is that by thinking at the local level and working in the communities that you have mentioned you are able to act global through what the United Nations is trying to do in terms of the goals it determines in terms of the Pact of the Future that it is working on now. Thank you.

I would like to in this last round between us ask each of you to reflect on one or two points that the other two speakers made which have triggered something in your mind—you might agree with it; you might disagree with it—a fresh thought that has come to you, anything at all, in the course of this conversation.

May I ask you to begin, Ali?

ALI NASEER MOHAMED: From the discussion we heard from my two fellow panelists is that the need to tailor responses that would suit the situation that exists at a local level, responses to climate change, especially in the case of SIDS, especially on sea level rise or sudden storms that would come and destroy the infrastructure in the islands, is radically different from, for example, the situation in Sahel.

In the case of the Maldives the land is just 1 percent; 99 percent is water. That small fraction of land we are worried may get lost because of coastal erosion, so protecting that land is the number-one priority. Similarly protecting the critical infrastructure from storm surges—in the case of the Caribbean it is hurricanes; similarly in the Pacific it is storms and hurricanes; in the case of the Maldives it is storm surges that come every now and then.

These local-level solutions need to be attended to, responded to, and designed, and that is how our adaptation policies are shaped and driven. That is how local populations also respond to that. When we think of our response to climate change and human mobility at a global level the discussion has to be first of all recognized in the differences that exist in various parts of the world depending on where you are located. That is what I took from your presentation.

RAMU DAMODARAN: Thank you so much. Barbra?

BARBRA LUKUNKA: I think both have said some really interesting things that resonate with the work that we do at IOM. In your presentation, Ambassador, you were speaking about taking an inclusive and participatory approach, and I think that is very important. For us at IOM the work that we do I mentioned is community-based planning. It is so critical to find those solutions from the people who are actually experiencing them. I think we all know at this point that endogenous solutions are the way to go. They know what they need, and there is such a wealth of knowledge about solutions there, and I think that is very critical. It is interesting to see that that definitely is applied in every context that has a human mobility dimension to it.

I think what is important about what Scott was saying about the anticipatory work—it is definitely difficult trying to predict. We have a hard time also trying to use the data to tell us exactly where things will happen, but, especially for the work that I do, which is more related to peace-building, prevention is the name of the game. There is adaptation, prevention, and whatever tools that we can bring, and putting them together in order to figure out ways that we can prevent some of these challenges that are being faced I think is critical. I think there is definitely a lot of complementarity in that regard.

RAMU DAMODARAN: Wonderful. Scott?

SCOTT POHL: I am pleased to say that we are all in agreement because I was actually thinking the same thing that Barbra mentioned, particularly about what the ambassador said. The grassroots approach that you described for solutions and the participatory approach, to be sure that all elements of the community are able to contribute first to identifying the problem and then to developing and implementing a solution and also reporting back to us later and telling us how those solutions worked out and how they can be adjusted in the future is critical. At UNHCR we have for a long time been carrying out annual participation exercises where we pull together different segments of the community, whether it is divided by age, gender, or by different diversity groups, and we sit with them for days on end and identify the specific problems they have and then sit with them to work on developing solutions together, to co-developing these solutions. I am pleased to hear also that in the Maldives and IOM they feel that is also a critical approach.

Quickly also on the transhumance work that Barbra’s team is working on, it is impressive to think about the ability to not just—what we are doing is predicting the future of displacement, but to be able to eventually predict the routes that people are traveling and the potential flashpoints means that you can then also theoretically I would say send people in to mediate prior to any conflicts arising.

I think that the United Nations puts a lot of emphasis on prevention, but I do not see that we have had a huge amount of success. On the more local level, UNHCR does a lot of work on peaceful coexistence between communities, and that is very successful, but I think the ideas that Barbra mentioned about actually preventing conflict between groups that are moving or between them and those who are staying, the farmers, is critical and something that should be built upon.

RAMU DAMODARAN: Thank you for that. I think at this point we will widen the conversation. If any of you have a point to make or a question to ask, my only request is that when you put your question please stand up so that you are in full form on our webcast. Please sir, rise.

QUESTION: Hi, everyone. Travis Gidado. I am also a member of the Carnegie Ethics Fellowship, so on behalf of the whole group thank you for your time.

I want to go back to a question you raised at the very beginning, Ramu, which I thought was interesting, which is, what did you all first think when you heard the word “refugee” for the first time. I think it is interesting because often we get bogged down in these semantic quibbles in policy and other walks of life and we want to try to describe them, but I think there is something to be said for the importance of words and how they are used. I was listening intently to what you all were saying, and you used phrases like “displaced persons” or you would modify refugees to talk about “climate refugees.”

The question I have is: Do we think that the word “refugee” still has salience today? Do we think that it encapsulates all the nuance that comes with displaced persons? Thinking strategically about how we might be able to advocate in a policy setting, have you found in your advocacy that there are more useful phrases to use to advance the discourse in a way that is actually advantageous to the cause of displaced persons, forced migrants, and the like? Thank you again for your time.

SCOTT POHL: Absolutely. I think the term “refugee” is still relevant and has meaning, but I think very often one thing we could probably do better is explain what that means in the kind of terminology that is easily understandable outside of our circle. When we were talking and using the term “refugee” and then later talking about “forcibly displaced” or talking about “internally displaced,” it is maybe an overly legalistic way of speaking for the general public, but there is a very important distinction between all of those.

As you know, and as Ramu mentioned at the beginning, the 1951 Convention is very clear on who is a refugee and who is not a refugee. That is not to say that other people who fall out of that definition do not have human rights and that we should not be doing things to support them, but the term “refugee” is actually critical to the rights of those people who most need it. If we start to weaken the term, if we water the term down, it ends up actually having real life-and-death consequences for people. The main benefit that a person who is a refugee has is that they cannot be sent back home to a place where they would face torture or other human rights violations—persecution, et cetera—and that is what we want to be sure that we don’t lose.

QUESTION: My name is Caitlin Sussman. This question can be answered by anyone, but it is particularly in response to something the ambassador said. I just want to go back to what you said about how people in the Maldives do not necessarily want to become climate refugees. I don’t think that anybody does, but still there is a need to find some way to protect them in the event that they are displaced.

There have been solutions proposed like climate humanitarian visas to protect people from Pacific islands, for example. New Zealand tried this and it was scrapped specifically for that reason; the people who would be affected did not want to recognize that they would be potentially climate refugees.

Do you see a role for solutions like climate humanitarian visas as a solution, and if so how can national governments work to implement these visas in a way that is acceptable and in conjunction with the people most affected?

ALI NASEER MOHAMED: Thank you. That question is quite topical at the moment because within the UN system there are discussions about sea level rise, and in September we will have a high-level meeting in the General Assembly on the question of sea level rise. At the moment, discussions are going on within the UN system on some of the key points that you highlighted in your question and some of the solutions. While discussing this topic, issues of a sensitive nature to some countries come to the surface. Again, unlocking cooperation is what is required.

Issuing different types of visas, whether it is a climate refugee visa or climate-related visa in whatever name is being used, is a response. What we are interested in right now is prevention. We still have time. In the case of Small Island Developing States we do have time because the very nature of sea level rise is that it is a slow-onset process and slow-onset event so that we can implement measures to adapt to climate change and sea level rise.

We have solutions and we have blueprints. What is missing is the required level of funding or the technology coming from mainly the countries that actually got rich by emitting greenhouse gases. Those countries need to compensate the countries that are suffering or that will suffer as a result of those activities, and that is the missing link.

Issuing different types of visas is a response. We of course need to find a solution to that. We need to have a global-level consensus on that, but most important as a solution is prevention. Prevention is possible, global, and viable. What is missing is funding.

QUESTION: Thank you to all the panelists. I am George Kamanda, also a Carnegie Ethics Fellow and a diplomat at the United Nations.

My question is trying to connect the dots on the nexus between climate migration and international humanitarian law. I believe my colleague asked about the salience of the word “refugee.” I believe the question that followed that also talked about creating humanitarian access or a visa or things like that, so my question is, at a time when international humanitarian law principles have been “challenged,” to use a diplomatic word, what role do you see for its principles in harnessing or in streamlining some of these solutions that we are putting forward to help the issues of displacement, climate migration, and the like?

I believe some of the pushback is because sometimes refugees or climate refugees feel like they might be neglected along the way, so that fear, that feeling, and all that ties into some of the values and principles that international organizations such as the United Nations and IOM have been working to try to harness that cooperation. In essence, how can international humanitarian law principles be utilized in the prevention policies, solutions, or the streamlining of these situations?

BARBRA LUKUNKA: That is a tough one, but it is definitely a good question. I think there is definitely a conversation to be had regarding international humanitarian law and the principles that go along with it and how to address the question of refugees because fundamentally most of the time it is a humanitarian issue, but it can be dealt with from different angles as well.

I think the nexus we look at is that it is not one or the other. There is definitely a humanitarian aspect, and I think maybe Scott would be much better placed to speak about that, but from where I sit I look at it from the nexus with the peace-building angle as well. I think it is not just a question of this being a humanitarian question; it is a peace-building question. It is also a development-related question.

When you look at that thread it should not be looked at in isolation. These are conversations we are having constantly within the United Nations. It is not easy. It is not easy to do the nexus. We talk about the nexus all the time, but it is not an easy thing. We need to figure out how to work from a humanitarian lens: How do we apply humanitarian principles and humanitarian approaches? How do you bring in what is often called the “missing middle,” which is the peace building, which is more in the middle term, and then you make sure that what you started from the humanitarian lens to the peace-building lens lays the foundation and makes it conducive for us to go into long-term development.

For me, where I said “being in the middle,” I always say we should not necessarily compartmentalize, but it is actually seeing the stream and how it goes from one end to the other. At one point we need to move away from the humanitarian and get to development so that people are thriving and are not stuck in a humanitarian situation. Making sure that those links are made is not easy, but it is definitely a conversation that is being had and something that we are working on continuously within the UN system.

SCOTT POHL: I won’t speak directly to international humanitarian law but maybe just to build on the point that you made that some people feel like they are falling through the cracks in terms of people who are fleeing for reasons related to the impact of climate.

I am going to set out a few categories although I know you said you do not like to compartmentalize. Under international humanitarian law, people who are fleeing as a result of conflict that has a direct link to climate—for example, the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, where control over natural resources and arable land was actually an objective of the warring parties—they fled maybe because of something in their minds more related to climate, but in fact we would say that they would have a claim under the Convention.

There are other groups that would have fled that also would have a claim under the Convention—if they are journalists talking about violations of international law related to the environment and they are being persecuted for that. Then, if we get a couple of steps further to catch some of the people you are talking about who are falling through the cracks, within Africa and Latin America there is the Organisation of African Unity Convention and the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, both of which expand the refugee definition from the 1951 Convention. They expand it to people who are fleeing because of “disturbance of public order.” There is research being undertaken now to see how far that can go. Can the result of a hurricane be considered “disturbance of the public order,” and in that case in those two continents those people would then also be considered refugees.

There is another group we can talk about that may not fit under both of those, which are people who if they flee but were forcibly returned would face human rights violations, not the same as under the 1951 Convention but under international human rights law countries would be prohibited from returning them. There is a Human Rights Committee decision that said that potentially, in places, for example, where sea level rise makes the land inhospitable and unlivable, you would not be able to send somebody back to those places.

You mentioned the humanitarian visa. Some countries have adopted, Argentina being one, a humanitarian temporary protection program, so in the case of mass influx, in case there are many people coming and you cannot determine which will qualify and which will not, if it is due to “climate-related disaster” as defined under their law, they would have temporary protection status.

The last group is composed of the ones that I mentioned before. If they do not fall under any of those, if they are migrants—and very often they are all moving together, some migrants, some refugees, and some fall under the other categories—they still have human rights that need to be protected along the route, and that is something that we as the United Nations all need to work together as they are moving to ensure that they are respected.

RAMU DAMODARAN: Any last thoughts, Ambassador?

ALI NASEER MOHAMED: I would say that the larger question of human mobility and climate change as a cause of human mobility requires a solution urgently because the global system that we are talking about, whether it is the 1951 Refugee Convention or the more recent discussions that we have had, are all dated. It requires solutions that are shaped by taking the current developments into account.

Most importantly it requires the inputs of the people who are actually experiencing the negative impacts of climate change. Their views need to be taken onboard. The 1951 Convention was negotiated at a time when most of these countries were not even nation-states; they were under colonial rule at that time. Climate change never came into the negotiating room at that time.

Whether it is adaptation or response to climate change through various policy instruments, they need to take into account the views and experiences of those who are living through the impacts of climate change. That is what I would like to add as a last thought.

RAMU DAMODARAN: Thank you so much. As Kevin mentioned, those of you who are fortunate to be actually with us, we will have a chance to continue the conversation upstairs when we go there from here.

I would like to thank all of you for coming to this forum, those of you who joined us online, and many more who will watch the webcast of this at their own convenience. Of course, on behalf of all of us at the podium, thanks to Carnegie Council, to Joel, to Kevin, and to everyone who made this possible as we continue to unlock cooperation. Thank you.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this panel are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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