The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants Recognizes the Crucial Role of Environmental Degradation, Disasters and Climate Change for Human Mobility by Dina Ionesco, Head of Migration, Environment and Climate Change (IOM) Eva Mach, Programme Officer, Migration, Environment and Climate Change (IOM).

The New York Declaration is an important step towards overcoming the double sensitivity that makes climate change and migration such a challenging policy area.

A formal recognition of linkages between migration, environment and climate change

The New York Declaration adopted on the 19th of September 2016 during the 71st session of the General Assembly, clearly acknowledges the importance of migration, environment and climate change issues. The opening speech of H.E.Peter Thomson, President of the 71th session of the United Nations General Assembly included references to environmental and climate change as drivers of migration. This can be considered as an influential step ahead towards migration policy making headways to address climate and environmental migration challenges. The New York Declaration addresses both migration due to environmental and/or climate change and the environmental impacts of migration, large population movements and the environmental sustainability aspects of migration.

A slow and delicate progress

We should not take it for granted that awareness on climate and environmental migration is given. Only five years ago such an acknowledgement was neither obvious nor usual. Throughout 2014, 2015 and 2016, major policy processes have formally recognized that migration in the context of climate change and environmental degradation cannot be ignored, if the targets for human well-being are to be reached. These policy processes dealt with climate change, environment, land, natural disasters, small island states, development and humanitarian concerns.

However, migration policy processes have been rather idle to incorporate the importance of environmental degradation and climate change impacts. Moreover, migration policy has been rather slow to evolve and transform to better factor in climatic and environmental changes. Some progress has been made nevertheless at Regional Consultative Processes on Migration (RCP) and national levels with some states starting to review their migration policies to consider environmental and climatic factors.

Former initiatives that have tackled the topic from a migration policy point of view include the Bern Initiative (2004) with the adoption of the International Agenda for Migration Management, featuring an innovative segment on environment and migration management. Another example is the IOM International Dialogue on Migration devoted to Migration, Environment and Climate Change that brought together states and other stakeholders to exchange ideas and practices in 2007 and 2011.  The Nansen Initiative and The Migrants in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) initiative also tackled aspects of human mobility in relation to natural disasters, climate change and crisis situations, contributing to enhanced awareness on this topic.

A multifold recognition of environmental and climatic factors in the New York Declaration

The Declaration includes the following six noteworthy elements on migration, environment, climate change and natural disasters:

1. It recognizes the historical and multicausal dimensions of environmental migration and provides a balanced understanding of the nuances between environmental and climate change related processes:

“1. Since earliest times, humanity has been on the move. Some people move in search of new economic opportunities and horizons. Others move to escape armed conflict, poverty, food insecurity, persecution, terrorism, or human rights violations and abuses. Still others do so in response to the adverse effects of climate change, natural disasters (some of which may be linked to climate change) or other environmental factors. Many move, indeed, for a combination of these reasons”.

2. It calls attention to a broad spectrum of migration policy opportunities, from the prevention of forced migration to the acknowledgment of voluntary migration, and makes the link between climate change, disasters, environmental degradation, migration and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals:
“43. We commit to addressing the drivers that create or exacerbate large movements. We will analyse and respond to the factors, including in countries of origin, which lead or contribute to large movements. We will cooperate to create conditions that allow communities and individuals to live in peace and prosperity in their homelands. Migration should be a choice, not a necessity. We will take measures, inter alia, to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, whose objectives include eradicating extreme poverty and inequality, revitalizing the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, promoting peaceful and inclusive societies based on international human rights and the rule of law, creating conditions for balanced, sustainable and inclusive economic growth and employment, combating environmental degradation and ensuring effective responses to natural disasters and the adverse impacts of climate change.”

3. It recognizes that natural disasters, adverse impacts of climate change on livelihoods and environmental degradation are drivers of human mobility (including reference to 3.3 above), as well in the Annex II:
4. “Annex II. 7.  We bear in mind that policies and initiatives on the issue of migration should promote holistic approaches that take into account the causes and consequences of the phenomenon. We acknowledge that poverty, under-development, lack of opportunities, poor governance and environmental factors are among the drivers of migration. In turn, pro-poor policies, relating to trade, employment and productive investments, can stimulate growth and create enormous development potential. We note that international economic imbalances, poverty and environmental degradation, combined with the absence of peace and security, and lack of enjoyment of human rights, are all factors affecting international migration.“

4. It calls attention to the recently adopted The Migrants in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) Principles (2016) and the Nansen Protection Agenda (2015) that provide useful guidance and already show  state level interest to deal with environmental and disaster displacement:
“50. We will assist, impartially and on the basis of needs, migrants in countries which are experiencing conflicts or natural disasters, working, as applicable, in coordination with the relevant national authorities. While recognizing that not all States are participating in them, we note in this regard the “Migrants in Countries in Crisis" initiative and the Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change resulting from the Nansen Initiative“.

5. It identifies the impacts of large population movements on the environment:
“85. In addition to meeting direct humanitarian and development needs, we will work to support environmental, social and infrastructural rehabilitation in areas affected by large movements of refugees.” and “6. States, in cooperation with multilateral donors and private-sector partners, as appropriate, would, in coordination with receiving States: […] e) provide assistance to protect the environment and strengthen infrastructure affected by large movements of refugees in host countries; “

6. It emphasizes the momentum gathered in other policy processes of key interest to environmental and climate migration, in particular the Conference of the Parties (COP21) of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015 in Paris that led to the inclusion of migration in the Paris Agreement in the Preamble and Paragraph 50 of the COP Decision referring to Loss and Damage, as well the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 (2015):
“18. We recall the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and its recommendations concerning measures to mitigate risks associated with disasters. States that have signed and ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change welcome that agreement and are committed to its implementation. We reaffirm the Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, including its provisions that are applicable to refugees and migrants.”

An anchorage for enhanced visibility and means for actions

The ‘action plan’ included in the Declaration calls for starting “negotiations leading to an international conference and the adoption of a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration” and establishing “set of common principles and approaches”, which cannot ignore environmental and climatic factors. The ‘action plan’ also calls for the development of “guidelines on the treatment of migrants in vulnerable situations”. The global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration will represent a significant policy process that can make climatic and environmental drivers more visible, better recognized and understood. The compact can also offer new means, cooperation tools and political will to address the challenges posed by climatic and environmental factors in terms of human mobility, as well as help states seize opportunities to involve migrants and their communities as active actors in response to environmental and climate change.

IOM’s engagement and perspectives

From an institutional point of view, the New York Declaration refers to IOM officially joining the UN system with the aim to strengthen the global governance of migration.

IOM established the Migration, Environment and Climate Change institutional division, the first ever structure at international level devoted to the topic and the organization will bring this expertise and capacity into the New York Declaration follow up. The organization has steadfastly worked to bring environmental migrants into the spotlight. The Director General of IOM, William Lacy Swing underlined and reiterated the impact of environmental degradation and climate change on human mobility in his New York Summit opening remarks.

Over the past twenty years, the organization has adopted a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, it brought human mobility matters into a wide range of policy processes. On the other hand, IOM aimed at shaping migration thinking, policy and dialogues to better take into account environmental and climatic aspects, as push and pull factors of migration, be it at IOM’s own institutional structure, policy fora and dialogues on migration, regional consultative processes on migration, or by supporting key initiatives such as the Bern Initiative and the Nansen Initiative.

IOM joins the UN as related agency with an already established commitment, programme of work and structure on this topic, and will continue to pursue its mission to serve migrants, communities and States to address the different facets of environmental and climate migration.