PODCAST: Australia joins climate displacement group

Human rights organisations are calling on Australia to take a leading role in the protection of people forced to leave their homeland because of disasters and climate change.

Australia has joined a small group of countries which are developing a set of recommendations for nations to respond to the displacement of people because of environmental hazards.

The so-called Nansen Initiative could be used to help people living in the Pacific whose livelihoods are being threatened by rising sea levels.

David Crisante reports.

Rights and environmental groups have in the past used the term 'climate-change refugees' to describe people forced to leave their homelands because of changing climatic conditions.

Among them could be residents of some low-lying Pacific island nations, forced to move because of rising sea levels.

But the term 'climate change refugee' is not favoured by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UNHCR's regional representative for Australia and the Pacific is Richard Towle.

"The term refugee has a rather specific legal meaning under international law and it's confined only to those people who have been forced to flee their countries of origin as a result of serious human rights violations or persecution. It has a rather special meaning and if you satisfy that rather special international definition then there is a set of legal responsibilities that apply to you in terms of protection by other countries."

Under international law, there is no legal protection for people who are forced to leave their country because of climate-related causes.

Mr Towle says this is a grey area that must be addressed by the international community.

But he warns that because this is a long-term issue, it is unlikely to be a priority among governments as they have relatively short election cycles.

"It's very difficult to have governments focus on the policy implications when you are talking about something that might happen in 10 or 20 or 30 years time. But that's the challenge, to get a consensus amongst the international community and governments to start putting in place the right responses now that can help people over a longitudinal period rather than when the water is literally lapping at the doors of their houses."

In this context, the Nansen Initiative has been created by Switzerland and Norway to generate discussion about how the human rights of people displaced by climate can be protected.

The intergovernmental process, which operates outside of UN conventions, has been joined by five countries including Australia, Mexico and the Philippines.

University of New South Wales professor Jane McAdam is on the consultitative committee of the Initiative.

She's visited the Pacific nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu and says they are extremely vulnerable to sea level rises.

"When you talk to people they may say 'this is a beach or this used to be a piece of land that I play on as a kid but now you can see at high tide the water is encroaching and it's effectively under water.' Other people would point to coconut trees that have died because of salination, where salty water is making it impossible for trees and crops to grow."

The environmental group, Friends of the Earth, says despite Australia's involvement in the Nansen Initiative, it is lagging behind other nations in addressing the effects of climate change.

Spokesman Cam Walker says the impacts of climate change are so severe that some countries in the Pacific will be unable to adapt - and some migration will have to take place.

"So Australia needs to go and consult with those nations and find out what they need and particularly listen to this notion of 'migration with dignity.' That is allowing the creation and facilitating the creation of an international framework, a mechanism to allow people to move if need be as cultural groups so that they're not losing their culture, and to engage very strongly in the question around sovereignty and what happens to nations as they do become untenable."

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