Sunday, March 11, 2012

21st Century Statelessness

The BBC's most recent article,"Kiribati mulls Fiji land purchase in battle against sea," describes the more novel land purchases that climate change forces some to consider.  The article describes Kiribati's 'last resort' option for moving their population, while keeping some communities intact.  I have written on this topic and offer one short essay reposted here.

“Drowning” Nations: Climate-Induced Migration and the Advent of 21st Century-Statelessness

Migration of peoples and communities due to climate change may have dramatic effect on the globe in the next half-century.  It is estimated that some 200 million people worldwide may be on the move because of increased storms, flooding, sea level-rise, and desertification.  For some small-islanders the perils of migration will be made worse by the loss of the State.  In other words, while displacement within and across borders may be a compulsory journey for many ‘climate migrants,’ small-islanders may be on the move absent a country to which to return.

Of particular concern are island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans—including, Tuvalu, the Maldives, Kiribati, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, among others.  Already grim climate forecasts suggest that they may face challenges to their existing livelihoods, which are heavily dependent upon coastal resources.  Sea-level rise, coastal inundation, seawater intrusion into freshwater sources and soil salinization compromise freshwater availability and adversely affects coastal agriculture.  Indeed, this is already occurring in some Pacific island communities. 

These climate change impacts will exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities typical of nation-states of similar size and stage of development—with small economies, highly dependent on imports and weather-dependent exports.  For some states, however, climate change threatens their very survival.  Juxtaposed with their infinitesimal contribution to global emission, the threats to their existence are significant when viewed through any ethical, legal, or geopolitical lens. 

It has been 20 years since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change first stated that the “gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration;” yet the international community has made no legal or political progress on the issue in the interim.  A number of challenges inherent to the migration discourse aid this political lethargy.  A persistent lack of information undermines the conversation in three main respects:

(i) Estimating the number of people and reasons why they may need to move.  While 200 to 250 million climate migrants by 2050 are the most widely cited numbers, estimates vary greatly – from a relatively small 25 million to a high of one billion depending on the greenhouse gas emissions scenarios employed, among other factors.

(ii) Identifying the type of migration that an arbiter can directly and causally link to climate change versus the normally multi-causal influences on migration.  The many potential and overlapping causes of migration confound settled numbers for displacement, both current and estimated.  Deteriorating environmental conditions interact with other relevant factors, including levels of development, governance, and the capacity for individuals, communities, and countries to adapt to external pressures, climate-related or otherwise.  Further, demographic markers, such as age, sex, culture, education level and work experience as well as general risk perception and risk aversion, play an integral part in the decision and ability to move.

Finally, (iii) Affixing the appropriate term for those who may move.  To the extent that one could directly link a given climate-related storm, for example, and the displacement of peoples in its path, there is no agreed upon definition for those dislocated.  “Climate refugees” has been the mostly widely used term in popular discourse, which certain scholars vigorously defend.  From a law and policy standpoint, however, the term “refugee” is not an accurate reflection of the legal status of these migrants.  In fact, those dislocated due to impacts reasonably related to climate change have no legal status at all.  Finding an appropriate term is vital, however, as clearly defined and articulated legal categories delimit the rights of individuals and the concomitant obligations that bind relevant states and the international community.

With these challenges and the absence of empirical information, the plight of climate migrants is easily sidestepped.  This might continue to occur in the larger context of global migration.  For small island states, however, there are myriad reasons to act now.  In particular, for certain small islanders, the assumption that climate impacts may lead in a linear way to migration is clear. 

In the extreme scenarios that small island states face, there exist again significant gaps in the current legal infrastructure.  There are international law regimes that govern issues of deprivation of nationality following the succession of a state, for example.  There are none, however, that govern circumstances in which no successor state exists and the predecessor state has disappeared.  When island states are no longer inhabited and the population is permanently displaced to other countries, it is unclear whether they may become stateless persons under international law or if they become merely landless citizens of a state that no longer exists.  An international or regional legal regime, swiftly conceived and implemented, is vital to resolve this kind of question.  The complexity of the issue and the immediate threat of climate change call for early efforts at planning and coordination.  The alternative is disorganized and insufficient aid that might come too late.

-Maxine Burkett

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