Why climate migration is a human rights concern

Mavic Conde
Why climate migration is a human rights concern


'Adaptation and mitigation are not enough. We need climate justice,' says United Nations special rapporteur Cecilia Jimenez Damary


ALBAY, Philippines – When Tropical Depression Usman buffeted Albay province in December 2018, among hundreds of people who were displaced was 70-year-old Angelina Echalas. 

From her home in Tiwi, Echalas was forced to relocate after the storm caused landslides and ground cracks, which the Mines and Geosciences Bureau said made it dangerous for residents in the area.

Since then, Echalas had sought shelter at their barangay Hall in Maynonong. 

“We no longer feel safe in our barangay,” she said, tears welling up.

Tiwi was one of the municipalities in the Bicol Region severely hit by Usman. It experienced massive landslides that destroyed homes and caused casualties in upland areas including Maynonong.  

The local government promised displaced residents a safe relocation site, but Barangay Captain Edwina Tevez could not deny the trauma it caused them.

Echalas was recovering from a stroke, while another resident had died reportedly due also to a trauma-induced heart attack. 

Echalas’ mobility is still limited. Before her stroke and the disaster, she used to be a hilot, offering her services to solve common illnesses. She couldn’t go back to her former work, and this has driven her to further poverty.

Climate-related displacement

Echalas’ case isn’t isolated. In 2013, after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit Tacloban in Leyte, millions of survivors from the provinces of Leyte and Samar found themselves displaced. Climate-related displacement has been happening across the world too.   

Despite the acknowledged link between climate change and human displacement, a just solution to this crisis remains elusive.

According to a policy paper report by the German political foundation Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS), “displacement and migration are primarily understood from their causes (sudden and slow-onset disasters). Hence, the policy responses that are currently under negotiation focus more on disaster risk reduction, risk transfer, and post-disaster rehabilitation activities.”

Following that finding, RLS took the initiative to hold the first international solidarity conference on the rights of climate migrants, called “Beyond Borders, Beyond Labels.”

More than 70 participants from 20 countries came together from September 17 to 19 in Quezon City to discuss the consequences that displaced people face in the course of their movement.

Setting the scene

United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons Cecilia Jimenez Damary said internal displacement refers to a situation where people are forced to leave their homes or places of habitual residence as a result of disasters in order to avoid the impact of immediate or foreseeable natural hazards.  

In 2018, there were 17.2 million new displacements in 144 countries and territories due to climate disasters, with 7 million new additions in the first half of 2019, according to Migration Data Portal’s summary of a report by the International Data Monitoring Center (IDMC). 

Both the Philippines and China had the highest estimate of new internal displacements on the same year at 3.8 million, followed by India. By IDMC’s definition, new displacements mean the estimated number of movements internally displaced individuals made during the year. 

From 2008 to 2018, IDMC recorded 265.3 million people that were internally displaced worldwide as a response to disaster. 

Disaster displacement has also forced people to move abroad, but it is a challenge accounting them. Connie Sorio, a migrant justice coordinator in Canada, said this leads to more undocumented migrants and will increase more with climate change. 

Such movement in irregular situations makes these people vulnerable to human rights violations, Damary said.

For Harjeet Singh of Action Aid India, it only proves how displacement is the epitome of climate impact. 

Climate migration as a right

“Why do people who flee to avoid persecution get refugee or asylum in other countries but those who want to migrate to save life from devastating climate change event is denied?” Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Chairperson Chito Gascon asked. 

Damary asserted that one’s human rights do not end when they cross borders. Moreover, countries do not cancel one another via exclusion or discrimination. That has huge human rights implications, she said. 

“Adaptation and mitigation are not enough. We need climate justice,” she said. 

By climate justice, the conference panelists mean making the perpetrators pay – from the world’s most carbon emitters in the Global North, transnational companies that plunder the environment including financers, and governments for their negligence.

In the Philippines, the call for climate justice is highlighted by the CHR’s landmark inquiry into the effects of climate change on human rights.  

If addressed, Echalas and the thousands of nameless displaced disaster survivors can deal with the effects of displacement safely and with dignity, regardless of their movement patterns and directions. 

As Echalas said, “If I had a choice, I would stay in a safer place in Bicol because of Manila’s pollution, higher cost of living, and not elderly-friendly infrastructures.” – Rappler.com

This article is produced through the support of Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Climate Tracker’s Climate Journalism Fellowship.

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