Forced Migration? Facing an Uncomfortable Future

Written by Anthony Oliver-Smith

The Feb. 14 GAO report on the costs of climate impacts in the U.S. made it clearer than ever that we have to look forward to build resilience in governance and regulatory systems, both nationally and internationally. It is now virtually certain that by 2100 the average global temperature will increase by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), meaning that that many people will lose the ability to make a living from their lands or waters. The resulting loss of ecosystem services (as social scientists call them), combined with increased variability of weather processes and events such as intensified storms, floods and droughts, means that people's homes and livelihoods will be in jeopardy. The International Organization for Migration estimates that the cumulative effect of these changes may result in the uprooting and forced migration of potentially millions of people around the world.

While the property and material losses will be acute and must be adequately addressed, it is the social and cultural effects that are consequential because they will impede the processes of adaptation and recovery. Anthropologists have shown over the last half century that in forced migration, people lose not only resources and property but also employment and livelihoods, social networks, kin, political power, and a sense of meaning and cultural identity. Such immense losses will be particularly acute for indigenous and traditional peoples whose livelihoods and cultural worlds are identified with specific environments, such as reservations, refuges, and reserved areas.

But these traumatic aspects of forced migration affect not only rural people, but mega-cities and densely populated regions as well. Massive urban populations facing displacement by storms and sea level rise include those in Tokyo, Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, Dhaka and other coastal mega-cities around the globe. We recently saw a sample of what can happen to major cities during Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey.

Despite these projections, there are no comprehensive legal instruments for the protection and assistance of people affected by climate change. There are small steps, however, toward what needs to be done: The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, pertaining to people forced to flee their homes by violence, human rights violations, or disasters (but have not crossed an international border), are a useful guide for developing policies, although they are not legally binding. In addition, the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has recently prioritized "measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation" (UNFCCC 2010). At the Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement in the 21st Century in June of 2011 researchers and activists advocated for a new global policy to protect and resettle people forced to leave their habitats because of sudden or gradual climate changes such as sea level rise, extreme weather events and drought and water scarcity.

Humanitarian, development, and human rights actors must join with climate change experts to develop internationally recognized general principles to protect the rights of people resettled due to climate change. These include the definition of rights and responsibilities; protection of human rights; risk and poverty prevention; monitoring mechanisms; and legal policy basis for planned resettlement and property issues.

I join colleagues from the Brookings Institution in proposing a consultative process potentially organized by a consortium of human rights organizations, the World Bank and the United Nations, to develop specific protection principles and concrete guidelines that will be valuable to all stakeholders. It must include affected peoples, development and humanitarian actors, and governments who may be obligated to consider resettlement as an adaptation to climate change.

Currently the U.S. has no unified federal program that provides guidance and funding for the relocation of affected communities such as those in Alaska that are pummeled by coastal storms. We need a human rights-based relocation policy to guide a resettlement process that determines when and where resettlement must take place, the organizational arrangements between agencies, protection of the human rights of affected people, their full participation, and the funding mechanisms, as recommended by human rights lawyer Robin Bronen. The policy must address responses to rapid environmental changes, including post-disaster recovery legislation covering climate change-induced processes. It needs a framework defining stakeholders and roles and the multiple tasks and responsibilities involved in relocation and resettlement. Only by addressing the human rights issues and the social and cultural impacts of relocation and resettlement upfront in the planning policies can we begin to build the ability to recovery and adapt -- two keys to building resilience in the U.S and abroad.

Anthony Oliver-Smith is an anthropologist specializing in resettlement and disasters; he is emeritus Professor at University of Florida, a member of the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) Scientific Committee of the International Council for Science (ICSU), and a member of the American Anthropological Association's Global Climate Change Task Force.