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Climate Change, Migration and Security Climate change not only disrupts ecosystems; it also poses threats to the livelihoods and survival of people worldwide.

Legal Strategies for Dealing with Environmental Degradation and Human Mobility


A renewal of interest in environmental concerns as external drivers of human mobility is being seen in the context of migration studies. What is emerging from this is the need to understand how the progressive transformation of the structures of governance in the contemporary rulemaking processes will frame the environment–migration nexus. Yet despite renewed concern, scholars have done little to capture the potential to refer to the emergence of new policies concerning labour mobility, to explore the normative implications of this interdependence, and to consider the role of new actors in creating a solid and effective legal framework for dealing with environmental degradation.

Environmental Changes and Human Mobility

In recent years increased attention has been devoted to understanding and interpreting the links between environmental degradation (defined as slow-onset disasters, such as climate change, rising sea-levels, increased salinization) and human mobility at the international, regional and national levels.

The Nansen Initiative, launched in October 2012, and the European Commission (European Commission 2013) have focused on the migration–environment nexus and reflect the scientific consensus regarding its reality, urgency and significance. In particular, the European Commission has further situated the discussion within the context of migration law, as well as international law, suggesting that ‘facilitating well-managed mobility and labour mobility from environmentally degraded areas can represent an effective strategy to reduce environmentally-induced displacement’ (European Commission 2013).

The developments achieved in relation to “loss and damage” issues at the 18th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2012 created the opportunity to link “loss and damage” and migration (1).

In particular, the adoption of paragraph 7(a)(vi) of the Draft decision -/CP.18 acknowledges the need for further research and work aimed at “enhancing the understanding of: […] How impacts of climate change are affecting patterns of migration, displacement and human mobility” (IOM, 2013).

    (1) In this context we adopt the following definition of the “loss and damage” concept: “the actual and/or potential manifestation of climate impacts that negatively affect human and natural systems”, which can either be repaired (damage) or not (loss)” (IOM, 2013). For instance, through the results of the pioneering research project “Where the rain falls” (Warner et al., 2012), we can identify two major trends where environmental changes affect food security, and how these factors interact with human mobility. Whereas “loss and damage” caused by environmental deterioration has the potential to generate forced migration (e.g. extended dry or wet periods, droughts or floods, loss of habitable land), forced migration can also increase “loss and damage” (e.g. cultural, social, potential losses and disruption of basic services such as education).

      Additionally, some scholars suggest introducing in this context a new legal tool: ‘the hybrid approach’ (Corendea 2008). This hybrid tool is what international law requires as obligations from different areas of international law (e.g. refugee law, environmental law, human rights law) continue to co-exist. Although this approach could be a promising way to deal with some specific legal gaps, such as the absence of free movement rights, the elaboration of the theoretical framework is still in the embryonic stage and insufficient data and information are available to fully understand its added value (Corendea 2008).

      Finally, the recently launched working programme on the “Protection of persons in the event of disasters” set up by the International Law Commission will provide an additional opportunity to discuss this issue (Kaelin and Schrepfer 2012).

      As part of this debate, small island states, frequently portrayed as “sinking islands”, are becoming aware that they have a role to play in being intimately linked to the emerging discourse on normative implications that these environmental factors might have for contemporary rulemaking and for the structures of migration governance (Geddes 2012). It is less well known that, at the regional level, island states are trying to increase legal labour migration and regional integration and cross-continental trade agreements with specific focus on temporary movement of natural persons as a way to prevent forced displacement and to reduce vulnerability to impacts of changes to the environment that are already happening.

      Recently, in August 2012, the Pacific Forum Island Countries started developing the Temporary Movement of Natural Persons (TMNP) scheme in the framework of the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA) in order to increase the movement of labour and skills transfer in the region as a key part of the trade in services arrangements (PIDC 2010).

      Human mobility as adaptation strategy to environmental changes?

      Temporary mobility schemes have been identified as a possible normative area to provide the basis upon which states affected by environmental changes may enhance the ability of vulnerable people to move. In particular, the role of migratory strategies in the domain of climate change can to some degree support growth in human capital investment (e.g. education) and development (Klepp and Herbeck 2012). For instance, the government of Kiribati in the South Pacific Islands is part of several migration programmes and it has created ad hoc education and training programmes for the population, so they can subsequently contribute to the economy of their potential country of destination. In 2002, New Zealand created a yearly labour migration quota (Pacific Access Category) for the Pacific Islands of Tuvalu and Kiribati.

      In addition, there is a growing body of literature to aid in understanding and interpreting human mobility as a possible strategy of adaptation to environmental degradation at the international, regional and national levels. In fact, the estimates of actual and expected flows as a result of slow-onset natural changes suggest that the pressure towards labour mobility across borders of neighbouring countries will increase (IPCC 2012). The International Organization for Migration (IOM), and several researchers are increasingly promoting the adoption of temporary mobility schemes, developed for instance by Spain and Colombia, as good practices for dealing with natural disasters (De Moor 2011).

      Most preliminary research realised has been concerned more with the need to identify normative solutions to address the relationship between mobility and natural disasters (Foresiht, 2011; ADB, 2012), than with conducting in-depth analyses of legal content of existing migratory instruments at bilateral and regional level, their impact on national migration policy and situating them in the contemporary critical debates developed in studies on the human rights implications of these specific instruments. More challenging questions are underexplored, such as the significant impact of these instruments on the protection of human rights of migrants in the country of destination and a general lack of solid legal analysis of the migration provisions of these agreements.

      Early research conducted on ”sinking states” has tried to look at the potential of climate change to cause their extinction with a strong emphasis on the challenges that the citizens of low-lying island states will have to face (Ruggeri Abonnat 2012). In fact, such a situation could imply a form of statelessness never experienced before in history, which raises serious concerns in terms of mass mobility and relocation as well as important legal questions in terms of human rights protection (Fornale, Guelat, and Piguet, 2015). The legal debate is far too new to identify or elaborate concrete solutions and at this stage it remains ”unclear how international law would protect those affected persons” (SRHRM 2012). In addition, migration strategies have traditionally been widely used by the citizens of low-lying states and what needs to be further explored is the related impacts of migratory measures, as temporary mobility schemes, and the significant human rights implications regarding mobility in the countries of destination (e.g. right to stay, right to return, right to health, right to housing). More than statelessness, the contemporary debate needs to focus on specific challenges related to facilitating the legal admission of citizens of these submerged island states and how to secure their rights in the country of admission. In this context, the case of the “disappearing states” will connect to the more general discussion on whether there is a need to elaborate a new legal framework, for instance adopting a new kind of Nansen Passport (Heyward and Odalen 2013), as a promising means for identifying how to assist and protect the affected population.

      An additional element of concern is the need for activating mobility regimes already in place and promoting free, regulated and secure mobility. In particular, it seems increasingly difficult to gain access to these temporary mobility schemes and their migratory impact to date is small. For instance only 215 individuals participated in the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme in the first two years in spite of a total quota of 2,500 working visas available. (Gibson and McKenzie 2011).

      Few studies have focused on the obstacles to implementing seasonal worker programmes, such as the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Programme or the Pacific Access Category (PAC) concluded by New Zealand with the Small Pacific Islands states (Gibson and McKenzie 2011).


      A number of unanswered questions exist, such as how inter-state cooperation can counter environmental migration. It could be worthwhile to further explore and evaluate the existing migration mechanisms to gain a better understanding of what kinds of legal standards and institutional frameworks are in place governing labour mobility. Moreover, an understanding of the extent to which the progressive liberalisation of the movement of persons, of trade and the financial sector, will facilitate pro-active coping strategies for vulnerable populations in countries affected is needed.


      Dr. Elisa Fornalé
      World Trade Institute, Bern