Rights or riots? How we think about climate change migration

By Angelica Neville | 25 Jun 13

By Angelica Neville. This article is part of our July 2013 focus on “Australia in the World”. Click here for more articles in this issue.

Defence White Papers are produced to let the general public know what the Australian military finds scary or relevant in the current global situation. The most recent Defence White Paper, released in May this year, identifies migration in relation to climate change, particularly in the South Pacific, as one such security issue. According to the Paper, it will require increased disaster relief, humanitarian assistance and stabilisation operations.

Planning to provide increased humanitarian assistance for nearby states likely to be particularly affected by climate change seems reasonable. What is problematic here is that the White Paper continues the trend of treating climate change-related migration as a potential security threat. This approach may be counter-productive to protecting the human rights of those displaced.

If the national security perspective becomes the dominant way of understanding this issue, we may end up with policies that obsess over border control as opposed to providing protection

Migration, particularly forced migration, has been well and truly “securitised.” That is, it has been constructed and subsequently treated as a security threat. Tony Abbott’s proclamation that if elected he will invest in drones to survey the vast Australian coastline for illegal boat arrivals, is one example of this. Similarly, the same Defence White Paper refers to illegal migration as a “non-state threat” which the ADF will play an important part in preventing.

The phenomenon of climate change itself has also gone through the same process of “securitisation.” The American Security Project, a research and policy think tank, released The Global Security and Defence Index on Climate Change in March this year. It measures how states and militaries around the world are planning for climate change. It concludes that 71 per cent of states “definitively” see climate change as a threat to national security, while 21 per cent of states see it as an issue of “humanitarian or disaster response” (the remaining 10 per cent either don’t define it as a concern or didn’t provide data).

As the amalgamation of these two concerns, climate change-related migration is prone to be seen as a national security issue.  It is treated as such not only in Australian Defence White Papers, but also in the rhetoric of militaries and think tanks around the world, and in mainstream media. Indeed, in the somewhat alarmist documentary Climate Change Refugees US Secretary of State John Kerry says, “the threat of refugees as a consequence of climate change is an enormous national security issue.” More tangibly, India continues to expand the barricade along its border with Bangladesh which some attribute to India’s fear of increasing displacement amongst its low-lying neighbours as a result of rising sea levels.

Australia is located amongst states that are likely to feel the effects of climate change particularly deeply.  The much-publicised low-lying islands of the South Pacific, namely Kiribati and Tuvalu, are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, and are unique in that they may become uninhabitable in their entirety. Coastal Asian mega-cities are also extremely vulnerable and South-East Asia is considered a flood-risk, drought-risk and cyclone-risk hotspot. Australia is characterised by fluctuating but generally restrictive and reactive policies towards incoming forced migration, and we have yet to form a policy towards migration in relation to climate change. If the national security perspective becomes the dominant way of understanding this issue, we may end up with policies that obsess over border control as opposed to providing protection. This would be morally unacceptable, particularly in light of Australia’s high per-capita carbon emissions, which dwarf those of our neighbours.

There are state-led projects to develop a protection regime for people who may be displaced across international borders due to climate change. One of these is the Nansen Initiative. It is named after a Norwegian explorer with a robust blonde moustache who was the first man to cross the icy Greenland interior (in 1888) and to undertake systematic studies of the Arctic polar system. He also became the League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees in 1921. The Nansen Initiative is led by Norway and Switzerland and aims to develop a consensus on a protection agenda by consulting with NGOs, think tanks, international organisations such as the UNHCR, as well as civil society.

Australia is a member of the Nansen Initiative, and took part in consultations in late May in the Cook Islands on human mobility, natural disasters and climate change in the Pacific. The Nansen Initiative is important because of its on-the-ground consultations with communities likely to be affected. Jane McAdam, an Australian expert on climate-related migration who was present at the meeting, reported that local stakeholders “encouraged States to review their admission and immigration policies to enable voluntary migration at an early stage” and emphasised that people in the South Pacific do not want to be seen as “refugees.” The meeting concluded that focus must be on both supporting the rights of affected populations “to stay, or alternatively move, with dignity”.

We must resist the assumption that climate change-related migration will be a security threat. Commentary that points to climate change as a reason for increased border protection, or casually relates climate change displacement to conflict, should be questioned.  Instead, emphasis should be placed on the importance of programs such as the Nansen Initiative, which consider the different perspectives of those likely to be affected and make plans to accommodate them. A consultative and non-alarmist approach will be the only way to protect the human rights of those displaced.