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Five Steps We Must Take to Protect Refugees in the Future

Climate change is already having a profound effect on global migration and displacement.

It could potentially create "the world's biggest refugee crisis," according to a recent study by the Environmental Justice Foundation. The study estimates that the number of climate refugees threatens to dwarf the number that has fled the Syrian conflict.

This year, a new reality, based on a new international paradigm regarding refugees, must emerge.

The result of climate impacts like floods, droughts and water shortages will be a series of retreats and movements to seek safety and better livelihoods. Those who find sanctuary inside their own land become internally displaced persons (IDPs). Those who cross borders to a different jurisdiction cannot claim refugee status as they are not fleeing political persecution, a definition given sacred rites that can be traced to the specific circumstances of post-World War II Europe.

The system we currently have in place for dealing with migrants and refugees is under severe strain; it is struggling to address the needs of millions of people on the move. It is disturbing to note that efforts to draft a treaty or a protocol to cover this new surge are not a high priority among environmental organizations, like-minded governments and counterparts looking at reforms to the refugee and migration situations.

Refugees in a camp in Greece
The system we currently have in place for dealing with migrants and refugees is under severe strain; it is struggling to address the needs of millions of people on the move


The United Nations has major negotiations underway, but the talks currently exclude the situation of IDPs or "crisis refugees." There is a fear that if the 1951 Convention definition of a refugee is opened up for discussion, the forces of anti-immigration and supra-nationalism that are so prevalent in many countries at the moment will lead to a deeper erosion of the existing system.

Some brave attempts are being made to offer global protection for the many millions deprived of any state standing. Michael Doyle of Columbia University has drafted a new treaty to include any and all seeking sanctuary. The New Zealand government is considering creating a visa category to help relocate Pacific peoples displaced by climate change. The World Refugee Council has put the plight of IDPs on its agenda for formulating a more substantive reform of the refugee system.

But so far such efforts lack critical political support. This further strengthens the case that environmentalists and those dedicated to fair refugee reform should urgently join efforts and create a political base to pursue a common-sense reform.

As the United Nations General Assembly prepares to vote on a draft Global Compact for Refugees, several steps need to be set in motion.

First, fix the financial gap in the UN system by changing the budgeting architecture of the UN Refugee Agency to be aligned with the other main UN agencies that deliver front-line services. Pledges are currently out of proportion to today's increasing refugee problems. The UN Refugee Agency needs a budget based on more predictable and binding assessed country contributions, in line with the World Health Organization or UN Environment.  

Second, begin drafting a new legal treaty in which the definition of refugees reflects the reality of this century. This treaty must infer clear rights and obligations of countries to meet international security, human rights and other standards in their treatment of refugees. The new architecture of the Sustainable Development Goals shows that the UN can deliver a new generation of international agreements based on an inclusive, transparent and bottom-up approach.  

Third, establish a robust review mechanism to hold countries accountable for their actions. The international environmental legal regime provides a useful model. The Montreal Protocol, the world's most successful environmental treaty, has saved millions of lives from cancer by coordinating the phase-out of harmful chemical pollutants. The review mechanism was never intended to name and shame, but instead to identify country non-compliance and provide scientific, technical and financial support to close gaps.

This year, a new reality, based on a new international paradigm regarding refugees, must emerge.

Fourth, make digital platforms and technologies like blockchain and digital money part of the solution. The UN and the World Bank are looking at how to provide digital IDs to over 1 billion people who currently lack basic identification. Companies such as Microsoft and Alibaba are creating new virtual systems so that refugees have immediate access to bank accounts and other identification. Banking apps in remote rural areas are enabling thousands who have never had a bank account, especially women, to set up accounts and find working capital. These examples show an innovative way forward.  

Finally, as the multilateral trade system faces a deepening crisis, there is growing interest in embedding sustainability within global value chains—from fair trade coffee to palm oil that avoids deforestation and provides a fair return for small-scale farmers. This system needs to look at refugees beyond current remittances, to how a new generation of global value chains can support income to migrants.    

As middle powers that have sponsored successful international reform efforts in the past, Denmark and Canada both need to take leading roles in reforming how the UN system supports refugees. As Denmark looks for its seat on the UN Human Rights Council in 2019, and Canada seeks a seat on the UN Security Council in 2020, both would be emboldened by taking common leadership on these issues.

Lloyd Axworthy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Canada and a member of the IISD Board, now chairs the World Refugee Council. Scott Vaughan is the president-CEO of IISD, and was previously Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

This opinion piece was originally published on the Politiken website in Danish.