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Legal Protections for Cross-Border Environmental Migrants

Nations’ disparate vulnerability to climate change and other environmental stressors will drive some people to migrate across national borders. While these migrants face many challenges, one of the most pressing is that of legal protection -- that is, the policies and instruments that guarantee their rights to enter and remain in host countries and to be able to pursue a life with dignity.

Some states are already starting to grant legal protections to environmental migrants -- for example, by issuing visas or residence permits under prescribed conditions. However, global action on the issue of environmental migration has remained elusive. ELI has been advocating the use of a ‘toolkit’ approach, involving the studying of cases and the sharing of information in order to support national, bilateral, regional, and ultimately global policymaking to provide legal protection for cross-border environmental migrants.

The Institute’s efforts to strengthen legal tools protecting cross-border environmental migrants have included:

  • A debate on environmental migration appearing in The Environmental Forum, Nov/Dec 2016
  • A meeting of experts on environmental displacement in Pacific Island states, and a workshop jointly organized by Ocean Policy Research Institute, the European Union, University of Tokyo, and IUCN
  • In conjunction with the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawai'i, USA, Carl Bruch facilitated a discussion of environmental migration action opportunities
  • Carl Bruch participated in a conference session on "Resettlement and Livelihood Rehabilitation of Cross-Border Environmentally Displaced Persons in Pacific Small Island Developing States", during the Hugo Conference on environmental migration in Liege, Belgium, November 2016
  • On November 3, 2016, Carl Bruch was a discussant in a lecture on "Addressing Relocation and Livelihood Re-Establishment of Climate Refugees: Applying Resettlement Experiences in Japan". The lecture was hosted by the Institute for Environment and Security at the United Nations University.
  • Carl Bruch gave a presentation on lessons from the Great East Japan Earthquake at the International Studies Association (ISA) International Conference in Hong Kong, June, 2017.

There are many options for protecting cross-border environmental migrants that should be further explored, including harmonized national legislation, new interpretations of existing treaty language, expansion of customary international law to address aspects of cross-border environmental displacement, international agreements on discrete issues of universal consensus, and bilateral or regional free movement agreements. Identifying actionable options for legal protection and raising awareness of those options will empower governments and other stakeholders to adopt and implement proactive measures to protect cross-border environmental migrants, and in turn, strengthen institutions to prepare for some of the most challenging consequences of climate change.