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Migrant rights removed from COP21 climate agreement

The United Nations released a draft text of the COP21 climate agreement on Wednesday (Dec. 9).

Edmonton-based Council of Canadians organizer Diane Connors is with the Canadian Youth Delegation in Paris. Yesterday, they reported, “We have seen the removal of vital language around human rights from the text. This includes ‘the rights of indigenous peoples, migrants, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and under occupation’. While this language appears in the preamble, it was completely removed from Article 2, meaning it’s no longer legally binding.” The Council of Canadians believes that all of these peoples should have their rights fully recognized in the operative (legally-binding) portion of the agreement.

The removal of migrant rights is significant because, as the Japan Times reports, “Climate change does not make one a refugee, a designation for people forced to leave their home countries because of war, persecution or other violence. Someone seeking refuge from environmental disaster cannot apply for refugee status, lacks protection under the United Nations High Convention for Refugees and can be sent back to their countries of origin without question at any time.”

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council. says an average of 22.5 million people a year already flee their homes due to environmental disasters, including floods, storms and droughts.

This situation is only going to worsen.

As far back as 2008, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that between 250 million and one billion people could lose their homes by 2050 as a result of climate change. The UNHCR deputy high commissioner Craig Johnstone has said the world will face a “global-scale emergency” due to climate change-impacted migration. And the Independent has reported, “Hundreds of millions could be forced to go on the move because of water shortages and crop failures in most of Africa, as well as in central and southern Asia and South America…”

In terms of some specific examples, National Geographic reports, “Scientists predict Bangladesh will lose 17 percent of its land by 2050 due to flooding caused by climate change. The loss of land could lead to as many as 20 million climate refugees from Bangladesh.” It also highlights that, “Sea level rise may sink all 1,200 islands of Maldives. This would force all Maldivians to find new places to live.” The Maldives has a population of about 340,000 people. The island nation of Tuvalu (which is on average less than 2 metres above sea level) has already seen 15 per cent of its population leave, with 70 per cent of current residents indicating they will need to leave if climate stressors worsen.

It is also widely acknowledged that climate change was a contributory factor to the mass migration from Syria. George Monbiot has written, “One of the likely catalysts for the 2011 uprising in Syria was a massive drought – the worst in the region in the instrumental record – that lasted from 2006 to 2010. It caused the emigration of one and a half million rural workers into Syrian cities, and generated furious resentment when Bashar al-Assad’s government failed to respond effectively. Climate models suggest that manmade global warming more than doubled the likelihood of a drought of this magnitude.”

At the COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, the Council of Canadians marched with No One Is Illegal to demand freedom of movement from climate chaos. We believe it would be a travesty if the rights of climate-displaced peoples were not fully recognized in the COP21 agreement.

The United States is opposed to including migrant rights in the COP21 text, while the European Union is reportedly undecided on the issue. New Zealand presumably opposes the inclusion of migrant rights in that they deported Ioane Teitiota back to the island nation of Kiribati this past September. Mr. Teitiota has been struggling since 2011 to be recognized as a climate change refugee. His lawyer Michael Kidd has pledged to take the issue to the UN Human Rights Council in the new year. We don’t know where Canada stands on the inclusion of migrant rights in the COP21 agreement.

This year’s climate summit was scheduled to conclude today (Friday Dec. 11), but has now been extended into the weekend. The Council of Canadians also supports the 12-12-12 mobilization that will take place tomorrow (Sat. Dec. 12). This protest is happening “because climate justice won’t wait for politicians.”

Photo: Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow and climate justice campaigner Andrea Harden march with No One Is Illegal during the COP 15 climate summit in Copenhagen, Dec. 2009.