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Statement by Prof. Walter Kaelin, Envoy of the Chair of the Platform on Disaster Displacement on the occasion of the Human Rights Council Intersessional Panel on Migrants in Vulnerable Situations
21 February 2022

After a prolonged period of drought, hundreds of Angolan citizens, mostly children, young mothers with babies and older people, arrived in Northern Namibia in March 2021. The government of Namibia asked the Namibia Red Cross Society to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance as these migrants were living in the open, in poor quality shelters and suffering from malnutrition and bad health. Priority attention was given to particularly vulnerable individuals including persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19. Mechanisms to address risks of sexual exploitation and abuse, and measures to mitigate tensions with local communities were also implemented.

These people were lucky. Their rights to life, to adequate shelter and food, to health, to safety and security and to non-discrimination were protected thanks to the generosity of the government of Namibia which welcomed them, regardless of whether they had crossed the border in a regular or irregular manner.

Being admitted to and being allowed to stay in a country where life-saving assistance can be reached is a primary need for people forced to move across borders in the context of disasters and adverse effects of climate change. It is obvious that such people are exposed to additional human-rights related risks if they have to resort to irregular migration. In contrast, providing pathways for safe, orderly and regular migration in accordance with the Global Compact for Migration is an effective means to prevent adding an additional layer of vulnerability.

Such pathways already exist. Firstly, some countries, particularly in Southern Africa, often admit people in disaster situations until return becomes possible based on ad hoc decisions. For example, people displaced across borders due to floods in Mozambique repeatedly found temporary refuge in neighbouring countries.

Secondly, other countries have formalized such hospitality. They have, and implement, domestic legislation that provides for humanitarian visas or temporary protection for people displaced across borders in disaster-contexts. While migration authorities have discretion when deciding to use such tools for admission and stay, countries in Central and South America – where such legislation is widespread – have adopted guides and guidelines to harmonize their approaches. Domestic immigration quotas for people from climate vulnerable countries providing for long-term or permanent residence would be another important tool, but they hardly exist today.

Thirdly, bilateral or regional agreements on the free movement of persons have a huge potential to provide people anticipating or affected by adverse impacts of climate change and disasters with safe, orderly and regular migration pathways. Such agreements serve economic purposes, but in some parts of the world, such as Africa’s Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region, they have allowed affected people to find refuge in other countries and access employment there. This enables affected people to help themselves where otherwise they would become dependent on humanitarian assistance. The recently finalized Protocol on Free Movement of Persons in the IGAD Region by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) explicitly provides that people who are moving in anticipation of, during, or in the aftermath of disasters can enter into the territory of another IGAD Member State and stay there.

Let me conclude: Multiple tools to protect and fulfil the human rights of migrants who are in vulnerable situations due to drought, flooding, and similar events already exist. However, the glass is not only half full, it is also half empty. Whether States use tools such as humanitarian visas, temporary protection or immigration quotas, or are ready to adapt free movement agreements to today’s realities of climate change, is hardly predictable. And other States refrain from doing so. A human rights-based prohibition of forcible return to situations of environmentally induced serious harm, as recognized in principle by the Human Rights Committee, is only in the making. To reduce their vulnerability and enhance the protection of their rights, it is of paramount importance to promote, adopt and systematically implement tools for the admission and stay of people displaced across borders in the context of  adverse effects of climate change and disasters.

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