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Nansen Initiative Global Consultation. Keynote address by Volker Türk Assistant High Commissioner for Protection. Geneva, 12-13 October 2015

Speeches and statements

Nansen Initiative Global Consultation. Keynote address by Volker Türk Assistant High Commissioner for Protection. Geneva, 12-13 October 2015

12 October 2015

Thank you for the opportunity to address this Global Consultation. Our meeting here today is pivotal. It is the culmination of our collective efforts under the Nansen Initiative to address the cross-border displacement aspects of disaster and climate change. When this work started almost three years ago, it seemed like a "mission impossible". However, under the strong leadership of Switzerland and Norway, it has broken important ground. This Initiative has also been supported by the European Union, members of the Nansen Steering Group - Australia, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Germany, Kenya, Mexico, and the Philippines - as well as a growing group of friends. Our deep appreciation and admiration go to the work of the Envoy, Walter Kälin, and the Nansen Initiative Secretariat for having laid the groundwork to carry it forward.

With the Paris Climate Conference only a few weeks away, we are all waiting to see whether the international community will finally conclude a meaningful agreement on the most far-reaching issue that humanity faces today - the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Failure to do so would be a collective failure. It would have dire implications for all of us - in particular for future generations.

Allow me a personal remark. I remember discussions at home in the seventies when my father and uncle, who are biologists, argued that we are already "past midnight" and that ecosystems could go haywire, with a massive impact on all life on this planet. This troubled me deeply in my youth, and I can only imagine what it will mean for future girls and boys growing up in an environment hugely changed by the world that we have created - one that was so aptly described by the Pope in his encyclical Laudato Si'. None of us can escape responsibility for our actions, not only in terms of their global implications, but also in relation to future generations.

UNHCR has, from the very beginning, been a staunch supporter of the Nansen Initiative, named after the world's first High Commissioner for Refugees - a renowned arctic explorer - who also dedicated much of his life to science, as well as to "humanitarianism" before the term was coined. His pragmatism and "can do" attitude in the face of unprecedented challenges are a source of inspiration and are precisely what we need today.

As the Nansen Initiative has shown, there is an intrinsic link between climate change and forced displacement. We all know that conflict is not the only driver of displacement. People are also increasingly forced to abandon their homes as a result of the interaction between environmental degradation, natural hazards, and climate change and the effects of rapid urbanisation, water insufficiency, and food and energy insecurity. Desertification, drought, flooding, and the growing severity of natural disasters exacerbate vulnerability and affect tens of millions of people every single year. In the IPCC's fifth assessment report, climate change is projected to increase the displacement of people. Populations lacking the resources for planned migration are often more exposed to extreme weather events, particularly in low-income developing countries.

This demands a fundamental reorientation of our relationship with life on earth and future generations. If we can draw any lessons from the current refugee situations in Europe and the Middle East, it is to take the forecasting seriously, accept the realities of migration and displacement, and deal with them effectively and as a matter of urgency. Radical action is required of us now to mitigate against the worst effects of climate change.

The Paris agreement presents an opportunity to achieve this, provided that it takes into account the growth of climate-change-related migration and displacement and the necessity of proactive measures. There has been a growing recognition amongst States of the imperative to address climate change from a myriad of perspectives, including that of displacement, humanitarian emergency response, protection, and even preventing statelessness. Let us not forget that the Cancún Decision in 2010 already recognised that adaptation to climate change will take the form of migration, displacement, and planned relocation to move populations out of harm's way. Since Cancún, UNHCR has facilitated an Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility, alongside IOM, NRC/IDMC, and a range of UN, NGO, and academic partners, to foster better understanding of the issue amongst Parties to the discussions. One of the most important lessons derived from the Nansen Initiative is that States can prevent and prepare for increased displacement in the future when the right policies are in place. Stepping up adaptation and disaster risk reduction efforts needs to go hand in hand with mitigation.

The protection dimension must be central in these endeavours. Already today, most of the populations of concern to UNHCR are located in, or originate from, climate change hotspots around the world. They flee conflict, turmoil, violence, or persecution. If disaster also strikes, humanitarian responses in such situations become even more complex. A deeper analysis reveals that violent conflict in some countries can also be related to changes in the natural environment and the ensuing fierce competition over scarce natural resources such as water, arable land, or other basic necessities of life. In such circumstances, there is an obvious case for international refugee protection. This would similarly be relevant in situations where harmful action or inaction taken by the authorities in response to climate‐related events is related to one or more of the 1951 Convention grounds and could, as a result, be considered persecution.

While most of this displacement is internal, it is also clear that the future will see more and more people displaced across international borders by the effects of climate change. Already now, one in four countries worldwide have either received, or refrained from returning, people in the aftermath of natural disasters. However, in those situations where the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees does not readily apply, there is no provision made in existing international norms for the protection of persons forced to flee their country of origin across international borders as a result of the effects of climate change. The Ministerial Meeting, held on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention, flagged this protection gap in the Ministerial Communiqué. The Nansen Initiative has played an important role in addressing this gap by improving the evidence base, spotlighting good practices, and building consensus on key principles and elements for the protection of persons displaced by climate change, all with the aim of setting a "protection agenda" for future action.

The Protection Agenda that is being considered today is visionary and clear: disasters and climate change can have devastating impacts on people and their communities, raise multiple protection concerns, and undermine the development of countries. The Agenda has set out the required response in a principled and pragmatic way, identifying the practices necessary to address the protection needs of people displaced across borders in the context of disasters and climate change. This protection dimension is of particular interest to UNHCR. We are deeply concerned for people in such circumstances, as they are often doubly vulnerable due to the locations and the conditions in which they live as well as the risk they face of repeated displacement.

As the Protection Agenda recognises, National Adaptation Plans (NAP) may provide the best mechanisms to integrate migration and planned relocation in national policies, developed in close consultation with communities at risk of displacement, to prevent and mitigate against forced displacement in the context of climate change. UNHCR has been working with the Brookings Institution, Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration and other relevant stakeholders to develop guidance on planned relocation. This guidance highlights the need for a participatory, rights-based process, involving both relocating and host communities, taking into consideration their specific needs.

In conclusion, we open a new phase today. States endorsing the Protection Agenda will have taken the first step. For its part, UNHCR is pleased to continue working with IOM and other partners to maximise support to States, based upon our respective strengths and areas of expertise. It is also our fervent hope that, by building on the outcome of this Global Consultation and drawing upon the Protection Agenda, the Paris meeting will become another milestone in addressing the human mobility implications of climate change.

We are making history today. Together, we can ensure that people remain at the centre of efforts to address climate change. Our children and grandchildren deserve no less.

Thank you.