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Governments agree on measures to help migrants fleeing degrading lands

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Mariam TraoreMariam Traore Chazalnoël is a specialist in environmental and climate migration at the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Office to the United Nations in New York. She has been working since 2013 on the global governance of environmental migration and regularly publishes on the topic.

The plight of people migrating in the context of environmental degradation, climate change impacts and natural disasters and the potential governance responses to such challenges have received a lot of attention in recent years. So far, the climate diplomacy community has made significant progress. Migration considerations are taken into account, for instance, in the work undertaken by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Taskforce on Displacement.[1] However, climate and environmental issues have not been considered as extensively in global migration policy discussions.

Therefore, the finalization of the text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM)[2] in July 2018 represents an important milestone for many of the policymakers and practitioners working on environmental migration matters. In itself, the decision by United Nations Member States to negotiate a global framework to address international migration was momentous. But the broad inclusion of environmental considerations signals that environmental migration is finally getting appropriate recognition in global migration policy.

The consensus to tackle some of the main challenges identified in the past decade by environmental migration specialists heads-on in the intergovernmental negotiations of the agreement on GCM is noteworthy. The agreement carefully addresses the issues of forced migration linked to sudden-onset disasters and of migration movements occurring in the context of slow-onset disasters and environmental degradation, including desertification, land degradation and drought.[3]

The unprecedented integration of land-related issues in migration governance policy was championed by members states working together in a coalition that identified land matters as key when discussing global migration governance. The group normally calls itself “The Group of Friends of DLDD”, which stands for Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought.

The preamble of the GCM offers the first indication that issues of land are seen as important. It acknowledges the principles of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). In the past few years, states that are party to the UNCCD have considered and examined the linkages between migration and land management. For instance, at the last UNCCD Conference of the Parties (COP13) held in Ordos, China, in 2017, a ministerial roundtable[4] analyzed the potential implications for peace and security arising from migration in the context of land degradation. That session of the Conference signaled political will to address these questions when it adopted a decision on migration titled, “The positive role that measures taken under the Convention can play to address desertification/land degradation and drought as one of the drivers that causes migration.”[5]

Recognizing both the UNCCD and the impacts of desertification and land in the GCM paves the way for at least three major outcomes. First, it is a coherent move to build bridges with environmental diplomacy and communities of practices addressing these issues. Second, it makes it possible to align the GCM with parallel global policy processes, such as the Convention. Third, it highlights the importance of considering migration management in the context of slow onset environmental degradation.

3S Initiative - The Agadez pilot project: Restoring degraded lands to create jobs for migrant reintegration in West Africa

Picture: 3S Initiative - The Agadez pilot project: Restoring degraded lands to create jobs for migrant reintegration in West Africa

The GCM outlines several practical measures that may help to address the land-migration nexus. By acknowledging that preserving healthy environments, including lands, is the primary measure to ensure that unwanted distress migration does not occur (paragraph 18(b), 18 (i), the agreement underlines that the need to invest in climate adaption efforts and the development of resilience strategies in countries of origin is a priority. This is important in relation to the mandate of the UNCCD and its efforts to promote land restoration and sustainable land management practices. Land management tools have the potential to contribute to migration management.

The GCM also states that the development of these adaptation and resilience strategies need to take into account the impacts on migration. This will make it easier to consolidate and further develop existing programmes and partnerships that bring land and migration dimensions together.  The common work conducted by UNCCD and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in West Africa[6] is a good example.

The collaborative work IOM and UNCCD carry out takes place at multiple levels, from global policy and advocacy, research and analysis, to field operations. Such complementary partnerships illustrate practices that can be built upon as the implementation of the Compact advances. They may provide governments with the expertise to plan for and put in practice strategies to cope with land-related migration impacts.

Another highlight of the GCM is the unprecedented recognition that in some cases the impacts of environmental degradation, including desertification, land degradation and drought could make it impossible for people to remain in their places of origin or to return to them (paragraph 21(h)). In such cases, states will need to cooperate to find solutions for the migrants, including relocation and visa options. The shape these measures will take in practice is still up for discussion, especially because of the limitations in the body of global practices that could be built upon when discussing solutions to manage migration related to land impacts.

Still, raising the need to develop regular migration pathways for people forced to move on account of land-related issues represents an important political step. Further, it offers hope for future action for the migrants forced to leave their ancestral land through no fault of their own, including indigenous communities that are often not considered enough in environmental migration discussions.

Yet, it is important to recall what the GCM is not a binding document. Rather, it is a voluntary framework articulating a common set of commitments for states to respond to the challenges and opportunities of contemporary international migration, in order to trigger implementation measures.

The GCM is a significant demonstration of political will, especially as both developed and developing countries in all regions of the world found common ground for framing how to respond to the land and migration dimensions. But being a non-binding agreement means that making a positive difference to the states, migrants and communities affected or threatened by land degradation depends only on the good will of states and provision of the appropriate funding measures.

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Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, they do not necessarily represent the position of the International Organization for Migration, or any other organizations of which the names are mentioned in the article.



[1] https://www.environmentalmigration.iom.int/iom-pdd-task-force-displacem…

[2] https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/sites/default/files/180711_final_draft_…

[3] See IOM’s analysis of environmental migration elements in the GCM : https://mailchi.mp/4e9baef52972/iom-environmental-migration-newsletter-…

[4] http://www2.unccd.int/sites/default/files/sessions/documents/2017-12/ICCD_COP%2813%29_21-1717909E.pdf p 17-18),

[5] http://www2.unccd.int/official-documents/cop13-l-documents/iccdcop13l25

[6] https://www.environmentalmigration.iom.int/human-mobility-unccd

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