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Climate refugees: what can businesses do about it

Despite the yet existing claims that climate change doesn’t exist, its effects are increasingly being felt, and not just in terms of warmer temperatures and higher occurrences of natural disasters. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) an average of 21.5 million people a year are displaced as a result of climate change. Such community displacements tend to occur for various reasons, including:

  • Sudden onset disasters such as floods, hurricanes, storms, wildfires which leave people without homes, material possessions and jobs (due to the lack of infrastructure) on the wake of such hazards

  • Slow onset disasters such as droughts, coastal erosions linked to sea level rise which force communities to internally relocate within a country or region

Moreover, food and water scarcity, lack of other resources coupled with extreme weather often contribute to the destabilisation of at-risk and conflict areas, further encouraging communities displacements. Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific demanded that this issue be addressed to ensure justice and protection for affected peoples. In a report titled “Calls for just solutions for climate induced migration in Asia Pacific”, FoE APac claimed that climate change impacts in the Asia Pacific region, including Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines, could fuel a rise in food and water prices, increasing competition and conflicts among communities over depleted resources.

At present, one of the key issues is that there is no way to properly recognise a “climate refugee”, making it very hard for displaced communities to start over in another place. Under international law, a “refugee” describes people fleeing war or persecution and who have crossed an international border. “Climate refugees” are often displaced internally (either within a country or a region) yet still face the same level of socio-economic uncertainty and the same need to start over. Most people in this situation expect that their government will be able to support them, and hence why the term “refugee” would not be appropriate.

That said, let’s take the example of Puerto Rico, which has been left without electricity or proper infrastructures for over 4 months following Hurricane Maria, and it is still unknown when conditions will come back to normal. In this particular case, we can predict a massive migration moves to continental US to establish themselves there, most likely arriving by waves to territories or states unprepared to receive these fellow-Americans. Not only that, but the islanders are in a situation whereby they need basic supplies, administrative, fiscal support as well as a relocation package, jobseekers support and other things that we take for granted.

And here we’re talking about climate migrants in one of the most economically stable countries. In other geographical areas, such as South East Asia, climate refugees often struggle to receive even basic human necessities.

The Paris Agreement includes important elements for displacement and human mobility issues: it asks Parties to “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations towards migrants, among others, when taking actions to address climate change”. However, it is difficult for some countries to recognise what those obligations towards climate-affected migrants might be, and how to label them.

What can businesses do about it?

From a business perspective, the first thing that comes to mind is to assess the environmental impact of the business itself and take action accordingly to limit the impact and frequency of natural disasters occurring as a result of climate change. Surely, one can argue that a business alone can do nothing about it. Yet, when millions of businesses, large and small, try to find alternative business models that take into account the environment as an asset and positively contribute to preserve it, there is a chance to curb the negative impact of climate change.

The second thing that comes to mind is volunteering. In countries with large migration flows, companies could put in place volunteering programmes aiming to provide assistance to climate displaced people. These volunteering programmes would be best served if each company sought the so-called “materiality” in them: an insurance company could provide advice on how best insure businesses in affected countries or how to start a new life in the arrival country.

Another action would be to put Corporate Responsibility plans in place to assist citizens who have been affected by climate change. Continuing with the insurance sector, a company could decide to launch microloans or financial education/assistance projects for those businesses who risk losing all after natural disasters occur. Such corporate plans need to be "material", i.e. need to have an added-value for the company, so that they can be long-lasting and significant. Companies whose either employees or assets are located in one of the disaster-stricken countries will have more interest and benefits in drawing up such plans.

Finally, and in an individual basis, encouraging peers to think about what climate refugees are and advocate for a proper “labelling” of these migrants which can grant them a better life either via contacting your local MP or NGO to raise awareness on this issue.

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