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There is no climate justice without migration justice

The battle to tackle the climate crisis must also defend people’s right to move and their right to stay, argues Nick Cullen

5 to 6 minute read

Brown flood water submerges cars and a tractor surrounded by palm trees

July 2023 was the hottest month in 100,000 years, followed immediately by extreme floods and storms. In the UK and across the world, extreme weather, bad harvests and altered ecosystems are changing how and where we live. People have always moved, yet as the climate crisis worsens, and the impacts on people in marginalised communities become more severe, more people have to leave their homes.

Yet, rather than investing in policies that will benefit all of us, governments in the Global North increasingly view border controls, walls and surveillance as a way to control the impacts of the climate crisis. They spend billions propping up the border and surveillance industry that profits from the abuse of migrants.

The Transnational Institute finds that the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are spending, on average, 2.3 times as much on arming their borders as they are on climate finance. This figure is as high as 15 times as much for the worst offenders.

The UK has spent approximately $2.7 billion on border militarisation per year between 2013 and 2018, and just $977 million on climate financing for countries most affected by the crisis.

2023 saw a rise in state violence towards people on the move by those in positions of power in the UK. From a laundry list of horror comes the establishment of unsafe detention accommodation, eye-watering visa fee hikes which will tear families apart, to the recent passing of the Government’s inhumane Rwanda Bill.

British political leaders are using cruelty to line corporate pockets, to find scapegoats for their own policy failures and to pander to far-right nationalists. We cannot allow this. Whether people are in search of safety due to climate or conflict, or are on the move for stability or love, safe pathways should always be the answer.

Calls for action

Given the choice, most people hope to not have to leave their homes and communities, but the dangers of climate breakdown can leave no other choice. For example, when faced with drought, people in rural areas may need or want to move to find work to protect their incomes.

Some people will see migration as the best option for coping with climate impacts. Others will need to move simply to protect their lives and livelihoods. They should be able to do this safely and legally, without fear or intimidation.

The biggest greenhouse gas emitters are spending 2.3 times as much on borders as they are spending on climate finance

The ability to move ensures that people are able to adapt to the changing environment around them. Migration must be part of the solution to the climate crisis.

At the same time, it is up to rich, polluting countries in the Global North to support countries and communities to mitigate against the crisis that they have typically done the least to cause. In this light, climate and migrant organisations are coming together internationally to campaign around two key principles: The right to stay – to defend communities from the impacts of climate breakdown – and the right to move safely and with dignity when staying isn’t possible.

These principles help to guide positive action on climate and migration in different national and international arenas. At the UN climate talks (COP28) that took place in Dubai during December 2023, national and international action on climate change had been in the spotlight.

Activists both at the negotiations and around the world are fighting for an immediate transition away from fossil fuels that is centred in justice for refugees, migrants, Indigenous and First Nations people.

In the UK, over 125 climate and migrant groups have called on the government to recognise how climate change is impacting people’s lives and work to protect them. Their open letter laid out a set of demands to parliamentary party leaders to ensure legal rights for people on the move; provide climate finance for adaptation and loss and damage to affected communities, and ensure the fair and equitable phase out of fossil fuels.

What was the impact at COP28?

As with every UN climate talk, much has been made of the agreement reached at the end of the event. Focus has predominantly been on the stated commitments to transition away from fossil fuels, and whether the agreement is sufficient.

In order to protect communities from the impacts of climate change, this must happen immediately. It must be done in a way that is fair, funded, and led by those responsible for the climate crisis. However, the agreement made no explicit mention of ‘phasing out fossil fuels’.

In fact, it encourages countries to burn more ‘transition fuels’ like natural gas, relying on unproven carbon capture technologies to offset the pollution. This indicates the overwhelming influence of over 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists who attended the conference, as well as vested interests in Global North states to continue to profit from the status quo.

Activists around the world are fighting for an immediate transition away from fossil fuels that promotes justice for migrants and First Nations people

Furthermore, the agreement does nothing to provide meaningful financing to enable countries in the Global South to transition from fossil fuels, to adapt to the effects of climate breakdown nor cover the loss and damage caused. Commitments to the loss and damage fund currently cover less than 0.2 per cent of what is needed globally, with the UK pledging just £60m.

Additionally, little progress was made on climate and migration at COP28. Whilst there are other multilateral spaces where these issues are negotiated (eg. Platform on Disaster Displacement), the UN climate talks will have a role in financing relocation projects and compensating communities who have to move because of climate impacts.

Currently, International law provides incomplete and patchy protection for people moving due to the impacts of climate change. Many people crossing borders due to climate driven disasters will fall between the cracks of existing international legal frameworks.

Migration must not only be recognised as a positive tool for climate adaptation – with mechanisms for safe pathways made into international law – but also welcomed by countries, particularly in the Global North.

Building from the ground up

In the face of powerful lobbies, climate delay and crisis, climate justice and migrant justice movements are coming together to fight for a positive future. One centred on the right to stay and the right to move, supporting each other and building solidarity across movements.

In the UK, this means supporting groups that resist the hostile environment locally, protecting migrants of any kind from the rapid escalation of dehumanising rhetoric, policies and abuse. 

We must stand together and make the case for migration as a positive tool for climate adaptation in national and international policy. This must be rooted in solidarity with those most impacted by racist border systems both here and globally.

There is no climate justice without migrant justice.

Nick Cullen is the Migrant Justice Coordinator at the Climate Justice Coalition

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