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Climate change and forced displacement concerns

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Elisabeth Rasmusson, Secretary General, NRC

Good morning to all of you, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the humanitarian concerns related to climate change and forced displacement. As you will hear, we do now for the first time have an indication of the actual scale of displacement as a result of sudden-onset natural disasters.

Already back in 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognised that the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration. Today, it must be acknowledged that there is a clear link between climate change, disasters, migration and displacement. Climate change is already increasing the frequency and intensity of natural hazards. The numbers of reported natural disasters and those affected are rising. Over the past two decades, the number of recorded natural disasters has doubled from approximately 200 to over 400 per year.

People may migrate voluntarily to adapt to climate change and slow-onset disasters. But climate change and disasters also cause forced displacement. Both sudden- and slow-onset natural disasters can be direct causes of displacement - fleeing might be the only chance of survival for people affected.

Natural disasters are among the leading causes of forced displacement. But while we know that millions are already fleeing due to climate-related natural disasters, so far we have had no good estimates of how many. Today, however, I can present to you the main findings of a forthcoming study by NRC's Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). These estimates on displacement in relation to climate change are deeply concerning.

Our study reveals that in 2008 alone, more than 20 million people were displaced by climate-related sudden-onset natural disasters, such as floods and storms.

For example, up to 800 000 people were displaced from their homes when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar just over a year ago. Many of them have still not been able to return. In Brazil, almost 80 000 people were displaced by heavy rains and floods last November. These are only two examples from a long list of climate-related natural disasters.

With the estimate we can present today, and the forthcoming study, we do for the first time have a solid indication of the scale of forced displacement as a result of sudden-onset natural disasters in the context of climate change.

The findings reveal that in total, at least 36 million people were displaced by sudden-onset natural disasters in 2008. Of those, over 20 million were displaced by climate-related disasters, while almost 16 million were displaced by non-climate-related disasters. In this study, climate-related sudden-onset natural disasters include meteorological, hydrological and climatological disasters, but not geophysical disasters.

To put this vast number in context; 20 million persons displaced by sudden onset climate-related natural disasters in 2008 alone, can be compared to 4,6 million people internally displaced as a result of conflict during the course of last year.

In addition to the 20 million displaced by climate-related sudden-onset natural disasters, it is likely that many million more displaced by climate-related slow-onset disasters such as drought.

Adding to our concern; this displacement is only set to increase as the number of natural disasters is on the rise. Clearly, climate-related displacement is significant, and evolving climate change agreements must therefore address displacement issues.

That brings us here to Bonn. We are gathered here to discuss the first draft of a negotiation text for the final Copenhagen agreement in December.

I would like to emphasise that the humanitarian community welcomes the recognition of migration in relation to climate change adaptation in the current draft negotiating text. We urge State Parties to keep this reference in the final agreement.

We would also like to offer some advice on modifications to the draft text. Displacement should be explicitly mentioned along with migration. We have also pointed out that the reference to so-called "climate refugees" is less useful as the term has no basis in international law.

Together with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Representative to the Secretary General on the Human Rights of IDPs and the UN University, NRC has addressed the protection concerns for people displaced in the context of climate change. This includes both those internally displaced and persons displaced across international borders. We underscore the obligations of States under existing international law. Our ideas and suggestions are presented in the joint submission; "Forced displacement in the context of climate change: Challenges for states under international law".

Our key recommendations to State Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are:

1. Acknowledge in the agreed outcome the clear link between the effects of climate change and displacement, and also States' obligation to address displacement in the context of climate change.

2. Establish alternative forms of protection for persons who do not qualify as refugees.

3. Build on existing international mechanisms and ensure policy coherence between mitigation, adaptation, humanitarian response and development.

4. Ensure that any adaptation and risk management regime covers forced displacement and gives priority to the needs of the most vulnerable people and those most affected by climate change.

5. Allocate adaptation funding to disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response. Already established humanitarian funding mechanisms are currently not sufficient to meet the coming challenge.

6. Support and follow up research and action to identify and fill gaps associated with climate change and displacement.