The Responsibility of the International Community in Situations of Human Mobility Due to Environmental Causes

T. Alexander Aleinikoff
Director, Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, The New School
Chair, KNOMAD Thematic Working Group on Environmental Change and Migration

Susan Martin
Donald G. Herzberg Professor Emerita of International Migration, Georgetown University​


Environmental Mobility; Climate-Induced Migration; Global Governance; Climate Change and Environmental Degradation; Disaster Risk Reduction; Migration and Displacement; Development; Human Rights; Conflict Resolution, Peacebuilding and Security.


As intensifying climate impacts and other environmental events are increasingly driving human mobility worldwide, a wide range of international organizations and other actors have put environmental mobility on the global agenda. Yet the international community has failed to produce a comprehensive strategy or structure for addressing issues related to environmental mobility and has struggled to fulfill its responsibilities to prevent, respond to, and provide solutions for displacement. Those responsibilities are anchored in existing commitments of States and flow from the duty of the international community to remedy harms that its members inflict on others.

Four responsibilities may be identified: (1) to reduce the risk of displacement and provide for the orderly movement of those facing displacement; (2) to protect and assist displaced persons, including through the recognition of their rights and adhering to the principle of non-refoulement; (3) to provide durable solutions to displacement; and (4) to develop adequate institutions to meet these responsibilities.
Focusing on the responsibilities of the international community and the rights of persons who move (whether voluntarily or not) offers a different approach to environmental mobility, which has generally been viewed as presenting a problem of the “management” of migrant movements.  A comprehensive approach to environmental mobility is a key element in an international strategy of climate action, grounded in accountability and dedicated to pursuing environmental justice.
Initiatives, processes and work plans at the global level relating to environmental mobility fall into six categories: (1) climate change and environmental degradation, (2) disaster risk reduction, (3) migration and displacement, (4) development, (5) human rights, and (6) conflict resolution, peacebuilding and security. While important analysis and activities have been undertaken in these spheres of action, efforts remain siloed, with no central coordination structure to identify synergies, overlaps and gaps.

Various institutional arrangements could help to develop and implement more comprehensive and coherent strategies to meet international responsibilities for prevention, response and solution.  While there have been proposals for a new international convention or the establishment of a multilateral organization dedicated to environmental mobility, neither seems likely to be adopted due to a lack of political will and institutional turf battles.

Instead, a new global mechanism may be most effective in supporting and supplementing the many valuable sub-global processes and norms that already exist through sustained attention and increased funding for the following functions: (1) mapping of activities and responsibilities at the UN and global level, (2) developing a comprehensive and coherent approach to environmental mobility; (3) assisting regions and States regarding prevention, disaster risk reduction, planned relocations, data, monitoring, evaluation; (4) developing norms and template agreements; and (5) sharing of best practices.
Three possible structural models for meeting international responsibilities and undertaking the identified functions are (1) a coordination mechanism, (2) a lead-agency, or (3) a multi-stakeholder platform.
A coordination mechanism would be comprised of the many agencies and other stakeholders that are currently involved in environmental mobility activities. It could build on either high-level operational coordination or policy coordination among equals. However, this model is not likely to produce the synergies needed for comprehensive action.
A lead agency model would identify an existing agency that could take on the numerous functions relating to environmental mobility. But of the two candidates for such a role, neither the International Organization for Migration nor the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would seem able to assume such functions, in particular because each has many other competing areas of responsibility.
A multi-stakeholder platform, accompanied by a multi-donor trust fund to carry out platform functions, would appear best suited to fulfilling the responsibilities of the international community for responding

to environmental mobility. The platform should develop comprehensive strategies and guidance as well as suggest norms and templates to support national and regional efforts. It would not conduct field operations. A fund should be established to support projects by States and regions consistent with the
platform’s priorities and overall strategy. Prevention, response and solution would be conceived of as a continuum addressed early and comprehensively – not as separate activities within the province of a particular agency or agencies that only act at the crisis stage.

International action would supplement, not replace or pre-empt, the activities of regions, sub-regions and States. An invitation or request from the Secretary General to interested parties to establish such a platform would be the most efficacious route forward. A diverse membership would provide expertise and knowledge and strengthen legitimacy.

As the climate crisis unfolds and evidence becomes increasingly clear that environmental causes influence the movement of ever more people, comprehensive and coherent action at the global level is an imperative. A multi-stakeholder platform holds the greatest potential to jumpstart improvements in coordination, normative development, and supporting States and regions.


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