East Africa and the Horn light the way for climate migrants

A new declaration could set a precedent for regional cooperation on Africa’s climate-change crisis.

Regional cooperation and free movement are critical for handling climate-linked migration and displacement but are vastly underused. East Africa and the Horn – regions battered by climate change – have emerged as leaders in recognising their importance.

The Horn countries contribute 0.1% of global emissions but face their fourth consecutive failed rainy season, a climatic event not seen in 40 years. At least 36.1 million people have been affected by the drought, and 8.9 million livestock have died. Over 16 million people cannot access enough clean water, and 20.5 million face acute food insecurity and rising malnutrition in parts of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. More than a million people in Somalia have been displaced – mostly women and children.

Erratic rainfall patterns have caused drought in some parts of East Africa and the Horn and severe flash and riverine flooding in others, such as South Sudan, Uganda and Burundi. Since the start of the rainy season in May, floods in Sudan have damaged 238 health facilities and 1 500 water sources and washed away over 1 500 latrines. The 2021 South Sudan floods were described as the worst in 60 years.

The international community has been slow to address the links between climate change and migration

In April last year, Burundi declared a state of emergency when floods destroyed homes and crops and displaced thousands. In 2021, 2.6 million people were displaced in sub-Saharan Africa due to climate-related disasters.

Climate change is a crucial driver of internal and cross-border migration and displacement. This is projected to increase as the adverse effects of climate change worsen. The World Bank predicts up to 85.7 million climate migrants in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050. Despite this, the international community has been slow to address the interrelatedness of climate change and migration.

Things are changing however, with climate and human mobility increasingly recognised in legal and policy frameworks at all levels in Africa. In July, countries making up the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the East African Community (EAC) signed the Kampala Ministerial Declaration on Migration, Climate Change & Environment. In 2020, IGAD states adopted the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons in the IGAD Region – the first to address people fleeing disasters and climate change specifically.

The cross-sectoral nature of climate change and migration poses significant governance challenges. Because so many government departments are affected, no single policy or law has been developed to tackle climate-induced displacement. Instead, at least 50 policy frameworks and mechanisms on migration, climate change and disaster risk reduction address different parts of Africa’s climate change-mobility nexus.

At least 50 policy frameworks address different aspects of Africa’s climate change-mobility nexus

Regional cooperation is vital because climate migration has cross-border implications. Responses such as the Kampala Declaration raise awareness of the threats, establish joint priorities and action plans, and galvanise international support for implementation.

The declaration commits to 13 actions that include strengthening climate resilience and adaptive interventions, enacting regional and national laws, policies and strategies, and introducing regulatory environments that favour the benefits of remittances, trade and investment.

Among the actions are encouraging investment in circular and green economies and strengthening weather and climate institutes. Also included are establishing an inter-ministerial working group on climate change, the environment and migration and asking key parties to back the declaration at the November United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt.

In addition to IGAD and EAC member countries, the Kampala declaration received high-level backing from across the continent. Prominent country representatives included: Senegal, which currently holds the African Union presidency; Egypt, which is president of COP27; Algeria and Zambia, current chair of the African Group of Negotiators on climate change. So the declaration’s key messages are likely to be reflected at COP27 and other regional and continental forums.

East Africa and the Horn recognise migration as a vital adaptation measure that should be enabled

Regional protocols enabling free movement can significantly increase protection and resources for those migrating due to the effects of climate change. Such measures provide jobs and trade and empower people to access alternative income opportunities and skills. Free movement enables cross-border circular and seasonal migration, allowing people to return home with social and financial remittances, including knowledge, technology and skills.

Free movement also reduces the need for climate refugee definitions. While commonly used, the term ‘climate refugees’ is misleading. The 1951 Refugee Convention protects people facing persecution but doesn’t include environmental degradation or disaster. The 1969 Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention expands refugee definitions but doesn’t cover environmental degradation. That means there is still a normative gap in refugee law regarding people fleeing climate change impacts.

Free movement protocols have been designed to advance regional integration and economic development. The IGAD protocol is the first to protect people moving to neighbouring countries before, during or after environmental threats and to allow them to remain until it’s safe to return.

East Africa and the Horn face serious climate threats. Their collective actions recognise migration as a vital adaptation measure that should be enabled in a safe and orderly manner to maximise development. The Kampala declaration and IGAD free movement protocol set new precedents that should inspire other regional bodies to do the same.

Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo, Senior Research Consultant, Migration, ISS

Image: ©Tobin Jones/ AMISOM /Flickr

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