Last week I interviewed Walter Kälin – one of the world’s leading experts on migration and climate change. He told me he “Wasn’t optimistic” but also “wasn’t pessimistic” about the prospects for progress in Paris.

Looking through the news coverage of the Paris talks that relates to migration and displacement it is mostly very shallow. Skim over a couple of news reports and you’ll get the idea: migration and displacement a bad thing that might be “fixed” at the Paris talks.

When I spoke to Kälin he was getting at something much more subtle. Some elements of migration and displacement linked to climate change could be helped during the Paris talks. Others cannot.

Here is how he described out the issue: the climate negotiations are set up to deal with several issues relating to migration and climate change. But not all.

The talks are geared up to address issues around adapting to climate change. If people need to move as a way of adapting to climate change then the climate negotiations could be the right forum for working out what this might look like, and crucially who is going to pay for it. So this is an area where some progress could be made.

If people are forced to move then this is a loss, or a damage. If people are forced from their homes, into temporary accommodation or end up permanently displaced this is clearly a loss and a damage. In recent years the new Loss and Damage agenda within the climate talks has started to look at how states could be helped to cope with these kinds of losses and damages. So again, the current talks in Paris could perhaps show some progress.

However, where Kälin felt the Paris talks were unlikely to yield anything new was on the legal status of people who are forced to move by the impacts of climate change. And crucially the status of people who move across international borders. Although the vast majority of people who move due to the impact of climate change stay within their own country, some will need to cross borders. When this happens they fall into a legal limbo. They are not covered by the Refugee Convention or other international agreements.

Kälin argued that the Paris talks are unlikely to show any progress on this issue. The negotiations are simply not set up for states to consider legal issues relating to human mobility. The negotiators – in general – are not experts in the area of international law. And states are not going into the talks expecting to reach agreement on the legal status of migrants and displacees. As a forum, is is not the kind of place where states would make bilateral or multilateral deals to accommodate each other’s citizens during or after climate linked disasters. This is not to say that states will always be unwilling to do this. But rather that they are not geared up for making these kind of agreements at the Paris talks.

For all these reasons we should be cautious about what we can expect from the Paris talks when it comes to migration and displacement. There are areas where progress can be made, and we should be hopeful for these. But we should not views the Paris talks as a fix-all when it comes to migration linked to climate change.

Alex Randall is the project manager of the Climate Change and Migration Coalition. He is author of a number of the Coalition’s reports, as well as numerous blogs and comment pieces.

Image: Martin Fisch (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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