The refugee crisis yet to come: climate change talks in Germany fail to provide for the most vulnerable

Far from stepping up with a concrete funding initiative, governments have stalled in addressing the issues of climate displacement and aid.

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A 20-minute walk from Bonn's city centre brings you to the Ermekeilkaserne. The red-brick walls of this former Prussian military barracks loom over the surrounding streets. In the 1950s it became the hub for West Germany’s military rebirth – a key part of the country’s post-war restoration, funded by America.

Today parts of the vast complex operate as a processing centre for refugees. Hundreds of asylum cases are assessed here each day, and at night its entrances are guarded and dark.

Except for one: on the night I visit, a candle-lit path, hidden behind a site gate, leads to a small hut. Inside is a community hall, where walls are strewn with photos of volunteers cooking or gardening with the centre's new arrivals.

Projects like this are the embodiment of Angela Merkel’s celebrated “Welcome Culture” and a rejection of Germany’s resurgent far-right. Yet speaking inside the community hall last weekend, one group warned of an even greater refugee crisis still to come.

Litia Maiava from the Tokelau island of Nukunonu is part of a movement called the Pacific Climate Warriors. She describes the scene when a cyclone hit her home in 2005 as “the scariest moment in my life”, and says she fears man-made climate change means similar, or worse, is on the way.

Like many vulnerable communities, the Warriors are fighting to protect their homelands rather than flee. They have travelled to Bonn to carry this message to the 2017 international climate change talks (COP23), where national delegates have been hammering out details of how the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce global emmissions can work.

Progress in limbo

Inside the UN's plush conference centres, the rapid advances in renewable technology have lent the event an air of optimism. Countries showcase their best intentions at colourful stalls and young activists stage flash singalongs against Donald Trump (who has threatened to withdraw the US from the Agreement in 2020.)

But despite these advances, financial and legal support for the victims of climate change is stalling.

Hope of replicating anything like America’s post-war aid to Europe seems impossibly far-off: an expert dialogue on the provision of "loss and damage" funding has once again been deferred till next year. A coalition of American cities, states and businesses have made a showy, star-spangled pledge on reducing emissions – but only made limited mention of covering the country's contribution to the UN's Green Climate Fund for adaptation schemes in developing nations.

Without urgent adaptation – action to prevent or minimise the damage climate change can cause – forced migration is likely to rise with the seas. Increasingly extreme weather events have already displaced millions; rising salt water in coastal areas is threatening water and crops; and by 2050, the UN International Organisation for Migration forecasts that there will be 200 million environmental migrants. Other predictions put the number even higher.

There isn’t even an official UN legal definition for climate refugees. Initially conceived to protect Europeans displaced by the Second World War, the 1951 Refugee Convention is still restricted to those fleeing persecution and who have crossed an international border.

Some, such as the Green Party's co-leader Jonathan Bartley, are pushing for reform of the legal framework: “I urge the UN and government across the world to expand the definition of refugee to include those fleeing climate and weather related disasters.”

But according to Erica Bower from the UN Refugee Agency, attempting to change the convention could swallow up yet more time in lengthy negotiations. It could also risk diluting the existing definition's reach. “Most actors feel retracing our steps backwards isn’t going to take us forward,” Bower says.

Devolving responsibility

The most promising developments instead appear to lie in regional responses and piecemeal agreements – with accordingly limited and ad-hoc reach.

Fiji, for instance, has offered to take people in from the nearby low-lying islands of Kiribati and Tuvalu, and has invested $25,000 in developing a legal framework to help climate displaced communities relocate. Yet while Fiji opens its doors, many European governments feel under pressure from voters to curb their refugee and migrant numbers.

On the financial side, a new insurance scheme called InsuResilience Global Partnership aims to provide climate disaster insurance for 400 million poor and vulnerable people by 2020 – but risks pushing the cost of premiums back onto those who can least afford to pay.

Finance could also come from the courts. New evidence showing that companies responsible for the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions knew about climate risks could open them up to increased litigation, says Carroll Muffett, President of the Centre for International Environmental Law. But they would not necessarily see money return to those in most need in all places. “Whether we will see an entire country bringing a suit against a carbon major remains to be seen – but it’s not out of the realm of possibility."

So for all the Paris Agreement's sweeping ambition, when it comes to dealing with the human face of climate change its success so far is dispersed and delicate. In the words of Kya Lal, a young Fijian barrister and activist, without a clearer plan to aid victims "we risk leaving hundreds of millions of people out in the cold with no compensation and nowhere to go”.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.