Ama Francis is a fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University where her work cuts across issues of international law to apply legal solutions to climate migration. Ama’s area of legal expertise is a field that is becoming increasingly necessary as climate change continues to fuel unrest and migration around the world. We were thrilled to include her perspective this Millennials Week!
ODP: Your current fellowship at the Sabin center focuses on developing legal solutions to disaster displacement and climate migration, how long has this specific area of law existed and has the need for it grown in recent decades as climate change has become an increased driver of displacement?
AF: As the impacts of climate change become more severe, more and more people are being forced to leave their homes. At the same time, the political will to address climate-induced migration/displacement is growing on a global scale. The last decade has been really exciting for climate-induced migration law and policy. The global climate policy community first recognized the issue in 2010 with the Cancun Adaptation Framework at the UN climate talks. The landmark Paris Agreement then helped build this momentum by establishing the Task Force on Displacement to “avert, minimize and address” climate-induced migration and displacement. Last year, more than 160 countries agreed to take steps to tackle this issue by adopting the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration–the “thesis” of the Global Compact is that countries should make it easier for people to migrate without having to risk their lives and safety, including climate migrants. But scholars and practitioners have been aiming to address environmental migration for much longer.
ODP: How did you get interested in this area of law?
AF: I am from Dominica, a small island in the Caribbean, where we are already feeling the impacts of climate change. Dominica was devastated by Hurricane Maria–90% of homes had their roofs damaged or destroyed, and 20% of our population left the island. I went to law school to equip myself with the legal skills to fight climate change, and while there, realized I also had a passion for immigration issues. I also learned that climate migrants don’t enjoy the same legal protection as other people who are forced to leave their homes–this struck me as a huge gap. Working on climate-induced migration helps me combine two areas of service about which I care deeply.
ODP: Which countries have taken in the most climate refugees and where are these displaced people coming from?
AF: While there are some challenges in landing precise numbers, Africa and Central and South America have experienced the highest levels of cross-border climate-induced migration and displacement. When people are displaced within their own country, their movement is easier to track. China, India, and the Philippines had the highest number of internal displacements related to disasters between 2008 and 2016 (according to IDMC). But when you take into account population size, small island developing states experience the highest levels of internal displacement. While countries currently have limited legal obligation to take in climate migrants, according to the Nansen Initiative, at least 50 countries have received or decided to not return people after disasters.