Climate change talks must focus on the most vulnerable: the world’s children

In November, countries will gather in Bonn, Germany for the international climate change negotiations. Since meeting last year, governments have been forced to shift their focus from analyzing future projections of climate change to scrambling to respond to their very real and significant human impacts at home.  In rich and poor countries alike, more extreme temperatures and weather-related disasters are having profound human rights’ implications for millions of people, including forced displacement, devastation of livelihoods, insufficient access of food and clean water, and even death. Worse yet, the most vulnerable—especially children—bear the brunt of these impacts.

"Children, particularly displaced and migrant children, are among those most at risk to the adverse impacts of climate change."

The UN Human Rights Council recently acknowledged that children, particularly displaced and migrant children, are among those most at risk to the adverse impacts of climate change. The resolution acknowledged that more extreme weather and other adverse climate change effects threaten to seriously undermine the human rights of children. These include their enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, access to education, adequate food, adequate housing, safe drinking water and sanitation.

In my own field work with Refugees International this past year, I’ve witnessed some of the ways in which children are experiencing climate change—especially in poor, fragile, conflict-ridden countries least responsible for the climate crisis. In July, we traveled to Somalia where close to 900,000 people have been displaced since November 2016 due to a severe, protracted drought that has brought the country to the brink of famine. Over the last three decades, the Horn of Africa has experienced higher temperatures and persistent declines in rainfall. These changes in the climate system, which have been linked to man-made climate change, are having profound and irreversible impacts on the livelihoods of Somalia’s impoverished rural populations who largely depend on rainfall to survive.  At present, rainfall levels in some drought-stricken areas are the lowest in 36 years.

Many drought-affected families have flocked to cities in order to access food, water, shelter and safety. Malnutrition rates soar in many of the displacement camps, especially among children, often leading to irreversible damage to their physical, mental, and emotional well-being including stunting, impaired or delayed cognitive ability, and severe emotional distress. Malnutrition, combined with lack of clean water and sanitation, also leaves displaced children highly susceptible to diseases like cholera, which has been rampant in many of the camps. None of the camps we visited had schools.  

Refugees International (All Rights Reserved). 

Hurricane Matthew-affected children in Saint-Jean-du-Sud, Haiti.

In a displacement camp in Mogadishu, I met a young mother with three small children who fled her rural village after a third season of failed rains wiped out the last of her animals. She and her children had arrived only a few days before, having walked for days until they reached a town where they could get a ride. “I watched my animals die,” said the mother. “I even watched people die.… This drought is the worst we’ve ever seen, worse even than in 2011”. The drought and famine she was referring to killed 250,000 people, half of them children, many of whom died during their flight. “Look at my child’s hand!” she urged me as she pressed her thumb firmly into the baby’s flesh. When she removed it, the depression remained for several seconds, a sign of malnutrition. Her 18-month-old daughter, weak from lack of food, stared at me with listless eyes.

The human rights impacts of climate-related disasters on children manifest in other ways as well. Earlier this year I traveled to southwest Haiti where, in late 2016 after three years of drought, Hurricane Matthew made landfall. As a category 4 hurricane, Matthew’s 150 mile-per-hour winds were no match for impoverished families whose homes, constructed from wood and mud, were obliterated, leaving tens of thousands homeless. As of July 2017, 1.7 million people were still in urgent need of food aid and 140,000 children were malnourished.

A common coping strategy for poor Haitian families during times of crisis is to place children outside of the home with relatives, acquaintances or even with strangers in foster care in an effort to provide them with food and shelter. But separating children from their families increases the risk of child exploitation and abuse, including trafficking. I met one aid worker in Grand Sud, one of the hardest hit areas, who told me that only a few days earlier a woman had approached him on the street and begged him—a complete stranger—to please take her daughter.

In addition, while it is well recognized that displaced girls (and women) are at a heightened risk of gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse, in both Somalia and Haiti it was alarming that many of these risks were not being sufficiently addressed. Tragically, there is often insufficient funding and focus to protect displaced women and girls during disasters and conflict.

Nor are there sufficient international humanitarian protection or migration policies to protect children forced to flee their countries altogether due to disasters and other climate-related adverse effects. For example, in the United States, the Trump Administration recently decided not to extend temporary protection to more than 58,000 Haitian men, women, and children who, following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti were granted Temporary Protection Status (TPS) and permitted to remain within the United States lawfully. Come January 2018, many may be deported back to Haiti. Appeals by Haitian children to allow their families to stay have so far fallen on deaf ears despite Haiti’s dire humanitarian conditions and acute vulnerability to climate change. As of September 2017, instead of returning to Haiti, 13,000 have sought asylum in Canada—but many of these applications have since been rejected.

The irreversible impacts on children—especially displaced children—add critical urgency to the need to elevate human rights within the upcoming climate change negotiations in Bonn. More must be done to ensure that children displaced by climate-related disasters have sufficient food, water, healthcare and education. Developed countries must also commit to increase funding and assistance to less developed countries to adapt to climate variability and strengthen their resilience to more extreme weather in the future. And rather than restricting policies like TPS, countries should commit to adopting humanitarian visas or migration schemes that would provide safe, legal, pathways for children and families from the most climate-vulnerable countries. The creation of a climate displacement task force under the UN climate change convention charged with developing recommendations to minimize, avert and address climate displacement presents an important opportunity to highlight the unique human rights’ protection risks that children uprooted by climate change face, and to ensure that climate actions taken by governments include measures to effectively address them.

In my travels to Somalia, Haiti and many other climate-vulnerable countries, the memories that stay with me are of the faces of displaced children who are living on the frontlines. Safeguarding their rights—and the rights of all children—must be an integral part of any successful response to climate change if there’s any hope for the future of our planet.