New UN-backed guidelines issued on Monday aim to protect, include and empower children forced to flee their homes due to the climate crisis, marking the first-ever global effort to address this increasingly major concern.
The Guiding Principles for Children on the Move in the Context of Climate Change contain a set of nine principles that address the unique and layered vulnerabilities of boys and girls who have been uprooted, whether internally or across borders, as a result of the adverse impacts of climate change.
They were launched by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and the United Nations University (UNU), located in Tokyo, Japan.
Safeguarding future generations
The partners explained that currently, most child-related migration policies do not consider climate and environmental factors, while most climate change policies overlook the unique needs of children.
“The climate emergency has and will continue to have profound implications for human mobility. Its impacts will be most severe with particular segments of our communities such as children; we cannot endanger future generations,” said António Vitorino, the IOM Director General.
He added that although migrant children are particularly vulnerable when moving in the context of climate change, their needs and aspirations are still overlooked in policy debates.
“With these guiding principles we aim to ensure visibility to their needs and rights, both in policy debates and programming. Managing migration and addressing displacement of children in the context of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters, is an immense challenge that we must address now.”
Young lives at risk
Climate change is intersecting with existing environmental, social, political, economic and demographic conditions that are contributing to people’s decisions to move.
Nearly 10 million children were displaced following weather-related shocks in 2020 alone. Additionally, nearly half of the world’s 2.2 billion children, or roughly one billion boys and girls, live in 33 countries at high risk of the impacts of climate change.
The partners warn that millions more children could be forced to move in the coming years.
“Every day, rising sea levels, hurricanes, wildfires, and failing crops are pushing more and more children and families from their homes,” said Catherine Russell, the UNICEF Executive Director.
“Displaced children are at greater risk of abuse, trafficking, and exploitation. They are more likely to lose access to education and healthcare. And they are frequently forced into early marriage and child labour.”
Children walk through the mud in a displaced persons camp in Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria.
Collaboration with young activists
The guiding principles provide national and local governments, international organizations, and civil society groups with a foundation to build policies that protect children’s rights.
They were developed in collaboration with young climate and migration activists, academics, experts, policymakers, practitioners, and UN agencies. The principles are based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and are informed by existing operational guidelines and frameworks.
David Passarelli of UNU recalled that the international community has been sounding the alarm on climate change and environmental degradation for years, as well as the likelihood of mass displacement.
These predictions have come true as climate-related migration has been observed in all parts of the world, with children increasingly affected.
“While these children benefit from a range of international and national protections, the subject matter is highly technical and difficult to access, creating a protection deficit for child migrants,” said Mr. Passarelli, Executive Director of the university’s Centre for Policy Research.
He added that the partners have stressed the need for concise guidelines that communicate risks, protections and rights, in clear and accessible language.
Protection today and tomorrow
The Guiding Principles “were developed with this specific objective in mind. This tool helps navigate the complex nexus of migrant rights, children’s rights, and climate change in order to respond more quickly and effectively to the needs of children on the move in the context of climate change.”
Governments, local and regional actors, international organizations, and civil society groups are being urged to embrace the principles.
While the new framework does not include new legal obligations, they distill and leverage key principles that have already been affirmed in international law and adopted by governments around the world, said Elizabeth Ferris, Director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration.
“We urge all governments to review their policies in light of the guiding principles and take measures now that will ensure children on the move in the face of climate change are protected today and in the future.”