Vulnerable communities uprooted by climate change are being left out of a voluntary pact to deal with migration, campaigners said, after the United States pulled out of the global deal.
Although people within low-lying states are being forced to relocate because of worsening storms and rising seas, they will not be recognized in U.N. migration pact talks next year, putting lives at risk, campaigners said.
"Many of the situations we find ourselves in, here in the Pacific, are not caused by us. We continue to ask, 'Where is the justice?' Those of us who are least responsible, continue to bear the brunt," said Emele Duituturaga, head of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (PIANGO).
Hoping for acceptance
"We hope that there will be an openness and an acceptance that climate-induced migration is one that the world community has to be responsible for," she said on the sidelines of a conference co-hosted by PIANGO in Fiji's capital, Suva.
With a record 21.3 million refugees globally, the 193-member U.N. General Assembly adopted a political declaration in September 2016 in which it also agreed to spend two years negotiating a pact on safe, orderly and regular migration.
U.S. President Donald Trump this week withdrew from negotiations because the global approach to the issue was "simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty."
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres regretted the U.S. decision, his spokesman said, but expressed hope the United States might re-engage in the talks ahead of the start of formal negotiations in February.
Climate displacement is already a reality for Telstar Jimmy, a student from the Bank Islands in northern Vanuatu.
Her family has relocated several times because of worsening cyclones and flooding, as rising seas slowly wash away ancestral homelands and burial sites.
"The foundations of our unique heritage were taken," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Relocation just meant safety and continuing to exist. But now the question is: Safe and existing for how much longer?"
Worldwide, sea levels have risen 26 centimeters (10 inches) since the late 19th century, driven up by melting ice and a natural expansion of water in the oceans as they warm, U.N. data show. Seas could rise by up to a meter by 2100.
'It's only going to get worse'
"With climate-induced displacement, we know that there are already people, communities and countries at risk," said Danny Sriskandarajah, head of the rights group CIVICUS, co-hosting the Fiji conference. "It's only going to get worse [and] we need to come up with ways to manage those flows."
PIANGO and CIVICUS are among campaign groups drafting a declaration that calls on the United Nations to recognize climate change as a key driver of migration.
The 1951 Refugee Convention recognizes that people fleeing persecution, war and conflict have the right to protection, but not those forced out by climate change.
Trump also plans to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, which seeks to end the fossil fuel era this century with a radical shift to cleaner energies to curb heat waves, downpours, floods and rising sea levels.
The deal aims to hold the global temperature rise to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and try to limit the rise even further, to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The U.S. is the only country that is not part of the climate pact after Syria and Nicaragua joined this year.
"I'm a bit nervous because other countries may also pull out with the U.S., and that's going to be a bigger issue for us, especially at a time when we're trying to battle climate change," said Vanuatu local Jimmy. "Whatever each country does will impact the lives of other people around the whole globe."