The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio late last month ended not with a bang, but a whimper. The Future We Want, the conference’s 283-paragraph outcome agreement, contains no enforceable commitments on the critical threats facing our planet and its people, including climate change. It also contains no mention of some of the groups who bear the brunt of inadequate development and environmental degradation, such as refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The failure to include displacement more centrally on the Rio agenda is striking as the links between refugees, IDPs and development are gaining increased attention in other quarters, particularly given the growing numbers uprooted by natural disasters associated with climate change. As the dust settles after another failed mega-summit, governments, international agencies and civil society leaders face the challenge of devising a new set of internationally supported sustainable development goals (SDGs) to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that are to be met by 2015. How might displacement figure in this process?
For all its shortcomings, Rio +20 provided some openings for more effectively integrating displacement into the post-2015 sustainable development framework. The Rio +20 outcome document calls for states “to promote and protect effectively the human rights and fundamental freedom of all migrants regardless of the migration status, especially those of women and children, and to address international migration through international, regional or bilateral cooperation and dialogue and for a comprehensive and balanced approach, recognizing the roles and responsibilities of countries of origin, transit and destination in promoting and protecting the human rights of all migrants, and avoiding approaches that might aggravate their vulnerability.”
The document also acknowledges migrants as significant stakeholders in sustainable development processes, and devotes attention to disaster risk reduction, a critical issue for preventing and responding effectively to displacement. Advocates may build on these provisions to ensure that the post-2015 framework is better attuned to the development dimensions of not only cross-border migration but also internal movements.
With one in seven people around the world in what the International Organization for Migration (IOM) calls a “migratory state,” including refugees and IDPs, and remittances outstripping global rates of official development assistance, it should go without saying that people “on the move” are a critical constituency in the sustainable development process. However, neither refugees nor IDPs are explicitly addressed in any of the eight MDGs or their related targets and indicators. Since the MDGs are nonetheless directly relevant to the rights and wellbeing of the displaced, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken an active role in monitoring the inclusion of forced migrants in the pursuit of the MDGs, and progress in achieving the MDGs in communities affected by displacement. Yet UNHCR’s monitoring work has focused almost exclusively on refugees and asylum seekers, overlooking other key groups such as IDPs and returnees.
Moving forward, concerted efforts will be needed to ensure that the new sustainable development goals take into account the development challenges and opportunities associated with both internal and international migration, including displacement, and that monitoring activities are expanded to cover IDPs and returnees. Important new initiatives are presently unfolding that underscore the critical link between displacement and development, including the piloting of the UN Secretary-General’s Framework on Ending Displacement in the Aftermath of Conflict (PDF) and the development of principles to protect those forced across borders because of disasters, particularly those associated with climate change. Building on this momentum, displacement should be better integrated into the post-2015 sustainable development framework, moving beyond the neglect of this issue that was one of the many failings of Rio+20.