Dr Gillian Kane, Postdoctoral Researcher, Irish Centre for Human Rights, University of Galway; RLI Research Affiliate*

As a region, Africa produces around just 4%  of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet it bears some of the most severe impacts of climate change: in recent years, both slow onset and sudden climate-related events have caused serious harm, resulting in significant loss and devastation. Indeed, the East and Horn of Africa is suffering the effects of four failed rainy seasons, with countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Uganda are experiencing drought in many areas. This is impacting the agricultural sector, and as a result,  a significant proportion of workforce. In Uganda alone, around 72% of the workforce are employed in the agriculture sector. Alongside these slower onset impacts, sudden and extreme weather events are becoming ever more common in the region. In July 2022, very heavy rain caused landslides and significant flooding in eastern Uganda, resulting in serious harm including loss of life, livestock and livelihood, displacement, and missing and separated children. Meanwhile, Sudan has been experiencing very heavy rainfall and deadly flash floods since the start of its rainy season in June 2022, with approximately 156,300 affected persons (as of 23 August 2022).

Against this backdrop, this blog highlights the complex climate change-migration-human trafficking nexus, before turning to assess the recently adopted Kampala Declaration on Migration, Environment and Climate Change. While acknowledging the promise within the text of the Declaration, the blog also draws attention to the absence of explicit references to human trafficking, and calls for action from both States in the region and beyond, as COP27, the so-called ‘African COP’ edges ever closer.

The climate change-migration-human trafficking nexus

The impact of these climate related events is serious and far reaching. While much is still unknown, the nexus between climate, migration and displacement, and human trafficking is becoming more apparent. Within Africa, many have already been displaced, due to the effects of flooding and drought. Having lost homes, as well as family, community, and resources, such individuals are left in a very precarious and insecure position, at risk of exploitation. Alongside this, other losses, such as the loss of livestock in a context where the majority of people depend on agriculture for income can result in loss of livelihood, and increasing insecurity, precarity and poverty, conditions which increase the risk of human trafficking.

The precise nature of these overlapping nexuses, and the direction of causation between climate change, migration, and trafficking, is complex. As such, it is essential to continue to build upon emerging research in this area. While the complexities should be further explored, the links are now recognised, and the work of addressing the protection issues arising within the climate-migration-trafficking nexus must continue.

A regional approach to climate change and mobility: The Kampala Declaration  

In response to the ever-increasing impacts of climate change in the region and in the lead up to COP27, in July 2022, an Inter-Ministerial Conference on Migration and Climate Change in the East and Horn of Africa was held in Kampala, Uganda. The conference was coordinated by a range of actors, including IOM’s Regional Office for East and Horn of Africa, The Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the East African Development Bank,. The aim was  to foster cooperation on ‘climate change induced human mobility’ and the conference culminated in the adoption of the Kampala Ministerial Declaration on Migration, Environment and Climate Change.

Significantly, the Declaration contains an ‘urgent call’ to address ‘[t]he unplanned migration of our people from rural to urban centres as a result of climate change and disasters’ and the dearth of data available on the impact of climate change and mobility. In addition, there are commitments to address both environmental and the societal impacts of climate change. For example, States are urged to ‘take action to avert, minimize and address displacement in the context of climate change and disasters both across and within borders’, and there are commitments to enhance resilience in the face of climate related events, and to ‘[d]evelop comprehensive urban plans to address population surges’ as populations in urban areas increase due to climate change in ‘rural areas’.

Beyond this, the Declaration also emphasises the need for human rights to permeate and underpin responses, calling on States to ‘apply and integrate gender and human rights-based approaches in the design and implementation of policies relating to the climate change-migration nexus.’ The inclusion of this provision is to be welcomed, since international human rights law (IHRL) is a helpful framework through which to address protection issues arising from the climate-migration nexus. This includes the ongoing normative development of the right to a ‘clean, healthy and sustainable environment’ as well as the application of the broader corpus of IHRL to climate related issues. For example, in  Teitiota v New Zealand (2019), the UN Human Rights Committee [MG1] [GK2] acknowledged,  for the first time, that Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights may preclude return to States where an individual faces a ‘real risk of a threat of his right to life.’ In its reasoning, the Committee acknowledged that:  ‘environmental degradation can compromise effective enjoyment of the right to life, and that severe environmental degradation can adversely affect an individual’s  well-being and lead to a violation of the right to life.’ While the threshold of a ‘real risk’ is high – it was indeed not met in Teitiota – this is a significant holding, which has the capacity to enhance protection and reduce risk when it comes to climate displacement.

Clearly, the Declaration’s commitments contain significant promise, and should be welcomed. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the text contains no explicit references to human trafficking or anti-trafficking obligations. True, many of the commitments have the capacity to reduce trafficking risk. Moving forward, however, an explicit acknowledgement of the nexus between climate change and trafficking, as well as a commitment to operationalising prevention and protection obligations within and beyond IHRL would be a positive addition to the foundation already laid by the Declaration. 

Where to now? Towards meaningful implementation

The adoption of the Kampala Declaration represents a significant moment in the East and Horn of Africa’s response to climate change and mobility. The commitments are extensive, and, if effectively implemented, could contribute to significant mitigation of risk and vulnerabilities that may arise as a result of climate change.

From here, it is essential to move towards the realisation of the promise contained within the text. These words must be translated into action and implementation within domestic law, policy and practice. In this regard, it is encouraging to see commitments to ‘establish an Inter-Ministerial Working Group on Climate Change, Environment and Migration’ and to ‘develop a Plan of Action for the implementation’ of the Kampala Declaration. It is also essential for States to continue to support research on the impacts of climate change, and in particular on the nexus between climate, displacement, and trafficking. With deeper understanding of the impacts and causal links at play, more targeted and effective preventative and responsive measures – including action to address human trafficking – can be put in place.

The months and years ahead will reveal whether the promise within the Kampala Declaration will truly result in meaningful and effective mitigation, protection, and adaptation in practice. As States begin to look towards implementation, the upcoming COP27 will be a timely moment to highlight the issues that the Declaration aims to address. Taking place in Egypt in November 2022, the ‘African COP’ may present a unique opportunity to bring the African region and the pressing climate related issues it is experiencing from the periphery to the core of the global legal and policy agenda. Indeed, the most effective response to the complex climate-migration-human trafficking nexus would involve commitments from States in other regions that are producing the vast majority of emissions. Now, more than ever, global action is required to fully realise the aspirations of the Kampala Declaration.

*Gillian is a postdoctoral researcher on the Irish Research Council and Irish Aid funded project, ‘Human Trafficking, Forced Migration and Gender Equality’ in Uganda. The project analyses the operationalization of international and regional human rights standards on human trafficking in Uganda. One aspect of the ongoing work focus on the climate-displacement-trafficking nexus in Uganda. To read more about the project and to access outputs, see here.

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