Cross post: Rio+20 fails to deliver on Health and Migration issues


-Cross posted from the International Centre for Migration Health and Development (ICMHD) at

Rio+20 fails to deliver on Health and Migration issues


As the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20 or the Earth Summit, wrapped up at the end of last week, responses from experts, media and civil society ranged from lukewarm notes of voluntary commitments made by some countries on the side to outright rejection of the outcome and the conference itself. Overall, world leaders and governments failed to come to a strong agreement that would ensure a safe and just future through a post-2015 sustainable development regime. Instead, they largely spent time hammering out trade agreements and making noncommittal statements about the importance of a broad range of issues.

In terms of migration and health, the Rio outcome document titled “The Future we want”, delivered very little new progress. At the original Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, leaders were committed to developing better modelling and research on migration and the environment, new policies and programmes that would address environmental migrants and displaced people, and stronger capacity to address the needs of environmental migrants. Since then, progress has been mixed, positive examples include the annual Global Forum on Migration and Development and the Global Migration Group, two organisations that improve data, consolidate information, develop strategies, and encourage best practices on links between migration and development.

However, most of the progress made and research done on migration and development has been from a strictly economic perspective. This prioritises working conditions and remittances, which are important, but fails to see migration for what it is: a cross-cutting issue that needs to be addressed in a wide range of sectors, like health. A cross-sectoral approach to migration would allow for a more comprehensive understanding of all the work that needs to be done to protect this often highly vulnerable group of people.

Health outcomes were little better, Health and Population are at least considered a thematic area in the framework for action and follow-up, but the outcome was weak overall, with fewer than half of the paragraphs using “commit” as operative language, favouring weaker language such as “recognise,” “emphasize,” and “reaffirm.” Thankfully, the text did commit countries to consider population trends, including migration, in development planning, though it neglected the important ties between migration, development, the environment, and health.

Language concerning reproductive health, though present, was not as strong as it should have been, largely due to strong objections by the Vatican, an observer state in the process. In her closing remarks last Friday, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said “while I am very pleased that this year’s outcome document endorses sexual and reproductive health and universal access to family planning, to reach out goals in sustainable development we also have to ensure women’s reproductive rights. Women must be empowered to make decisions about whether and when to have children. And the United States will continue to work to ensure that those rights are respected in international agreements.” Reproductive rights are a fundamental precondition for sustainable development, and migrant and refugee women need special consideration as they face their own unique sets of circumstances that strongly influence their reproductive health.

Despite the failure of the world’s governments to come to a robust agreement last week in Rio, important work on all of the issues of sustainable development, including migrant health, is still being done at a range of different levels.

-Graham Reeder


What’s health got to do with it?

by Graham Reeder

So how are climate change and health connected anyway? I don’t know about you, but the first thing that comes to mind when I used to think about climate change is arctic sea ice and major industry polluting. As I’ve developed a stronger interest in public health issues over the last couple of years, the human ecologist in me has driven me to make connections between climate change, social justice, and health. And guess what…I’m not alone. The wonderful thing about COPs is that if you’re passionate about an issue that relates to climate change in any way, you’ll probably find a group of people here who engage in it as well.

This year’s COP has actually been a big one for climate and health; Sunday saw a whole side conference on health and climate change and there have been many side-events and meetings about making that link. Unfortunately, my work following the adaptation negotiations has meant that I haven’t been able to go to most of those things, but I’ve had a number of great conversations with some of the people working on the issues.

Climate change has major impacts on health issues which vary from region to region. One helpful way to categorise our thinking about this is to think about extreme weather events and slow-onset events. Extreme weather events are things like hurricanes, floods, heat waves and drought, all of which are linked to climate change (See IPCC fourth assessment report working group II). What most of these events do is exacerbate existing health problems; when disaster strikes, it is consistently the least resilient who suffer most. This is because they have less access to preventative health care, emergency services, can be already suffering from some other under treated health issue, or are literally living in more dangerous locations (low-lying areas, along eroding coastlines, in urban hot-spots, etc…) All of these conditions make extreme weather events a serious concern for health. This is not to say that only the poorer countries of the world are affected, I don’t think I have to remind anyone that the heat-waves in Europe and Hurricane Katrina were a perfectly good reminder that inequality in resilience and access to services is ever-present in even the richest nations.

In terms of slow-onset events, media and international attention has a tougher time picking up the story. One might call it easy to gain wide readership of a front-page story about floods in Bangladesh that have killed thousands and cost up to 20 million USD over the last two years, but in a world where attention span is adjusted to twitter and everything is urgent, it can be much more difficult to expose the impacts of changing vectors on malaria patterns in sub-Saharan Africa or glacial melting causing water-access issues in Latin America, and of course the looming sea level rise issue that has low-level urban areas quivering in their boots. These long-term impacts will have catastrophic impacts on health unless serious work is undertaken pre-emptively to build resilience and strengthen communities’ ability to cope. I say cope because given what I’ve seen from the UN on adaptation policy progress, coping is the best we can hope for.  Some other climate related slow-onset events that are going to have major health impacts are ocean acidification, desertification, changes in salt-water/freshwater distribution, loss of traditional medicinal species, a major decrease in agricultural productivity, forest degradation, erosion due to changing rainfall, and mass migration due to environments becoming uninhabitable. I’ll touch on the migration piece in a future blog post, but all of these impacts have colossal health ramifications that most of the world’s infrastructures are completely unprepared to deal with. We have wasted so much time fighting about whether or not climate change is real and who should do something about it that it is coming around to knock us over from behind.

In short, the connection between climate change and health is a crucial one. Given the current ambition levels on the table and the likelihood of anything changing soon, it looks like we’re in for a whole lot of warming, and a proactive health/resilience centered approach is the only chance of dealing with this kind of catastrophe.

On a policy note, the most recent AWG-LCA (Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action) text has an addendum with, among other things, sections on building resilience; poverty and inequality; protecting and promoting human health; gender; territory, mobility, and urban development; and migrants. Most of the text in these sections involves looking into things and further investigating them rather than acting on the knowledge that is already there, but seeing this language in a text like this is a little bit refreshing. There is supposedly a new text coming out tonight or tomorrow, only time will tell if any of those sections remain.