Setting the Context:
I wish to begin my brief remarks this morning by setting the context for the convening of this regional technical workshop and in the process, I also seek to articulate the reason for this very important regional dialogue.
There is no doubt that the OECS region is inescapably challenged by environmental disasters. Our shores have been impacted by numerous natural disasters over several decades. While tropical storms account for a significant proportion of these events, the Caribbean region’s experience goes beyond impact from hurricanes and droughts. Given that most of our islands are volcanic in their formation, we have also experienced a few volcanic eruptions over the decades. Most recently, the eruption of La Soufriere in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in 2021 and closer to home, in 1995, we had the eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat.
Moreover, in the context of the Climate Change discourse, we have noticed that over the last two decades our region has been struck by more severe and dangerous tropical storms. All our countries can attribute some historical destruction and loss of property and even loved ones to a major tropical storm event – examples include Hurricane Ivan in Grenada in 2004, and more recently in 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Antigua and Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands and Dominica in the case of the latter. The experiences of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, highlight the argument among Climate Change advocates that this phenomenon is a real existential threat to our economic and human survival.
It is noted in fact, that in 2017 there were approximately 367 natural disasters observed worldwide with economic losses surpassing 230% of GDP compared to the average of 354 natural disasters which took place between 2007-2016. In the case of Dominica, it was estimated that Hurricane Maria accounted for GDP losses of 225%. Hence, in the context of Climate Change, tropical storms are become more frequent and more ferocious, leading to significant economic and social losses. Important to appreciate, therefore, the human side of these natural disasters, as they do not just deprive us of our livelihoods but also cause significant loss of lives and is a major push factor for environmental migration among our people.
These environmental disasters have also brought about significant environmental migration.
My homeland experience is a very good example in this case. The eruption of Soufriere Hills led to massive displacement of the southern part of Montserrat and the relocation of the Capital City Plymouth to Brades in the north. To date, the southern part of the island which we defined as the “Exclusion Zone” remains uninhabitable. More recently, with the passage of Hurricane Irma we saw the entire population of Barbuda relocated to mainland Antigua and there were also significant mass movements of Dominicans and residents following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. It was estimated that 1.3 million new displacements occurred in the Caribbean between 2018 and 2021 due to disasters such as these. With every displacement comes with it the psychological impact and grief associated with leaving behind one’s place of residence, place of employment and in many cases family members and loved ones, for many times completely new environments and often under conditions of great uncertain. This reality, I must add, is the less spoken dimension of the effects of Climate Change and environmental migration on the people of the OECS region and wider the Caribbean.
Building Resilient Futures:
The OECS region and the wider Caribbean is very resilient, nonetheless. While we have limited influence in preventing the severity of hurricanes nor the ability to avoid seismic events and volcanic eruptions, we have within our reach the ability to build resilient communities and economies. At both the national and regional levels, efforts toward strengthening infrastructure and the coastal regions are ongoing. Studies towards collecting data that will help strengthen policy marking are also contributing to building our national and collective resilience. These efforts are essential to ensuring, for instance, that our fishing communities situated along our coastal regions can survive the climate change induced events including that brought about by major tropical storms.
Environmental Migration presents a peculiar challenge. There are two areas of concerns – border security risks and national and regional costs associated with relocation of displaced populations both internally and across borders.
In many ways, many lessons have been learned from the experiences of Hurricane Maria which presented OECS countries with both challenges. Since this experience, the OECS Commission in collaboration with international partners such as the International Organization for Migration, the Platform on Disaster Displacement, the German Corporation for International Cooperation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees along with regional institutions such as CDEMA and the CARICOM IMPACS, have developed training programmes to help border officials respond to the border security threats associated with environmental migration. The capacity building initiative which benefits the border officials and supporting agencies have increased these officials’ ability to receive environmental migrants, protect vulnerable persons and families and preserve national and regional security.
There is also the need to enhance the ability of receiving countries to finance the integration of OECS nationals and residents displaced by an environmental crisis. Receiving countries must, in this regard, advance people centered policies. To do so, they must possess the
capacity to provide for the needs of displaced populations including food, shelter, and other basic needs. Furthermore, the social and economic systems must have the absorption capacity to accommodate these populations – providing for school placement, healthcare, income support and employment. In the context of the OECS Economic Union, a framework exists to facilitate the ease of movement of OECS citizens from Protocol Member States and to date it is recognized as an international best practice for building resilience among small states. However, more effort is required to address the absorption capacity of the economic union in times of shocks such as what was experience following Hurricane Maria.
I take the opportunity, in closing, to express, on behalf of OECS countries, our gratitude to the UN for advancing this UN Human Security Trust Fund Joint Programme. In particular, the development of cross-border protocols under this initiative will help provide guidance to
our governments in considering the human centered policy environment that is needed to respond adequately to the needs of environmental migrants – in terms of issues around their survival, livelihood, and dignity of their community members, particularly those
who are most vulnerable.
Collaborations such as this one can go along way in supporting our national and collective responses to human mobility due to environmental migration. Moreover, at the regional level, the OECS continue to broaden relationships with international development partners to help to achieve the five (5) Strategic Priorities. In particular, this UN Human Security Trust Fund Joint Programme is helping to advance Strategic Priorities 3 to 5 which addresses efforts toward valuing the environment, building resilience and advancing equity and inclusion. I wish all participants a successful two day workshop and we look forward to very positive outcomes.
I Thank You.