A “perfect storm” linking climate change to the development of violence is slowly growing and already making its impact felt in the Pacific, the global head of the Red Cross has warned New Zealanders.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the issue had forced humanitarian organisations to go “far beyond just handouts” in their attempts to prevent conflict.

The Government is already focusing on the security implications of climate change: the issue was heavily emphasised in its recent Strategic Defence Policy Statement, while Defence Minister Ron Mark has spoken about the risks of growing refugee numbers and population displacement from changing weather patterns.

Maurer, in New Zealand last week for a work programme which included a meeting with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, told Newsroom the future impact of climate change on patterns of conflict was one of the major topics of discussion during his time in the country.

“There is perfect storm building up between climate change and the development of violence which is of concern to us, and which we in certain respects we find unfolding already in parts of Africa, parts of the Middle East, and even in the Pacific,” he said.

The Red Cross had already learned from its work in Africa, with changing rainfall patterns leading to the displacement of populations including traditional habitats for agriculturalists and pastoralists.

“Humanitarian work today is not any more, in some of the regions where we deal with climate change, the traditional truck coming to the village with goods.”

“[They were] living in the same area and having an understanding on how to use the land, and climate change was disrupting those long-term agreements and spurring conflict.”

The organisation’s role had been to “negotiate humanitarian spaces” and agreements between the different groups, while trying to support alternative income models as the populations adapted to their new situation.

The work went “far beyond just handouts”, Maurer said, mentioning work with agricultural communities to find new crops which could cope with the changed rainfall levels.

“Humanitarian work today is not any more, in some of the regions where we deal with climate change, the traditional truck coming to the village with goods, but faces much more complex realities and mitigating measures when we deal with climate change.”

Refugee support was also a major part of Red Cross work, Maurer said, with a focus on the two-thirds displaced within their own countries during conflict and the majority of the remaining third who fled to neighbouring countries.

“One of the lessons we have learned is people do not really want to migrate further than what is absolutely necessary, they try to stay as close to home as possible, in particular if there is still hope they can go home in any foreseeable future.”

International Committee of the Red Cross president Peter Maurer (centre) says every country has a “delicate conversation” about its refugee intake. Photo: Getty Images.

Maurer said the organisation did visit refugee populations in offshore facilities such as those at Nauru and Manus, providing confidential reports for governments on the conditions and what should change.

While some of the issues raised by the Red Cross about Manus and Nauru had been addressed by Australia, it was “obvious that we do have some concerns, and we do share those concerns and recommendations with the Australians”.

With talk of a refugee resettlement deal between New Zealand and Australia finding new momentum across the Tasman, Maurer said it was up to the countries to negotiate an agreement with reasonable conditions which complied with international law.

There was always a “delicate conversation” within countries about how many refugees to take in and over what period of time, while tensions between refugees and host communities were a recurring issue – with access to basic social services the origin of most tension.

Host community resentment

“The host community resents when suddenly there aren’t enough doctors for themselves…[or] when their own children don’t get a proper education if a large number of refugees coming in take away room and space and the attention of teachers.”

To help address that, the Red Cross has shifted its approach to refugee community programmes away from refugee-specific support to wider community services which both refugees and host communities could access.

Maurer said the Red Cross had worked with the NZ Defence Force and MFAT on humanitarian issues in the past, while the organisation had also worked with New Zealand on a UN Security Council resolution to protect health workers.

He and Ardern had agreed to develop an “action plan” in the coming months for how the Red Cross’s work could be supported by New Zealand.

“There are other areas where we see certainly eye to eye, and we were really covering ground on what are the future challenges and how can we increase in scale and speed our cooperation in that context.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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