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Climate Refugees Cannot be Ignored

Who are Climate Refugees?


A Climate refugee can be understood as a person who is displaced from environmental factors such as sudden-onset causes, such as natural disasters, or slow onset causes, such as environmental degradation.[1] Although there is no singular or internationally recognized definition of a climate refugee, the evidence to support annual mass displacement due to extreme weather events is indisputable. According to recent statistics published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC),


“over 376 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced by floods, windstorms, earthquakes, or droughts since 2008, with a record 32.6 million in 2022 alone. Since 2020, there has been an annual increase in the total number of displaced people due to disaster compared with the previous decade of 41% on average”. [1]


Despite ongoing efforts to provide national and international responses to individuals affected by extreme climatic events, widespread protection measures remain inadequate.


Origins of the Term


Concern surrounding migration from environmental change was introduced in the 1960s, when there was a major increase in transnational activity from the Global South to the Global North[2]. Prior, migration due to environmental factors was national or inter-regional and was seldomly towards the global North. The recent migratory trend gained international attention inclining some human rights activists and scholars to demand appropriate status for environmental migrants. Without gaining status, migrants are prevented from proper assimilation and are excluded from necessary benefits to live a free and dignified life.


Legality of the Term ‘Refugee’


As defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as someone who has been forced to flee his or her country due to persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This convention delineates three key aspects: it defines the criteria for identifying an individual as a refugee; it outlines the legal protections, support, and societal rights that refugees are entitled to receive; and it specifies the obligations that refugees are expected to fulfill towards the countries hosting them.


Climate Change and Disaster Displacement


Climate stressors which force populations to leave their homes include changing rainfall, heavy flooding, rising sea levels, air pollution, fires, earthquakes, drought, desertification, lack of safe drinking water and more. “Countries with a combination of low adaptive capacities, vulnerable geographies and fragile ecosystems” face heightened risk of forced displacement, where oftentimes its inhabiting populates are already poor and vulnerable.[3] The majority of environmentally-induced migrants oftentimes originate from rural areas as their livelihoods are dependent on climate sensitive sectors such as agriculture and fishing. Urban areas may also face increased risk of forced migration as rising sea levels will affect densely populated coastal areas.[4]


International Intervention


The Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement in the 21st Century marked an important step in creating closer dialogue between climate change scientists, humanitarian actors and policy makers. The Nansen initiative was a bottom-up, state-led consultative process, explored the compounding effects of climate change and forced migration, and facilitated multidisciplinary dialogue to improve global understanding of relevant challenges, whereby to address recommendations for action. The Nansen Initiative was signed by over 100 governmental delegations, who recognized the need to intervene through domestic, regional and global levels with new laws, soft law instruments and binding agreements.[5]


The Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment


While migration frameworks have not been internationally recognized for persons displaced due to extreme climate related events, international law has recognized the need to protect the environment. On 28 June 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. Although the resolution is not legally binding on the 193 UN Member States, “advocates are hopeful it will have a trickle-down effect prompting countries to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in national constitutions and regional treaties and, enourag[e] states to implement those laws”.[6]


The recognition towards a clean, healthy and sustainable environment “is necessary for the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights such as the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation, and development among others”.[7] The severity of global crises such as rising global temperatures which are increasing water shortages and soil degradation; air pollution; highest number of people displaced due to climate on record; vulnerable communities being disproportionately affected; among others call for immediate action. According to UNGA “there is an urgent need to find innovative ways to enhance environmental protection”.[8]


Dangers of Not Being Recognized by International Law


Since climate refugees are not legally recognized under international human rights law, they lack all the protections that are afforded by the states to the refugees under the convention. Without formal recognition, they may be excluded from protection mechanisms, leaving them vulnerable to human rights abuses, discrimination, and exploitation. It would also lead to long-term loss of homes, livelihoods and resources.


How We Can #HelpFromHome


1. Stay informed


Understand the issues vulnerable poulations face to climate change and reduce the stigma.


2. Write to your government about including Climate Refugees under refugee and human rights law.


International actors are beginning to recognize the severity of climate change for populations, and that it will be a prevalent issue to affect millions to come. It is important that we act now to reduce the number of those affected by climate change, and vulnerable to extreme events without legal protections.

Some examples of global discussion around climate change are:

  • The COP28 will convene in November 2023, which is the UN’s latest round of global climate talks

  • The Global Refugee Forum will convene in December 2023, and will set the stage for refugee laws and policies for the next 4 years.

  • The Global Compact of Refugees 2018 recognizes that “climate, environmental degradation and disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements”.


“We need to invest now in preparedness to mitigate future protection needs and prevent further climate caused displacement. Waiting for disaster to strike is not an option.”

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees


References:


European Parliament. (2021). The Belt and Road Initiative: Assessment of Benefits and Risks.


OECD (May 2014). Is Migration Really Increasing? Migration Policy Debates. Retrieved from:


The Nansen Initiative. About us. Retrieved from: https://www.nanseninitiative.org/secretariat/


United Nations Environment Programme. (2022, July 28). In Historic Move, UN Declares Healthy


United Nations University. 5 Facts on Climate Migrants. Institute for Environment and Human


Van der Vliet, J (2018). Climate Refugees. A Legal Mapping Exercise. Climate Refugees? Beyond the Legal Impasse. London: Routledge. DOI:4324/9781315109619

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