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Climate Change Refugees: Who are they and why should we worry about them?

by Farah Warmer

© UN Photo/ Evan Schneider.

In our contemporary time, climate change has been widely accepted as one of the largest ecological crisis humankind will have to face. So far, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted an increase in extreme weather events, rising sea levels, increase of droughts and desertification, and so forth. Just as much these predictions are still subject to new insights resulting in every-changing (or rather: worsening) predictions, the effects of climate change on human populations also remain under scrutiny.

So far, we should expect that the ecological changes will negatively impact water resources, food productions, biodiversity, human health, and the livability of several areas. A telling example will be the so-called ‘sinking islands’ in the Pacific Ocean, whose inhabitants are dealing with their islands slowly being submerged by the ocean, and all the consequences thereof. A reoccurring question for such instances as these islands, is what we are to do with the inhabitants once their situation will force them to move to different countries. When they, essentially, become climate change refugees. Will they accepted by other countries as people fleeing from inhumane circumstances, and be protected as refugees? Or will they be largely left to their own devices? As it seems now, the latter seems more plausible then the former.

The lack of empirical knowledge

The concept of a so-called ‘climate change refugees’ has only been established in the past few decennia. Although the Maldives already warned against the negative impacts of climate change on their islands in 1987, the issue of climate change migration only started to get increased attention from the 2000s onwards, such as the 2005 case of a combined alliance of the Inuit from Canada and America petitioned the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, or the more recent Human Rights Committee Kiribati case against New Zealand.

However, even with the acknowledgement that climate change will impact people’s livelihood to such an extent that migration will be a foreseeable outcome, there is very little we know about climate change migration. We do not know what numbers to expect, what kind of events will result in human migration, or how to categorize the different kinds of migration patterns that will come into being.

One of the first issues undermining the categorization of climate change refugees is the difficulty with establishing a causational link between climate change and human migration. Although climate change will most certainly affect people’s living conditions, the question is how much of that can be attributed (directly) to climate change, and how much to other social, economic, or political dimensions. As many scholars conclude, it is empirically flawed to state that climate change alone causes migration. This can be illustrated by the situation of many Somali refugees, who are not only fleeing from a dangerous political situation, but also natural disasters and a country tormented by ecological difficulties. Therefore, to speak of climate change refugees in itself is already up to debate: “environmentally displaced persons”, “environmental refugees”, or other terms are also used. Because of this ‘missing’ causational link, it is also extremely difficult to predict what kind of events will result in climate change migration.

So far, the most influential work has been done by Kälin & Schrepher (2012) for the UNHCR, who have identified several climate change induced events that could influence migration. For the purpose of this blogpost, their findings will be presented in roughly two categories: first, sudden-onset events. One might think of tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, mudslides, or other relatively sudden events that may impact a place in drastic ways. The other option is so-called ‘slow-onset’ events, such as droughts, desertification, salinization, or rising sea levels. These events progress in a far slower way and will not result in immediate displacement. These two kinds of events can further be influenced by (bad) government planning, violent conflicts, or other political responses that may worsen the situation for citizens.

However, even with this categorization, a lot of unclarities remain. By illustration, the estimates of the number of climate change refugees range from 25 million up to 1 billion people by 2050. We seem to have an extreme difficulty with predicting the future of climate change migration, yet even without clear-cut predictions, a solution will be needed for these climate change refugees. It is here, that the second problem of climate change refugees becomes apparent: They are extremely difficult to fit within the existing body of international (refugee) law.

International Refugee Law & Climate Change Refugees

As some of the readers might know, the cornerstone of the international refugee law framework is the Refugee Convention of 1951. For the non-legal readers, the term ‘refugee’ might refer to a more general understanding of persons displaced or fleeing from inhumane situations, and who are in need of international protection. However, the legal understanding of the term refugee is far more narrowed down: There is no mention of any ‘environmental’ motivations for seeking refuge. This is not something to be surprised of, as the Refugee Convention was written in 1951 when the image of the typical World War II or USSR refugee was still plastered on people’s minds. The Convention is a typical product of its time, that did not consider other kinds of refugees besides political refugees.

In the years thereafter, gender or sexuality-based persecution has been interpreted as persecution of “a particular social group”, therefore resulting in protection obligations for countries. However, environmental reasons still fall outside of the scope of the Refugee Convention: People fleeing because of environmental events impacting their livelihoods are not protected by the Refugee Convention, and therefore give countries no obligation to help these people. Although, as has been predicted by many, the majority of climate change refugees will first try to seek shelter within their country of origin, a considerable minority will still be forced to seek refuge cross-border. Think, for example, of the Pacific Islands’ population that will have to leave their island before it is completely submerged by the ocean.

Unfortunately, there are many obstacles before climate change refugees can be protected by the Refugee Convention. First of all, unless political refugees, climate change refugees are often not fleeing from their government. Whereas a political refugee is afraid of government and therefore unwilling to rely on them, this will often not be the case for climate change refugees. If anything, it is rather the international community that has failed to protect this people from negative impacts of climate change by now taking action sooner, then their national governments.

Climate change is influenced by many factors, and the causational link between the migration and climate change – if we are even able to establish such a link –will never lead directly from one single government to its citizens. Climate change is an international issue, both because it is affecting the international community but also because it caused by the international community. Furthermore, even if there is sufficient reason to establish that a climate change cannot be expected to rely on their government, they must still “being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Article 1 of the Refugee Convention, 1951). As clearly stated by the Australian High Court: “No matter how devastating may be epidemic, natural disaster or famine, a person fleeing them is not a refugee within the terms of the Convention”.

A climate change refugee will almost never be subject to persecution, as persecution is generally defined as being done by the State or any organization with similar powers. In more simpler terms, before something is branded as persecution, a clear human agent is needed. Someone needs to do the persecution, and it has to be done on reasons of someone’s race, religion, nationality, membership of ap articular social group or political opinion. This category effectively excludes (most) climate change refugees, except in some circumstances where climate change induced events coincide with such persecution, such as the case of Somali refugees. Although it has been widely accepted that climate change induced events can have disastrous consequences for populations, even being fatal in some cases, it will not qualify as persecution.

A solution, therefore, is needed in order to ensure the safety of future climate change refugees. If the only instrument that could give someone a protected refugee status is not able to do so, what or who will?

The Future of Climate Change Refugees

With the problems of both a lack of understanding and predictive ability of climate change migration but also with no international legal instrument guiding states into their responsibilities in dealing with climate change refugees, the climate change refugee remains largely unprotected. To make things worse, the lack of empirical knowledge also makes it increasingly difficult to make new policies for climate change refugees: What kind of scenarios should we prepare for? How much people will be in need of help? And what kind of help will be needed?

A very effective solution would be to create a new convention for climate change refugees that could grant them refugee status or to reinterpret the Refugee Convention. However, not only will this require more empirical understanding than we currently have, it will also need the political support from the international community; if states are not willing to protect climate change refugees, with the principle of state sovereignty reigning international law, there is no way they can be forced to do so. There is not higher institution or leading country that could force countries to create a new instrument for climate change refugees. The need for international support is, therefore, essential for any kind of solution for the issue of climate change migration. However, issues of migration are a very sensitive topic with the international community and in international law generally. For example, the UN General Assembly has recently adopted the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a soft-law guide (so with no obligations for states) on how to regulate migration, and it even mentioned (although very little and with no future plan) climate change migration. However, even this instrument which could bind any countries to any kind of obligations, was met with hefty political opposition. Several countries, such as Poland and Slovakia, heavily opposed the instrument, stating that it would violate their national sovereignty.

A light at the horizon might be the most recent ruling from the Human Rights Committee.

In January 2020, so only a couple of months ago, they ruled that in certain situations climate change refugees’ human rights can be violated to such a degree, that states will be obliged to protect them. However, this is only a very recent ruling, resulting in the future of climate change refugees still being on shaky grounds.

Although there seems to be more wide-spread recognition of the issue of climate change refugees, there is no clear road ahead. All we do know is that more research needs to be done in order to get a better oversight of climate change migration, and that a response has to be further developed by the international community in order to sufficiently help the 25 million to 1 billion people that might be displaced by climate change very soon.