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Climate refugees: undefined and unprotected

Written by Sacha Dekeyser

June 18, 2019

As millions of people have to migrate because of the effects of climate change, their status remains uncertain. International Law does not address so-called ‘climate refugees’ or ‘climate migrants’, leaving them unprotected.

Tens of millions at risk

Climate change causes sudden natural disasters like droughts and floods. It also provokes slow-onset environmental degradation such as rising sea levels or water scarcity. Ultimately, climate change is a threat multiplier. This means that it exacerbates existing challenges such as poverty. It also forces men, women and children to move from their homeland.

According to a recent report, by 2030 tens of millions of people will have to relocate because of the effects of climate change. Often referred to as ‘climate refugees’, these people either migrate across borders or within their own country.

Climate migration happens in both developed and developing countries, yet developing countries are most affected. Vulnerable populations who depend on natural resources are the first to lose their livelihoods due to global warming. Their very lives are at risk when faced with water or food scarcity. What’s more, inhabitants of small island states and coastal cities could lose their homes due rising sea levels. The question is: how can the dignity and safety of these populations be protected when they have to move?

Internal displacement

International Law does not provide firm protection to climate refugees who relocate inside their own country. The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (UN Guiding Principles) that were designed to protect these people are not binding, and only cover climate migration caused by sudden natural disasters. This excludes people who flee their countries due to rising sea levels for example.

The situation is different in Africa where a binding treaty (the Kampala Convention) protects the rights and dignity of all internally displaced people including climate refugees.

Crossing borders

There is no legal definition of climate refugees in International Law and no specific instrument addresses their situation.

The refugee regime only protects political refugees. Many actors have asked for this protection to extend to climate refugees as well, but the definition of political refugees remains very strict. For example, to receive ‘refugee status’ a person has to be fleeing persecution. This is a criterion that does not apply to climate refugees. Changing the definition of political refugees is not an option for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

As a result, climate refugees have no legal protection. This means that their dignity, safety and economic integration are not guaranteed when they relocate.

Possible solutions

The best way to stem this growing humanitarian crisis is to cut greenhouse gas emissions right now and fight climate change itself. However, it is extremely unlikely that States would commit to this level of action soon. It is also important to note that today a certain level of climate change has become unavoidable. Given the urgent need to protect climate refugees and the fact that climate migration is already happening, I want to examine other possible solutions.

A new treaty for all climate refugees ?

Until recently, the most popular solution for the protection of climate refugees was the adoption of a new treaty. Nevertheless it could be extremely difficult to formulate a single definition of climate migration. This is because climate migration is multi-faceted: it can be caused by sudden natural disasters or by slow-onset impacts of climate change. It can also be long-term or temporary, forced or voluntary.

For internal displacement: the UN Guiding Principles

The international community could follow the example of the Kampala Convention. This would mean extending the UN Guiding Principles to make sure that the instrument covers all internally displaced people, including those whose displacement is caused by climate change. The international community could even go further by using the UN Guiding Principles as a model for a binding global framework.

International development

If we want to prevent and reduce climate migration, the best solution is to focus on international development and adaptation. Good governance and disaster preparedness would remove most of the triggers that, combined with climate change, provoke climate migration. When countries are well prepared for the effects of climate change, their populations are less likely to suffer and feel the need to relocate.

As for climate migration that cannot be prevented, it should be addressed in existing international frameworks. The 2015 Paris Agreement took a first step in this direction by recognising migrants as a category of people that need to be protected. The next step would be to include an obligation for States to protect the rights of climate refugees in this framework. This would allow vulnerable populations to migrate safely and resettle with dignity.

Sacha Dekeyser is currently undertaking an LLM at our associate member institution, Queen Mary University of London. 

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