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'Climate Refugees' in the International Sphere

Implications of Using the Term "Climate Refugee" in Solving the Crisis of Environmental Migration

Rahima Khatun of Khanpur village in Rajshahi, Bangladesh (source: publichealthpost.org)


The idea of a “climate refugee” is a fairly new concept yet there is much controversy surrounding it. The term was first introduced by Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute in the mid 1970s and has been used by various authors and academics since. In general, when we think of a “climate refugee” we think of a person or group of people who have been forced to leave their home due to the various effects of climate change including droughts, storms, flooding, etc. The concept was introduced in the 1970s yet it is being used more frequently in academic dialogue especially as climate change progresses. Certainly as the earth’s temperature continues to rise so too will the number of persons affected by the implications of global warming.This paper will first discuss how to define environmentally displaced persons and what implications are being faced by defining them. I will then discuss both the presence and absence of international policy protecting this group of people. Finally, I will discuss various approaches to creating policy which defines and protects the group’s existence. The goal of this paper is to argue that the international community should put more effort into categorizing and protecting these people because of the urgency of the situation.

Defining Environmental Related Displacement:

Though we know that these people exist, those being people forced to migrate from their homes which were severely affected by the effects of climate change, there is still controversy surrounding their existence. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, “26 million people are displaced by disasters such as floods and storms every year. That's one person forced to flee every second.” The first glaring problem is the international community’s reluctancy to categorize this group of people. In 2008, the International Organization of Migration released a working definition of “environmental migrant” which states as follows that they are:

“persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

Though this definition encompasses the general idea environmental displacement it is still lacking in two ways. First, it specifies “environmental migrant” rather than “climate refugee” because of the implications of the use of the word “refugee” which is strictly defined by a 1951 United Nations treaty on refugees. The second issue is that this definition only defines the group’s existence but does not define how and if they should be protected under international law.

The term “climate refugee” is one which has been circulating in academic circles since the 1970s but has not been adopted by international standards. One reason why the international community is so apprehensive about defining the group in such a way is because of the already existing definition of a refugee. Due to the various war crimes committed during World War II and the accompanying political strife, the United Nations adopted a protocol for defining and protecting the people affected most. The 1951 protocol defines a refugee as a person who:

“owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

This definition limits the United Nations from labeling environmentally displaced persons as “climate refugees.” As seen in the definition above, the word “refugee” insinuates that there is a protagonist government or leader in the person’s home country which is directly targeting certain groups. By defining it like this, the UN acknowledges that there is one person or government which needs to be held responsible for the persecution of specific groups of people. Climate refugees are firstly, not being persecuted by a person or a country and secondly are not a group of people with preexisting characteristics which would warrant their being targeted in the first place.

Thus the term “environmental migrant” comes into play. Whereas the term climate refugee may be a stretch, environmental migrant conveys the same concept without the implications of the word refugee. The word refugee also insinuates that the person is crossing an international border which some of these people are not doing. Therefore, the word “migrant” is more effective in its attempt to define those affected by climate change. However, there are some who feel as though the word migrant does not emphasize enough the severity of the issue at hand.

One term that may be viable to use to describe “climate refugees” or “environmental migrants” is “environmentally displaced persons.” Terms like Internally Displaced Persons and Externally Displaced Persons already exist and convey a sense of strife which has forced these persons to become displaced. By referring to this group as environmentally displaced persons we are not assuming that they are not crossing borders but we are also not assuming they are refugees seeking asylum from persecution. Creating a term that can be internationally agreed upon is the first step in creating policy that acknowledges their existence and can give the group legal rights upon displacement.

Existing Policy:

Another issue that comes up when dealing with the term “climate refugee” is that it can be hard to discern whether groups or individuals are being forced to move because of climate change specifically. That climate change can present itself in the form of storms, floods, or droughts makes it hard to say whether these people are suffering directly from climate change. There is really no way for one to tell if a storm or a flood or a drought was caused directly by climate change. Using the term “Environmentally Displaced Persons” assumes that groups of people are being forced to migrate because of sudden or slow onset environmental change. In order to determine changes in the environment scientists can track sea levels, severity of storms, prevalence of droughts, access to resources over time and compare, and more. For example, experts estimate that sea levels have risen at least 3 inches and at most 9 inches since 1992 and that these numbers are expected to increase through the century. Rising sea levels are amongst the greatest concerns for communities in low lying coastal regions and islands and has already displaced people in countries like Fiji and Kiribati. Scientists and policy makers can also look at the number of people migrating from certain environments including densely populated cities, low lying coasts, islands, and subsistence regions since they are the most affected.

As of now, the international community is working to address the issue of climate migration but has been restricted by organizations working in other areas of climate change and refugee aid. Because the UN operates as bureaucracy, the agencies which deal with migration, climate change, and refugees are only meant to deal with those singular issues. For example, in an article for Al Jazeera, Amy Lieberman argues that the United Nations is not overlooking the issue of environmental migrants but rather that they are more concerned about combating climate change singularly. “As of now, people who intend to declare themselves a refugee because of an environmental disaster or climate change have no opportunity for recourse” said Michael Gerrard of Columbia University.

However, the international community has been taking steps in recent years to address the issue of environmental migration. One example of this is the Nansen Initiative which was started in 2012 by Norway and Switzerland and seeks to create a protection agenda for people displaced by disasters and climate change. This initiative argues that international policy must be created in order to address displaced persons, stating that:

“Every year around the world, millions of people are forcibly displaced by floods, wind-storms, earthquakes, droughts and other disasters. Many find refuge within their own country but some have to go abroad. In the context of climate change, such movements are likely to increase. National and international responses to this challenge are insufficient and protection for affected people remains inadequate.”

Somali refugees endure flooding in Kenya (source: unhcr.org)

The goal of the initiative is to begin creating policy that addresses the growing numbers of people displaced by disasters and forced to relocate within their own country but especially across borders.

In 2015, the initiative was given endorsement by 109 government delegations and is currently being followed up by the Platform on Disaster Displacement. This platform does not take an internationally led approach but rather a state led approach that encourages cooperation between states on a case by case basis to create migration policy specifically for groups of people displaced by disaster. This state led initiative is important to understand when thinking about environmental migration. International law is not currently able to protect or address these groups because of the variation of displacement. Storms, earthquakes, and droughts occur in different places throughout the world and therefore force migration into different areas as well. It would be extremely difficult for the international community to create one organization and one policy that can appropriately address each case of migration. With a state led approach, it allows for various policies to be created between states which can address each case of displaced persons appropriately.

The platform includes a handful of terms which are key to understanding their mission. Sudden onset disasters versus slow onset disasters outline the two ways people can become displaced by their environment, sudden onset meaning events such as windstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc and slow onset meaning environmental degradation over time including processes like droughts and rising sea levels. They also specify that the use of the term “climate refugee” does not exist in international law and is not endorsed by the platform. Despite the Nansen Initiative and the Platform on Disaster Displacement there is no concrete protocol for dealing with environmental migration at the international level.

However, there does exist some policy at the national levels of countries like Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway; all of which have recognized the need for asylum of people fleeing environmental change. The Norwegian Refugee Council states that they prioritise “the rights and protections of displaced people in disasters” by protecting displaced people, preventing further damage in critical areas, deploying experts to assess risks, sharing knowledge, and advocating for long term policy change. They are attempting to achieve these goals through short and long term environmental impact assessments, programs to help minimize environmental stress caused by displaced persons, and development of strategies for sustainable environmental lifestyles.

Call for Policy Changes:

Projected numbers of environmentally displaced persons are expected to reach around 250 million by 2050 according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The urgency of the situation is exacerbated by the fact that, in a lot of cases, especially slow onset disasters, displaced people cannot return to their home region. This along with the expected rise in numbers of people displaced is necessitating policy action between borders. G20 insights suggests that the G20, the top 20 most powerful countries, should be leading the movement for policy implementation because there is no other international organization that is able to handle the situation. The authors suggest that “the G20 should establish a process of continuous communication, policy coordination, and reflection of climate-induced forced displacement, and review progress at its annual G20 Summits” in order to create effective and meaningful international policy which addresses environmentally displaced persons.

It is estimated that for every $1 spent on disaster prevention, countries save between $3-4 in disaster clean up. Since it is generally accepted that the number of environmentally displaced persons will increase if the situation is not addressed, it is in our best interest to address it as soon as possible.

The first step in creating policy is to acknowledge its existence as a problem. For the international community to do this it must create an appropriate term which outlines the reason for the group’s existence. As previously stated, I believe the term “environmentally displaced person” conveys the severity of the situation without using the word “refugee” and without underplaying it by using the word “migrant.” “Refugee” implies persecution of a specific group of people and “migrant” implies voluntary mobility, neither of which appropriately define the situation.

The second step is then to research and understand the severity of situation. While doing research, I noticed that there are no generally accepted statistics on the number of displaced persons, the reasons for their displacements, and the future expectations for displacement. At best, there are rough estimates of these statistics. It might be in the interest of the international community to create a task force whose job it is to gather information to go from there.

The third step follows the lines of the Nansen Initiative. The international community should use the new term and gathered data to assess the severity and then create an organization to address the specific issue of environmentally displaced persons. The idea of the Nansen Initiative and the Platform on Disaster Displacement that allows for a state led approach is probably the wisest way to form an organization. The diversity of slow and sudden onset disasters across the world necessitate different policies which an international approach alone may not be able to handle. By forming an organization which has the states’ leading policy initiatives may prove the most effective for protection of displaced persons.

The fourth step should involve something along the lines of what the Norwegian Refugee Council is doing in terms of environmental impact assessments. It is true that these people are being displaced by sudden and slow onset disaster which is compromising their ability to live on their land. However, the environmental strains that migration of these people would cause on the asylum country are also a concern. The international community should develop a strategy for assessing the risk of accepting environmentally displaced persons to best accommodate whatever policy they plan on implementing.

Call to Action:

Migrant youth experience harsh sandstorm in Sudan's Darfur region (source: unhcr.org)

As time progresses and the effects of climate change become more apparent so does the issue of environmentally displaced people. There is no other topic which is truly global like climate change. Whether we accept it or not, it will continue to worsen without action and it will affect everyone eventually. It is imperative that the international community take action to slow climate change while accommodating those who it has already impacted. By doing so, organizations and countries will save themselves a lot of time, money, and resources in the next 30 years. Though the bureaucratic processes which inevitably follow the creation of an international organization and policy can draw out the process, it is important that we do it as soon as possible because it could be too late very soon. 

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