Climate Refugees: From Abstraction to Reality

The United Nations defines a refugee as “a person forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, violence or war”. This definition arises from the UN Refugee Convention, which was signed in 1951 by its 145 member states. In the decades following this decision, refugees came to be commonly understood as people fleeing “ethnic, tribal and religious violence”, and these groups have been legally protected under international law. However, this post-World War II understanding of what constitutes a refugee has recently been the subject of criticism by scholars throughout the international community. In focusing specifically on persons fleeing persecution, international law fails to include protections for migrants fleeing numerous other threats. And, as the Earth’s climate continues to warm throughout the 21st century, the most powerful threat facing vulnerable communities is not violence or war, but rather climate-induced environmental disaster.

The International Organization for Migration predicts that climate change will displace up to 250 million people around the world by 2050. This poses enormous complications worldwide, especially considering the rise of anti-immigration policy in many Western democracies. Crop failure, drought, rising sea levels, stronger storms, and disease pose significant threats to people’s homes and livelihoods throughout the Global South. Climate-induced natural disasters have already caused irreparable harm in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, and as the Earth’s climate is expected to warm far beyond the Paris threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, this could well spread to other parts of the world as well. Most poignantly, the populations most vulnerable to these changes are the developing world, rural and indigenous communities, and the poor: those who hold the least responsibility for industrialized fossil fuel production in the first place. Although the largest population shifts are expected to take place in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, hurricanes and fires have even caused migration in the United States.

Still, climate migration is a relatively new phenomenon, and misunderstandings abound as to what conditions accurately describe a ‘climate refugee’. Although the term has gained prominence in academia in recent years, the meaning behind it rings empty as no international framework yet exists to address the issue. Additionally, the inherent complications of climate change often cross national borders and international institutions are thus unfit to handle climate migration under their existing framework. No action has been taken to amend the UN definition of a refugee, and no legal protections exist for environmental migrants. To further complicate this, the World Bank estimates that the majority of climate-displaced people will not be refugees at all, but rather be internally displaced, or forced to resettle within their country of origin. Internally displaced people (IDP’s) are not granted refugee status by the UN, but instead fall under the legal obligation of their own governments.

Cases invoking international refugee status for migrants fleeing climate stress have already been heard by national courts, most notably in New Zealand with mixed results. Ioane Teitiota sought refugee status from New Zealand in 2014 on the basis of rising sea levels endangering his home country of Kiribati. The case was dismissed by the New Zealand Supreme Court, however, because he could not prove persecution and therefore was not offered protection under international law. Even though the court conceded that Teitiota’s case met the “sociological definition” of a refugee, it did not meet the legal one. On the other hand, the New Zealand Immigration and Protection Tribunal ruled in the same year to accept the refugee application of Siego Alesana, a migrant from the island nation of Tuvalu also fleeing rising sea levels. The court accepted him and his family on humanitarian grounds, claiming that the adverse impacts climate change would have on his young children classified as a human rights violation should he return to Tuvalu. Neither court, however, accepted land disappearance due to rising sea levels as legitimate in proving refugee status.

Our understanding of refugee status has to evolve past its outdated definition of simply those fleeing ethnic, tribal and religious persecution. Humanitarian crises in the 21st century are more likely to be caused by environmental factors than by violent conflict, and international law must develop in accordance with this. The UN declared in September that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods and security… of the peoples of the Pacific”, as Pacific Island nations continue to face some of the world’s highest levels of displacement. If

emissions continue at their current rate, however, even cities such as New York and Tokyo can expect to be under water by the end of the century. The era of climate migration is upon us, and it is essential that leaders establish an international legal framework to address the issue. The international community not only needs a paradigm shift in its understanding of the term ‘refugee’, but it also must translate that understanding into action before it is too late.

  1. “What is a refugee?” United Nations Refugee Agency.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Global Migration Trends”. International Organization for Migration, 2017.
  4. Gonzales, Carmen. “Environmental Justice, Human Rights, and the Global South”. Seattle University School of Law, 2015.
  5. Climate change killing trees across the Sahel, says study”. The Guardian, 2012.
  6. Sarkar, Soumya. “South and Southeast Asia most at risk by climate change”. Eco-Business, 6 Dec. 2018.
  7. Gleick, Peter. “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria”. AMS Journals, 1 July 2014.
  8. “November Global Temperature Change”. CO2 Earth, Nov. 2018.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Anderson, Charles. “New Zealand considers creating climate change refugee visas”. The Guardian, October 31, 2017.
  12. Curtis, Kimberly. “Climate Refugees Explained”. UN Dispatch, April 24, 2017.
  13. Anderson, Charles. “New Zealand considers creating climate change refugee visas”. The Guardian, October 31, 2017.
  14. “Pacific Islands on the front line of climate change: UN Chief”. UN News, September 28, 2018.
  15. “Future Climate Change”. Australian Department of the Environment and Energy, 2018.

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