We’ve all seen the images: complete neighborhoods destroyed by tsunamis, communities leaving their homes due to persistent droughts, small islanders having to move because their island is slowly sinking into the ocean. Where will these people be able to build up a new life? How many challenges will they have to overcome before getting there? How will the world deal with this mass migration?
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 24.2 million people had to flee their homes in 2016 due to weather related disasters. Between 2008 and 2016, a total of 227.6 million people has had the same fate. Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the small island states have the largest populations at risk of becoming climate refugees, although extreme hurricanes can also cause severe damage to communities in the Caribbean and the United States, such as Katrina in 2005, Sandy in 2012 and Maria in 2017. Asia is vulnerable due to its highly populated, low-lying coastal regions and high vulnerability to tropical cyclones, which have been increasingly occurring in the last few years. Water scarcity and drought will also affect millions of Africans. By 2030, 25 African countries are at risk of experiencing water scarcity. Africa is also highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, notably in the river deltas of Egypt and Nigeria. In Latin America, communities are at risk of floods, droughts and water scarcity due to glacier melts depending on the country.
Looking at these numbers and future projections, it may thus seem logical to label those affected by these disasters and starting a new life elsewhere as climate refugees. However, this is not as simple as it seems. The 1951 Refugee Convention, which was signed before climate change became a topic of discussion, was designed to only protect those fleeing violence and persecution within their country based on either religion, ethnicity or political opinion. This is the main reason why agencies such as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) state that “climate refugees” should not be used, instead addressing them as “environmental migrants”. This view is also shared by the International Organization for Migration (IOM); such a term has no legal basis in international refugee law. However, everyone migrating due to environmental reasons are protected by international human rights law. IOM has also provided a working definition for this group of people:
“Environmental migrants 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.”
The UNHCR and IOM fear that misuse of the word “refugee” or trying to include those fleeing climate disasters in the Refugee Convention will undermine the already reluctant governmental support of refugee protection if this group would grow 20-fold due to this expansion. Bettini (2013) also poses the question whether dramatizing climate induced migration with shocking images that are often published in the media and coining these people as refugees will help their situation or actually damage an effective approach to this problem.
However, the debate of whether these people are refugees or not is a useless one, as this emerging problem will have to be dealt with one way or another. Several attempts have been made to create new international governmental policies, but none have yet been successful. In 2017, New Zealand tried to take matters into its own hands by proposing to create a special refugee visa for Pacific Islanders who are forced to move due to rising sea levels. The government wanted to grant 100 visas annually to these climate refugees. The plan was put to bed a year later due to Pacific Island nations stating that they would prefer to continue living on their islands while tackling climate change rather than fleeing their homes, stating that migration will be a last resort.
(Te Mana: Litia Maiava)
Just a few months ago, in December 2018, the UN Global Compact for Migration was signed by 164 countries. This is the first document which states that climate change is a cause of migration and suggests that countries work together to develop policies for environmental migrants. Although this agreement is voluntary and non-binding, the United States, Australia and several European countries chose not to sign it, so whether this document will result in new policies is not clear yet.
Ultimately, the only way to prevent a climate refugee crisis is by tackling climate change, and we all know how difficult a task that is proving to be.
Beeler, C. 2018. UN compact recognizes climate change as driver of migration for first time. Pri. Retrieved from: https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-12-11/un-compact-recognizes-climate-change-driver-migration-first-time
Bettini, G. 2013. Climate Barbarians at the Gate? A critique of apocalyptic narratives on ‘climate refugees’. Geoforum. 45:63-72. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.09.009
Biermann, F., Boas, I. 2008. Protecting Climate Refugees: The Case for a Global Protocol. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. 50(6):8-17. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3200/ENVT.50.6.8-17
Environmental Migration Portal. Retrieved from: https://environmentalmigration.iom.int/environmental-migration
H, W. 2018. Why climate migrants do not have refugee status. The Economist. Retrieved from:https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2018/03/06/why-climate-migrants-do-not-have-refugee-status
Manch, T. 2018. Humanitarian visa proposed for climate change refugees dead in the water. Stuff. Retrieved from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/106660148/humanitarian-visa-proposed-for-climate-change-refugees-dead-in-the-water
New Zealand cools on climate refugee plan. 2018. News24. Retrieved from: https://www.news24.com/Green/News/new-zealand-cools-on-climate-refugee-plan-20180316
Pearlman, J. 2018. New Zealand creates special refugee visa for Pacific islanders affected by climate change. The Straits Times. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/australianz/new-zealand-creates-special-refugee-visa-for-pacific-islanders-affected-by-climate