Who are Climate Refugee?

Mohd Imran
LLM Student- South Asian University, New Delhi

With a global middle class consuming more energy every day, this must now be an effort of all nations, not just some.  For the grim alternative affects all nations- more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise.  This is the future we must avert.  This is the global threat of our time.  And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late.  That is our job.  That is our task.  We have to get to work.[1]

-Barack Obama
Former US President

The vision of millions of people[2] permanently displaced from their homes is a frightening prospect, one that could rival war in its effect on humanity. The growing number of environmental refugees is perhaps the best single measure of global environmental decline.[3] Human migration is expected to be one of the greatest consequences of climate change[4] in near future. Voluntary and forced, short and long-term, within and across borders to a when it is driven by climate change; migration can take on different forms.[5] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted in 1990 that the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration- with millions of people displayed by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, sea level rise and agricultural disruption etc.[6] The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Paris Agreement on Climate Change, signed by 195 countries at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, is clear evidence of the existing awareness of the threats posed by climate change.[7] With the strongest references to the human rights of any international treaty so far, the Paris Agreement goes a step forward in linking the international responses to climate change to migration and the need to ensure the protection of the people’s rights.[8]  Environmental disturbances, including that due to climate change; generalized violence, whether because of war or food and water insecurity- these have all been identified among the ‘new drivers’ of displacement.[9]

This increasing trend of displacement and migration can be described as ‘survival migration’- people who leave their countries because they cannot secure minimum conditions of human life in their country of origin.[10] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that there are about 19.2 million people who are in danger of being displaced because of environmental disasters and that it may grow to 50 million by 2010.[11]

WHO ARE CLIMATE REFUGEES?

The term ‘environmental refugees’ was first popularized by Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute in the 1970s, but perhaps the most quoted contributions on the subject are those of El-Hinnawi.[12] The term “environmental refugee[13]”, climate refugee[14]”, “forced climate refugee[15]”, “climate induced refugee”[16] has been used interchangeably by the experts and academicians. However, there is no universally accepted definition for people who are forced to leave a place because of climate change. For a long time the term “climate migrants” or “forced climate migrants” have been used to address such group of people.

Scholars and activists use the term “climate refugee” because this term expresses the seriousness of the issue of climate change and human migration due to climate change.[17] The idea is that these people need to “seek refuge” from the impacts of the climate change and any other terminology, may downplay the seriousness of these people’s situation.[18] The word “refugee” resonates with the general public who can sympathize with the implied sense of duress. It also carries less negative connotations than “migrant” which tends to imply a voluntary move towards a more comfortable lifestyle.[19] The term “environmental refugees” was first coined as a report title for the United Nations Environment Programme.[20] Essamel Hinnawi in the year 1985, defined the ‘environmental refugees’ as:[21]

            “…those people who have been forced to move or leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked conspicuous environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized and imperiled their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life.”[22]

Myers and Kent have described environmental refugees as ‘persons who no longer gain a secure livelihood in their traditional homelands because of ‘the environmental factors of unusual scope’. Myers has suggested the total number of environmental refugees may be as high as 25 million.[23] According to Alexander and Paul, the threshold for refuge would be fear of serious physical harm. And the test would be: when would a reasonable person not see her or- herself as having a choice but to flee? [24]  The value of ‘fear of serious physical harm’ is that it is a universal concept. Fear is not country specific. Unlike migration, which is usually about an upside, refuge is needed when horrible things have happened to you and your family; and climate change can bring one of the most horrible crises the world would have ever witnessed.

Environmental migrants are generally agreed to result from three main causes: Extreme events such as natural disasters and environmental or industrial accidents. Planned or unplanned;- relocation for “development” purposes as in the case of reservoir construction or deforestation of indigenous peoples’ lands.[25] The results of malnutrition, hardship, ill health and wasting diseases, starvation and famine that may result from inadequate resources to maintain life, often associated with degraded land and reduced, inadequate or polluted water.[26] The Climate Change causes both temporary as well as permanent displacements.

The expression ‘climate refugee’ is not easy to define or quantify. Definitions and categories may be developed for the convenience of agencies and for many different purposes. One person’s (or agency’s) migrant may be another’s refugee. The original Geneva definition of refugee is very restrictive and would not encompass environmental refugees as defined above and especially not the “internally displaced”.[27] To be classified as refugee you must have to cross international border. Many people fleeing violence are in no position to do that. Thus, the pertinent underlying phenomenon is displacement, not refuge.[28] The problem with using the expression “refugee” is that; the concept of a “refugee” tends to imply a right of return once the persecution that triggered the original flight has ceased, which is impossible in the case of sea level rise, like Maldives[29], thus, again,  the term distorts the nature of the problem. Moreover, there is concern that expanding the definition of a refugee from political persecution to encompass environmental stressors would dilute the available international mechanisms and goodwill to cater for exiting refugees. While the definition is being debated, what is the extent or possible extent of the issue of environmental refugees? The answer to this question may help to determine and develop appropriate policy to address the situation. The International Federation of Red Cross says ‘‘climate change disasters are currently a bigger cause of population displacement than war and persecution’’.[30]

Is there a definition that will incorporate all types of refugees that are forced to migrate due to issues or incidents that require international response to address the migration? As noted above, the common thread is that this new group of refugees as a result of conflict or meet the current international definition of ‘refugee’ is that they are all forced to migrate. It is time to revisit the definition of ‘refugees’ to encompass the potentially largest group of displaced persons that will affect the international community for many years to come.[31]

In the next blog the author will discuss Maldives as the case study of climate refugees. While there may be several causes of becoming climate refugees, Maldives’s population could be a prey of sea level rise.

Views expressed by the author are personal.


[1] Remarks by President Obama at the Brandenburg Gate- Berlin, Germany, Available at: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/19/remarks-president-obama-brandenburg-gate-berlin-germany

[2] https://www.unhcr.org/research/RESEARCH/3ae6a0d00.pdf

[3] Jodi L. Jacobson, Environmental Decline Single Greatest Cause of Refugees (Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society Volume: 8 issue: 3, page(s): 257-258) Issue published: June 1, 1988,   https://doi.org/10.1177/027046768800800304

[4] Cosmin Corendea, Migration and Human Rights in the Wake of Climate Change, UNU-EHS Publication Series Policy Report 2017, No.2, available at: https://collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:6305/PolicyReport_No2_171113_online_revised_meta.pdf

[5][5] How Bangladesh has adapted to climate Change, The Economist, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWG_uzLmuug  (Accessed on October 10, 2019)

[6] Climate and Migration, IOM Migration Research Series, No. 31 (International Organization for Migration, 2000) 11.

[7]Rattan Lal, ‘Climate of South Asia and the Human Wellbeing’, Rattan Lal (ed), Climate Change and Food Security in South Asia, (Springer 2011). 

[8] Ibid.

[9] Alexander Betts & Paul Collier, Refugee: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, (First Published 2017, Panguin Random House, UK) 44.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Press Release: Natural Disasters Contribute to Rise in Population Displacement, Nairobi, 20 June 2008. Available at: http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.Print.asp?DocumentID=538&ArticleID=5842&I=en (Accessed on October 27, 2019).

[12] https://www.unhcr.org/research/RESEARCH/3ae6a0d00.pdf

[13] Glossary on Migration, IOM UN Migration, https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/iml_34_glossary.pdf (accessed on October 18, 2019).

[14] Betsy Hartmann, Rethinking Climate Refugees And Climate Conflict: Rhetoric, Reality and the Politics of Policy Discourse (2010), 233-246 Journal of International Development 234

[15] Jane McADAM, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law, (First Published 2012, Oxford University Press), 06.

[16] Stellina Jolly & Nafees Ahmad, Climate Refugees in South Asia (First Published 2019, Springer, Singapore) 40.

[17] Alexander & Paul

[18] Etienne Piguet, Climate Change and Forced Migration (Research Paper No.153, Policy Development and Evaluation Service, UNHCR) 14.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Etienne Piguet, Climate Change and Forced Migration (Research Paper No.153, Policy Development and Evaluation Service, UNHCR) 01.

[21] Stellina Jolly & Nafees Ahmad, Climate Refugees in South Asia (First Published 2019, Springer, Singapore) 40.

[22] Essan El-Hinnawi, Environmental Refugees (United Nations Environment Programme 1985) 4.

[23] https://www.unhcr.org/research/RESEARCH/3ae6a0d00.pdf

[24] Alexander Betts, Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement (Ithaca, 2013: Cornell University Press)

[25] Piguet E. (2008), Climate change and forced migration, “New Issues in Refugee Research”, UNHCR Research Paper No. 153.

[26] ENVIRONMENT AND FORCED MIGRATION AREVIEW By Franklin Cardy, UNEP. Nairobi pg- 2  http://repository.forcedmigration.org/pdf/?pid=fmo:1158

See Also: Graeme H. (2008), Migration, Development and Environment, IOM Migration Research Series, No. 35.

[27] ENVIRONMENT AND FORCED MIGRATION AREVIEW By Franklin Cardy, UNEP. Nairobi pg- 2  http://repository.forcedmigration.org/pdf/?pid=fmo:1158

[28] Alexander Betts & Paul Collier, Refugee: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, (First Published 2017, Panguin Random House, UK) 15.

[29] An increase in sea level is irreversible and manifests itself over a long period of time. The projected sea level rise makes populations living at an altitude of less than 1 metre directly vulnerable.

See also: Etienne Piguet, ‘Climate change and forced migration’ (New Issues in Refugee Research, Research Paper No. 153, January 2008) http://www.bvsde.paho.org/bvsacd/cd68/newissues153.pdf  accessed October 25. 2019.

[30] Press Release: Natural Disasters Contribute to Rise in Population Displacement, Nairobi, 20 June 2008. Available at: http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.Print.asp?DocumentID=538&ArticleID=5842&I=en (Accessed on October 26, 2019)

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