Why Climate Migrants? Why Not Climate Refugee?

Geetanjali Bisht
LL.M (Law and Development)
Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Disasters such as droughts, floods, famines and rising sea levels are a few climate-related tragedies inducing internal and external displacements. A large number of people are being forced to flee their homeland in search of better living conditions and livelihood. It is estimated that by 2050 the climatic events will result in 200 million climate migrants.

Bangladesh is one such country that is vulnerable to climate change and is already experiencing a wide range of impacts. The process of salinization has already begun because of the rise in tide levels thereby affecting the coastal drinking water supplies. This has already started causing health problems, soil degradation and loss of crop yields. The effect of climate change is already visible and it has started rendering land uninhabitable. At present, the affected individuals are moving to safer places within the country, however, there will be a situation where the individuals will have to opt for cross-border movement. In future, many parts of Bangladesh are estimated to be under severe threat of sea-level submergence.

Bangladesh shares borders with India on three sides and the Arabian Sea on the fourth. If the affected individuals are required to opt for cross-border migration in future, they will have no choice but to travel to India. If the trend of cross-border migration is to be traced, affected individuals have usually opted to move to the neighboring countries. Evidently, India will face a huge influx of climate migrants in the near future.

Some of the most vulnerable districts to climate change lie alongside India’s borders. In the past, a huge number of individuals have migrated from Bangladesh to India. However, India has started adopting strict measures against such cross-border movement. One such indicator is the decision of the Indian government to build a fence along the borders to stop such movement. In light of the increased danger of climate change in Bangladesh, it is important to stress upon India’s responsibility towards its neighbouring countries considering India contributes majorly to the phenomena.

At present, the need is to be futuristic in its vision and be prepared for the possibility of a mass influx of climate migrants from Bangladesh to India. Even Bangladesh does not have a legal framework in place to manage cross-border migration. Hence, it becomes necessary that India indulges in bilateral or multilateral arrangements to tackle such an issue. This is important even from the view of an Indian citizen who’ll be in the midst of a chaotic situation where people will find a huge number of foreigners claiming the resources of their country. Therefore, it is important to look at the issue from the human rights perspective and enshrine rights upon climate migrants.

The need of the hour is to realize that climate change is real and so are its consequences. The countries shall reflect upon their commitments under international law and the level of GHG emissions to realise the responsibility owed to the affected countries. Bangladesh is one such country to which the world owes an obligation including India.


This is the year 2050, Bangladesh has been hit by a cyclone severely. People are moving to save their lives and India has faced huge influx on the borders. The Indian government has received requests for shelter and assistance to the Bangladeshi citizens. The Bangladeshi citizens have nowhere to hide but opt for cross-border movement in the hope of getting a better life and livelihood. The question before the Indian government is how to address such individuals. Should they be addressed as climate refugees or climate migrants?

Under international law, individuals displaced by climate change are neither refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention nor recognised as the traditional migrants, thus, occupying a grey space. It is important to resolve this confusion so that the Indian government makes the correct choice as and when necessary. The term ‘refugee’ has been derived from the 1951 Refugee Convention, however, the climate-induced cross-border movement does not find a place in the Convention. There have been demands to recognise climate refugees since the term ‘migrants’ imply that the movement was voluntary and does not sufficiently address the gravity of the situation where one did not want to flee but had no other choice. On the other hand, Dina Lonesco argues that one should talk about climate migrants and not refugees.

One of the integral features of a ‘refugee’ is the fear of persecution. In the case of a climate change ‘refugee’, this fear of persecution is said to emerge from the actions of the international community or polluters in the form of public and private entities. However, such a causal connection is difficult to establish on a case-to-case basis thus resulting in lengthy and complicated legal procedures. Similarly, the individual is not escaping the government of the home state. In fact, the home state government is working towards protecting such individuals. Under such circumstances, if the individuals fleeing because of climate change are recognized as refugees, it’ll alter (maybe reverse) the refugee law paradigm extensively. Furthermore, revisiting the Convention in order to accommodate the climate-induced movement will open gates for the countries to dilute the existing refugee law. Experts argue that this will lead to a lot of complications and result in additional issues rather than solving the problem of climate-induced movement.

Additionally, in order to alter the definition of refugees under the Convention, the countries will have to come together and further the cause. Bringing the countries to a consensus will be a herculean task and consume a lot of valuable time. The policies to be formulated by India shall not be restricted because of the indecisiveness of the international community and identifying the affected individuals as ‘refugees’ without altering the definition under the Convention will lead to an added layer of legal complication. Therefore, it is imperative to identify the affected individuals as climate ‘migrants’.


Climate      Change      has      affected      everyone disastrously, however, women as a class are disproportionately affected by climate change and are placed at additional risk. Women are disadvantaged even when climatic events force them to flee their homeland.

In a conversation with Teo Ormond-Skeaping, he mentioned that when hit by a climatic event, it is the man who migrates in search of a better living condition and livelihood. Women are usually left behind to take care of the household under conditions that are uninhabitable. The societal footing of women limits the quick decision-making ability of women to move to safer places in disastrous situations. Women usually do not have the agency to make decisions and the societal responsibilities restrain them from exercising the agency. Even when a woman migrates, they face sexual exploitation, human trafficking and are a subject of sexual and gender-based violence. The migrants in the recipient country are amassed in small spaces thus exposing them to the escalated risk of sexual violence. It is material for the policies around climate migrants to take account of the gender-based vulnerability and devise policies to ensure protection against gender-based violence.


Within the debate about climate change, there has always been a reference to how climate change affects the developed, developing and the under- developed nations distinctly. Even while one argues for the recognition of climate migrants, it is pertinent to address the question of climate justice ingrained in the issue. One might ask for the distinction in the treatment of refugees based on the carbon emission levels of the home country. The refugee from a country that has low carbon emissions stands at a different footing than a refugee from a country that has high carbon emissions. Bangladesh ranks at 45th in terms of its CO2 emissions, however, is the most vulnerable country to climate change. The question is if it is just for a country whose contribution to climate change is lower to suffer more than a country whose contribution is higher.

In an email discussion, Dr. Avidan Kent opined that where the person is in a vulnerable situation, there is no just reason to ask for his nationality and make him responsible for the actions of his/her home country. The most important fact is that the individual needs protection and the policies adopted by his/her country should not be counted against him/her.

The real question before us is regarding the accountability of the developed nations for the damages suffered by the nations hit by climate change. Moreover, a large number of migrants are supposed to end up mostly in the developing world and not in the countries that are primarily responsible for such climate calamity. The question is regarding the responsibility for protecting or hosting migrants, and how one should impose accountability on the polluting states. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities recognises the imposition of increased burden/responsibility on richer or polluting countries. While resolving the question of accountability, it is often argued that the damage caused shall be evaluated from what has been done in the past and financial accountability has to be imposed on that basis. Whereas, the developed countries argue for the damages to be evaluated on a continuing basis and decide accountability accordingly. It is imperative that the countries not only take account of the damage to the climate in the past but also the continuing contributions so that it does not absolve the nations from their obligation of reducing GHG emissions. The developed nations should take upon themselves to accept the responsibility of climate migrants and provide financial support to the countries that accept migrants despite their lack of resources.


India has made a commitment to decrease the greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 2030 under the Paris Agreement 2015. Even though India has made several attempts to achieve the target, the country remains the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). With the government promoting ‘atmanirbhar’ India and making efforts to revive the economy even at the cost of damaging the environment, the increase in the contribution towards GHG emissions can be imagined. It is evident that India is contributing to climate change and is responsible for the plight of nations suffering because of such change.

Essentially, accountability should not limited to the damage done in the past but also cover the present and future. Evidently, India’s contribution to climate change is increasing and so is its accountability. The climate migrants from Bangladesh will seek shelter in India and the Indian government will have a responsibility to protect them. It is required that the Indian government enters into a bilateral or multilateral agreement so as to recognise climate migrants and regulate the influx and decide on the rights and liabilities of such migrants.

It is imperative that India adopts a uniform definition of climate migrants so that the status can be claimed on such basis. India can either adopt the definition of ‘environmental migrants’ by the International Organization for Migration or ‘climate migrants’ by the Institute for Environment and Human Society. A uniform definition lays down the circumstances that will be identified as climate change and under what circumstances the status of climate migrants can be claimed.

Additionally, the countries are preparing for the issue of migration coming their way. New Zealand had proposed issuing humanitarian visas to Pacific Islanders who are displaced by the effects of climate change. Similarly, the U.S. has provided ‘temporary protected status’ to individuals affected by environmental disasters. India may adopt such measures as adopted by other countries to address the issue of climate migrants or devise another measure by conducting bilateral or multilateral talks.

The case of Teitiota v. New Zealand before the UN Human Rights Committee reflects that climate- induced migration has already become a subject of litigation, therefore, the presence of a policy or law has become important to avoid future litigation. At this stage, India needs to assess its accountability towards climate migrants and prepare itself for the future influx of migrants from Bangladesh. Let us be prepared for the danger that is coming our way.

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