Climate Refugees, or Climate Migrants, That is the Question…Or is it?

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Between 2009 and 2019, an estimated 249.7 million people were displaced due to disaster. These displacements were either related to geophysical disasters, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or weather-related issues.

In 2019 alone, 24.9 million people were displaced due to disasters, of which 23.9 million were caused by weather-related issues, such as extreme temperatures, droughts, landslides, wildfires, floods and storms.

These figures do not include those displaced due to conflict and violence.

Statistics provided by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

We turn on our televisions, read newspapers, or scroll through social media and we read about “climate refugees” and “climate migrants”. We are informed of people losing and leaving their homes in the United States because of hurricanes or wildfires. We see images of people in Indonesia fleeing because of a volcanic eruption. We read stories of fishermen in Senegal who do not catch as much fish as they used to, and thus decide to migrate because there isn’t much work and barely any hope for the future, since according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) “catch potential in tropical countries may drop 40% due to climate change by 2100.”

In 2017, it was estimated that nearly 2.4 billion people (about 40 per cent of the world’s population) live within 100 km of the coast, and that more than 600 million people (around 10 per cent of the world’s population) live in coastal areas that are less than 10 meters above sea level. What will happen to these millions, and even billions, of people whilst the sea levels continue to rise and ultimately submerge their lands? Where will they go?

As the UN Refugee Agency’s High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi mentioned “Climate-related causes are a growing driver of new internal displacement, surpassing those related to conflict and violence by more than 50%. Climate is often also a pervasive factor in cross-border displacement. However, under international law, there is no clear-cut definition of a ‘climate refugee’ or a ‘climate migrant’. So the question we have to ask ourselves is: given the general acceptance that climate is related to migration, why are people who are affected by this phenomenon, not classified nor defined under international law? Do protections exist for these people under existing categories of protection, such as the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and its 1967 Protocol? Further, what is the UN doing and what can it do to protect people who flee their territories due to disasters?

The Climate Change-Displacement Nexus

Climate change per se does not always directly cause the displacement of persons. As Dr. Caroline Zickgraf, of the Hugo Observatory, mentioned: “Climate change does not act alone. It is a threat multiplier, it deepens vulnerabilities, inequalities and demographic pressures.” An example would be to imagine a drought that fuels an already existing local conflict. Although conflict will be the main reason that persons in the area migrated, this conflict was made worse because of the drought.

Given that climate change exacerbates pre-existing vulnerabilities in societies, it affects communities differently. Not all communities will be displaced due to climate change. We have to look at the context of communities to understand whether a migratory trend may emerge. It is also worth mentioning that one needs resources in order to migrate: economic means, a personal network, transportation means, etc. In fact, there may be situations where persons in marginalised and poor communities might find themselves wanting and needing to migrate, but unfortunately in practical terms, they might not have the possibility to do so.

The nexus between climate change and migration cannot always be easily established. Dr Zickgraf mentioned, that although academics and researchers are trying to trace and record the effects of climate change, it is hard to establish a direct cause-effect link between climate change and migration. This is made harder when, as previously mentioned, climate change “is a threat multiplier” causing people to flee for a variety of reasons. Additionally, data usually cannot capture the slow onset of changes produced by climate change. Although, data collected from “shock events”, such as hurricanes and floods, can more easily be recorded and can prove an existing nexus between climate and migration.

The difficulty in clearly demonstrating the nexus between climate and migration makes it difficult to come up with a definition of persons displaced due to climate change. Oftentimes such persons are inappropriately classified as economic migrants. Climate-related displacement is opening up the debate on what it means to be forced to flee from territories of nationality or habitual residence. Traditionally, those fleeing persecution or conflict were thought to be the only persons who deserve protection in other nations. However, has climate change created new scenarios of protection needs which are not directly contemplated in our international legal system?

Refugee Protection for those Displaced by Climate?

The legal term “climate refugee” does not exist according to international law. Instead, the 1951 Refugee Convention, defines a refugee as being an individual 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.” Given this definition, a person outside of his/her country of nationality solely due to climate change cannot necessarily be identified as a refugee.

As mentioned above, climate-related disasters may exacerbate the persecution of certain individuals, who when they cross the border, can be recognised as refugees or persons entitled to subsidiary protection (a protective status within the EU, typically granted to persons who risk their physical integrity if sent back to countries of origin but are not persecuted for the reasons encompassed in the 1951 Refugee Convention). But this recognition does not stem from persecution on the basis of climate change, but rather a persecution which has been contemplated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, or under regional/national legislation: for example, in Spain, someone persecuted on the basis of gender can be recognised as a refugee; this is a persecution that under the 1951 Refugee Convention would be classified as a persecution due to “the membership of a particular social group”. In States which have ratified the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (OAU Convention), a refugee can also be an individual who has left their habitual residence because of persecution due “to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order”.

It is interesting to point out that both the OAU Convention and the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, cite that circumstance or events “seriously disturbing public order" can be cause for an individual to be recognised as a refugee. The UN has defined a disaster as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts.” The above mentioned regional tools may provide the legal opportunity to recognise as refugees, those who crossed a border, because of the effects of a climate change if the event could be considered as one which seriously disturbed public order.

While much focus is placed upon whether those displaced due to climate may be granted international protection, it is important to acknowledge that, “most disaster displacement linked to natural hazards and the impacts of climate change is internal, with those affected remaining within their national borders.” Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are not considered refugees, given that, under the Refugee Convention and regional instruments, a persecuted individual has to cross the border in order to be recognised as a refugee. Thus, climate displacement should definitely be present in conversations surrounding IDPs.

Beyond International Refugee Law: A Role for International Human Rights Law?

Although persons displaced due to climate are not directly contemplated in refugee law, we see that there may be some possibilities for protection under the Refugee Convention and regional instruments. In addition, international human rights law could provide solutions to protection needs.

The UN Human Rights Committee in October 2019 adopted a decision in the communication: Teitiota v. New Zealand. The case concerned the rejection of Mr Teitiota’s refugee status application which he presented in New Zealand. Mr Teitiota argued that “the effects of climate change and sea level rise forced him to migrate from the island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati to New Zealand. […] Inhabitable land on Tarawa has eroded, resulting in a housing crisis and land disputes that have caused numerous fatalities. Kiribati has thus become an untenable and violent environment for the author and his family.”

The UN Human Rights Committee decided that New Zealand did not violate the applicant’s right under Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (right to life) when they deported him to the Republic of

Kiribati. However, the Committee noted “that without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving States may expose individuals to a violation of their rights under articles 6 or 7 of the Covenant, thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending States.” The significance of this decision should not be understated. Indeed, UNHCR spokesperson, Andrej Mahecic, stated “This is a landmark decision with potentially far-reaching implications for the international protection of displaced people in the context of climate change and disasters.

In this communication, the UN Human Rights Committee recognised that certain fundamental rights can be violated due to the effects of climate change. Thus, this decision demonstrates that climate displaced persons may, in some cases, benefit from the protection of non-refoulment (which prohibits States from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction or effective control when there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon return, including persecution, torture). In order to better afford protections to persons displaced by climate related disasters, one might argue their protection needs based on human rights that are encompassed in international covenants and regional human rights instruments.

The United Nations’ Role in Protecting Climate Displaced Persons

For the outreach and capacities the UN has around the world, its various agencies, programmes, and funds can go a long way to protect persons displaced due to the effects of climate change. Encouragingly, both the Global Compact on Refugees and Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration mention the need to address climate change and propose policies that can be implemented in order to reduce the effects of climate change. Implementing said policies would arguably result in an easing of pressures on displacement and migration. Furthermore, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals lists combating climate change as one of its main goals.

Since the 1990s, UNHCR has become “increasingly committed to protecting the environment and [is aware] of the environmental challenges associated with hosting a large population in a small area.” UNHCR additionally promoted the use of environmental management tools in refugee operations, including environmental impact assessments and monitoring. Handing out solar lamps, replacing firewood stoves for ethanol run and fuel-efficient stoves in refugee camps, and conducting environmental management and energy learning workshops are just a few of the numerous activities UNHCR has implemented to make operations more environmentally sustainable.

UNHCR has more recently become more involved in providing protection to persons who are displaced due to climate change or disasters. It even published a report on the connection between the UN and climate displacement, and in 2020 the High Commissioner appointed a Special Advisor on Climate Action.

In 2015, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) created the Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) Division through which the organisation is involved in “policy work and advocacy, research, capacity building, and operational activities in the area of migration, environment and climate change.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has set up a Climate Adaptation Programme. The organisation is working on “activities [that] are designed to inform climate-smart policy and strategy development, and support nations in building National Adaptation Plans and Programmes of Action that will protect vulnerable populations from the threats posed by a changing climate”.

Cimate change protesters

UN Habitat has various projects that attempt to help cities adapt to climate change. In 2020, UN-Habitat launched its climate resilience project in South Eastern Africa. By building urban climate resilience, UNDP can shift the paradigm from one of disaster response to disaster risk management. Similarly the UN Environment Programme has similar programs as well as many others that involve climate finance, climate mitigation, climate technology and many others. UNEP and FAO are also leading the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.

What Further Action Needs to be Taken?

Mitigating the effects of climate change is without doubt very useful, and a necessary step towards avoiding persons having to be displaced due to disasters. However, some disasters are likely inevitable. Sea levels are rising and it is predicted that they will continue to do so for the coming years.

In 1990, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) was formed. It is a coalition of 44 small island and low-lying coastal developing states, including five observers. Although “AOSIS represents more than one quarter of the world's countries, together they account for less than one per cent of global carbon emissions.” Mitigating the effects of climate change for them is arguably not sufficient.

The world needs to get ready to accept the territorial loss of various island States in the coming decades and centuries. According to the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, in order for a State to have legal personality it should have: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and a capacity to enter into relations with the other States. What happens if the defined territory is submerged under water? Could this cause for States to disappear leaving behind hundreds of thousands of people stateless?

In terms of additional actions to address some of these issues, the UN could start facilitating exchange programs and cultural sharing experiences between communities at risk of being displaced due to climate change, and less affected neighbouring countries. Initiatives such as The Pacific Reset could be more widely implemented. The Pacific Reset consisted of New Zealand partnering with Pacific Islands, to solve the challenges faced by the islands, by following five principles: Understanding; Friendship; Mutual Benefit; Collective Ambition; and Sustainability. Creating economic and cultural ties between countries could create a sense of solidarity for when persons are permanently displaced due to the effects of climate change. Statelessness could potentially not become an issue, the economies of the host countries could grow with the easy integration of displaced persons in the labour force, and countries could flourish by learning from foreign cultures and traditions. Additionally, establishing migratory routes between these countries before the islands are submerged can help prevent mass displacement in the future. Migration is a powerful tool, and could be used in order to avoid unmanageable situations of displacement in the future. Could this be the tool and the reason for why Indonesia decided to change its capital city from the famous coast line Jakarta to a new location that is at “minimal risk of disaster”.

Displacement caused by the effects of climate change is difficult to define in legal terms because it is difficult to prove the relation between the two. Although persons who are displaced due to climate change are not clearly defined under international law, it does not mean that protections do not, nor should not, exist for such individuals. The use of human rights law is a step forward for arguing that persons are entitled to a dignified life. Mitigating climate change and preparing populations for the effects of climate change can go a long way. Creating policies of understanding and facilitation of migration between States severely affected by climate change, and neighbouring countries can significantly help reduce statelessness and the sudden mass displacement of persons which could become unmanageable. The UN has the understanding, capacity, and the power to continue acting now. Together with States and civil society, the UN can do more in order to safeguard the rights and dignities of persons who flee their territories due to events caused by climate change.

Useful resources:

A Chapter on ‘Climate Refugees and the 1951 Convention’

Matthew Scott, 'Climate Refugees and the 1951 Convention' in Satvinder Singh Juss (ed) Research Handbook on International Law (Edward Elgar Publishing 2019) 343.

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre: Global Report on Internal Displacement 2020


UNHCR’s Legal considerations regarding claims for international protection made in the context of the adverse effects of climate change and disasters


UNHCR’s latest press release on Climate Displacement


UN Human Rights Council - Human rights, climate change and migration


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