Climate Change “Refugees” in Hot Water

Direct effeBlog Photo 3cts of climate change such as droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and hazardous weather events have immediate and lasting impacts upon displacement of communities. For example, five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have already been deemed uninhabitable due to sea level rise and erosion. Since 2008, approximately 22.5 million people have been displaced by climate or weather-related events. Charles Geisler, a sociologist at Cornell University, predicted a worst case scenario of up to 2 billion climate change migrants by 2100.

Traditionally, a sovereign state is responsible for the protection of its people, which includes relief from natural disasters. In situations where domestic states do not have the ability to provide adequate protection, relief, or relocation, international law offers possible avenues for addressing this issue. Unfortunately, there is no current international legal framework in place to respond to the impending climate change migrant crisis. There are a number of possible protective instruments available, but they all present different barriers to practical application.

First, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (UNGPID) recognize internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have been forced or obligated to flee “to avoid the effect of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural or human-made disasters.” However, this only applies to people displaced within their own state, effectively requiring state legislation to enforce IDP rights. Thus, the UNPGID lacks the ability to effectively protect cross-border climate migration. 

Second, the UN RefugBlog Photo 2ee Agency (UNHCR) requires an individual be persecuted against to qualify as a refugee under the Refugee Convention. As a result the “[e]nvironmental factors that cause movements across international borders are not grounds, in and of themselves, for the grant of refugee status.” Climate migrants might be recognized as refugees if the respective state government “persecuted” them by intentionally failing to give protection or aid. This claim would be extremely difficult to prove, however, as international law recognizes that “no individual government is primarily at fault” for the consequences of climate change.

Third, a climate change migrant could qualify as a “stateless” person under the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (CSSP). This status is also limited as it would only be available to migrants whose home state no longer exists. In addition, the CSSP offers only limited rights to stateless individuals and has only been signed by 66 of 165 states.

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Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre depiction of human movement in 2015.

While the UNHCR is unable to provide legal relief and refugee status for climate migrants, it is supporting the Platform on Disaster Displacement (a continuation of the Nansen Initiative on cross-border displacement). UNHCR has also developed planned relocation guidance that identifies vulnerable areas and gives instructions for disaster response migration mechanisms.

The UNFCCC establishes and recognizes the need for adaptation and mitigation, but fails to address migration strategies under adaptation. On May 19, 2016 the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn confirmed a clear link between environmental and climate changes, migration and vulnerability.  As a result, the UN is taking steps to assess this connection and shape adaptation policy that protects the most vulnerable populations. While climate migrants do not have an identified legal status as climate change refugees, there is international movement towards addressing this issue under the UNFCCC.