Defining Climate Refugees

Climate RefugeeUnder the Geneva Convention, a refugee is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. However, when migrants flee a country due to climate change, they cannot seek refugee status because the Geneva Convention does not cover persons not being able to return to their country due to climate change destroying their livelihood or their homes.  So when the 2010 Haiti Earthquake struck, all the displaced Haitians were unable to seek refugee status. Luckily, Brazil still accepted the Haitians into its country and allowed the Haitians an opportunity to make Brazil their legal residence. However, that is not true for all environmental migrants.

Throughout the world, there are groups of migrants who are forced to leave their country in search of new opportunities because climate change has destroyed their way of life. Whether it would be droughts, floods, typhoons, earthquakes, rising sea levels, or pollution, these climate refugees are forcibly displaced to go elsewhere. However, migrants moving to other countries without refugee status is a terrible situation to be in. On top of losing their monetary possessions, climate refugees are not allowed refugee rights under the Geneva Convention: access to the courts, to primary education, to work, and the provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form.

CIDCE

At the COP24 side event Implementation of Article 8 of the Paris Agreement and decision 49/CP.21, Panelist Shérazade Zaiter shared that the International Center for Comparative Environmental Law (CIDCE) is working on creating a legal framework for climate refugees. To start, CIDCE is working to define the term climate refugee like the Geneva Convention has done for refugees. Without the benefits and rights of refugees, climate refugees will struggle to find opportunities for a new life elsewhere. Sherazade mentioned that even if countries began implementing the recommendations from the Task Force on Displacement (TFD), the lack of legal infrastructure for climate refugees will make the benefits from the recommendations difficult to reach the climate refugees. The solution from the TFD to address displacement is enhancing opportunities for regular migration pathways, including through labour mobility, consistent with international labour standards.

However, environmental refugees will be unable to work under the Geneva Convention. As of now, climate refugees need to rely on countries to behave like Brazil and accept and provide rights to climate refugees regardless of the lack guiding international law. To provide climate refugees rights, CICDE is also working on a proposal for a Convention to establish a legal framework to guarantee rights under international norms to climate refugees. Even though the legal term is not exactly “climate refugee,” the classification of a climate refugee is the same as “déplacés environnementaux.” Chapter 4, Article 12 of the draft provides climate refugees sixteen defined rights which allows them to live, work, and gain an education. Moving forward, this Convention is definitely necessary for the future of climate refugees and needs to be discussed at a higher level.