"Climate Refugee" Convention Drowned Out by International Organizations

More than 26 million individuals are displaced annually because of the adverse effects of climate change. Yet, international law doesn't recognize "climate refugees."

Each year, more than 20 million people are forced to leave their homes due to the effects of climate change. Scientists warn that the situation is worsening. Current international law does not recognize the status of "climate refugees." And it appears now that after a decade-long effort to offer such legal recognition, many organizations are giving up. Is the system failing the most vulnerable people?

More than 26 million individuals are displaced annually because of the adverse effects of climate change.

Ioane Teitiota had already been living in New Zealand for four years, when he applied for asylum in 2010. According to scientists, the existence of his Native island in Kiribati, one of 32 composing the Pacific Nation’s territory, is threatened by rising sea levels. By drawing attention to the environmental danger in Kiribati, Teitiota hoped to become the first climate refugee in the world.
As he stood in front of the judge in July 2015, public opinion was on his side. International law, however, was not. Ioane Teitiota was deemed an overstayer and sent back to Kiribati with his family. To this day, no individual has ever been granted environmental refugee status.

Teitota’s case might have received a lot of media attention, but the topic had already been brought up multiple times in the conference rooms of international organizations. Institutions, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), as well as the Nansen initiative, followed by The Platform on Disaster Development, envisioned the concept over a decade ago. After much debate, the big dogs of international law are now officially giving up on the idea, while others continue to defend it.

Hard to Prove

Law professor Walter Kaelin was a leading player in the establishment of the Nansen Initiative. This state-led initiative conducted a series of consultations in particularly affected regions. In 2015, it resulted in the endorsement by more than 100 states of an Agenda on the protection of persons displaced across borders in the context of droughts, earthquakes, floods, and other weather- and climate-related disasters. The Platform on Disaster Displacement builds on the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda and now works on implementing the political and legal tools identified during the previous years.

Professor Kaelin has arrived, like many global actors, at the conclusion that an official environmental refugee status is not a realistic option today, but «many actions can be taken before that happens.» Professor Kaelin highlights a further difficulty: «How can a climate asylum seeker provide something that even science has had difficulty proving? In order to be considered a climate refugee, one would have to render credible the fact that one is forced to leave because of global warming. It would be easy for authorities to reject such asylum requests with the argument that we always had droughts and tropical storms.» According to the professor, creating a climate refugee status could also hurt the already fragile system currently in place. «Creating a new category of refugees would make it even more difficult for persons fleeing persecution and armed conflict to be granted protection in the present context of restrictive asylum policies. There are better ways to help people displaced in the context of adverse effects of climate change than to qualify them as refugees. In the short term, opening pathways for regular migration, granting humanitarian visas, or providing temporary protection measures, as recommended by the Global Compact for Migration, are effective instruments that already exist in many regions and countries. They need to be further developed, harmonized, and used in more predictable ways."

Liz Throssell, who represents the UNHCR, agrees. «While the term ‘climate refugee’ is sometimes used to categorize some or all of the various types of climate-related movements, it does not exist in international law. It does not capture all of the different forms of displacement and mobility that will need to be addressed by governments, humanitarian agencies, and development partners.»
Her analysis is shared by the IOM: «There is no specific political appetite for this type of discussion, insists Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, a specialist on migration, the environment, and climate change. Most states are not ready.» According to her, much progress has already been made since she started taking part in the global debate on climate migration in 2012. «A lot of the countries that are most affected didn’t recognize climate change as being real at first. There was no sense that something needed to be done. Now, pretty much everyone is at least acknowledging the problem.»

Action requires funds

Despite these conclusions, the reality of climate displacement is not black or white. Often, conflict arises as a result of environmental factors. Take the example of Somalia, which suffered a significant drought in 2012. Thousands of people lacked food resources while neighboring armed conflict barred the way to humanitarian aid and left significant populations at risk of dying of famine. In such cases, when environmental factors are enhanced by the reality of war, asylum can be granted. «Despite the initial environmental causes for their migration, victims of resource-related conflict become traditional refugees», says Walter Kaelin. To sum it up, cross-border climate migration is justifiable when there is gunfire involved. Otherwise, it’s each nation to its own.

Regional agreements have thus become a global compromise.  In order to combat the vulnerability of places in danger of being flooded by rising sea levels, the most imminent and evident climate-related problem, operations are being conducted at national and regional levels. In Kiribati, for example, a competition was launched in November 2019. Architects were asked to design floating houses meant to replace those that will disappear in the upcoming decades. The government of Kiribati has also acquired 2000 hectares of land in Fidji in the hopes of relocating a certain number of its displaced inhabitants there one day. In the same frame of mind, New Zealand has agreed on refugee quotas from Pacific Island nations. In the Maldives, land is also being elevated with sand. Just as the Netherlands has been doing for such a long time. These are just some of the many alternatives to climate displacement that governments are considering. «However, these types of actions require funds, notes Walter Kaelin. They are not accessible to everyone.»

There is still hope

The present moderate and small-scale approach to the problem of climate displacement does not please everyone, however. The Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice strongly believed in the idea of a climate refugee status.  The former president of Ireland and UN Commissioner for Human Rights had created the foundation in the hopes of securing more justice for the poorer populations of the world affected by climate change. Having achieved its advocacy goals, the team ceased its activities last March.

Migration expert and Independent Diplomat director Guillaume Charron also says openly that there is plenty of room for the concept of climate refugees, including in international law. «I think that the term ‘climate refugee’ is extremely appropriate when speaking about environmental displacement. The term should not be limited to the 1951 Refugee Convention. For starters, the recognition of a climate refugee status does not have to happen at a consensual international level. Individual states can take the initiative to grant asylum to people who flee due to the climate crisis. The current narrow refugee convention is itself interpreted by various states and, over time leads to categorizing people differently. Therefore, it could evolve to include the adverse effects of the climate emergency. In fact, regional agreements such as the OAU Convention and the Cartagena Convention recognize that “troubles to public orders” can justify seeking refuge, just like subsidiary protection in Europe is a step away from the individual elements of persecution enshrined in the 1951 Convention.» The terminology used at the moment in the field is problematic, according to the specialist. «At first, some organizations were trying to make the argument in favor of a climate refugee status, but they were faced with rebuke. Then they started talking about people displaced by the disaster. Language is important. The original idea had to do with slow-onset problems. The more recent perspective is about managing impending chaos.»
Though many governments continue to base their policies on the 1951 convention, the realities of migrants have deeply evolved over time. «Our ancestors had to migrate because of environmental factors, from the Ice Age to the end of the Western Roman Empire, analyses Guillaume Charron. In terms of displacement, the impact in such cases is so massive, and the scale is so huge that it’s beyond the capacity of organizations to respond and beyond the scope of legal arguments. I don’t think that there is a need for an internationally binding convention. There won’t be a common response around the planet. That being said, there is a link between the reality of climate change and the concept of refuge, in my opinion.»

Carbon footprint

One point that everyone seems to agree on is that the priority remains the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in individual states. «The transition into a more environmentally friendly economy is still the best way to combat the adverse effects of climate change, including migration, insists Walter Kaelin. Governments need to continue to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.»
Guillaume Charron adds that the ecological transition process is not happening at a fast enough pace. «People aren't treating the problem like a crisis. This stems from the confidence that humanity feels that money will be enough to manage resources in the future.»

Until social consciousness matches up with the global environmental reality, the show must go on. «I think that it is going be a long political process, notes Mariam Traore Chazalnoel. We’re looking at years of preparation and discussion.»