30 years from now, one in nine people will have been forced to flee their homes due to climate change, a recent report predicts. That means that the number of migrants fleeing changing environmental conditions could reach one billion by 2050. The report, published by the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM), shows that a refugee crisis caused by climate change is not just part of a hypothetical alarmist future. We are already seeing 21.5 million people forcibly displaced due to climate change every year, and that number is only rising. As the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) reports, it amounts to “three to ten times more people than conflict and war worldwide.” The consequences of human-created climate change are drastic for the livelihoods and safety of communities across the world. The scope of displacement is projected to increase exponentially if preventive climate policies are not taken seriously. Sea-level rise, desertification, drought, and an increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters are already causing mass migrations, epidemics, and food chain collapse. A strain on resources combined with a massive influx of people trying to flee uninhabitable lands place numerous potential conflicts on the horizon. Some of the worst hit regions include low-lying island nations inundated by rising sea levels, and several are already underwater. In a grand case of cosmic irony, many of these nations are located in the developing world, meaning that while they contribute to the climate problem the least, they are the first to be hit – and are hit the hardest. This also means that Pacific Island nations such as Australia are likely to receive a greater number of climate refugees than many other wealthy nations. However, Australia’s track record of lackluster climate policies and climate-change denial appears unlikely to improve any time soon. Policies that both the United Nations (UN) and its member states have called for on numerous occasions have sometimes been stubbornly opposed. Combating the issue of the climate refugee crisis requires a twofold approach. First, it is necessary to take proactive steps to meet emissions targets and support the response of the international community. Second, countries must introduce completely new legal frameworks to support planned migration with dignity. Take a moment to think about it: with nearly one person displaced every second, why has nothing been done?
The main issue is a definitional one. Not only is there no international legislative framework to respond to climate refugees, there is not even consensus about the existence of climate refugees. In simple terms, a refugee is someone who is unable to return to their home country due to fear of persecution because of their race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or social group. Both the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees simply describe a refugee as a person displaced by war or political crisis, and even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not mention climate refugees. As such, there remains no instrument of international law to recognize or protect climate refugees. Perhaps it is time for an update. So, what is a climate refugee? A climate refugee, also referred to as an environmental migrant, is a person forcibly displaced (internally or internationally) by sudden or long-term changes in their environment. Neither Australia nor international law currently recognize climate refugees, preventing the existence of a refugee or humanitarian visa protocol specifically for this status. Currently, Australia detains visa-less refugee arrivals indefinitely and plans to reduce access to support services for refugees, despite barriers that already prevent them from accessing the paid employment they need to survive. Not only this, Australia is also widely toted as falling well short of Paris Agreement emissions targets. A look at the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy tells another story, in which Australia is committed to building climate resilience, cutting emissions, and investing in clean technology. However, there is still no word on the climate refugee crisis. Furthermore, most other countries have taken a similar path.
But it’s not all bad news. New Zealand recently became the first country in the world to propose a new humanitarian climate refugee visa scheme for refugees fleeing environmental destruction and the loss of their lands and livelihoods in small Pacific Island nations. The Human Rights Council acknowledges the adverse impact of climate change on human rights and the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals. Additionally, the World Bank has urged for the development of a program for the work placement and permanent resettlement of the members of the low-lying Pacific island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati. For migrants who are unable to relocate internally, financial support and aid in the form of “organized migration and planned relocation” was proposed at the UN Paris climate talks. However, Australia opposed the creation of this “climate change displacement coordination facility,” so it was dropped from the draft resolution.
That this response is inadequate may be the most catastrophic understatement of our history. Within our lifetimes, one billion people will be left stateless, and that figure will only continue to grow. This fact calls for an immediate and highly coordinated response from the international community. But what can be done? It is not enough to simply pay lip service to climate change. The first step is to not just consider, but seriously implement proper preventive and proactive measures against climate change. Simply put: if there is no climate change, there will be no climate refugees. The international community should focus on implementing research-based, expert-backed preparedness and response processes. This begins with accountability to Paris emissions targets and clean energy goals, as well as increasing aid and development budgets to strengthen the capacities of at-risk regions to adapt to climate change.
However, the international community should not just concentrate on climate prevention and adaptation. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “Climate change [is] now found to be the key factor accelerating all other drivers of forced displacement. These persons are not truly migrants, in the sense that they did not move voluntarily. As forcibly displaced not covered by the refugee protection regime, they find themselves in a legal void.” Legally recognizing climate migrants as legitimate refugees is essential to ensure that they have access to safe shelter and are protected from ending up in detention camps. So why is climate change still not considered a driver of forced migration? Part of the problem is the fact that shifts in environment are not always obvious or permanent. For example, drought and salination of soil over time can make it impossible to grow crops, causing hunger and loss of livelihood. However, the change is so gradual that an obvious link to forced migration is difficult to identify. This is not a traditional view of forced migration, and is often mistakenly considered voluntary. It is therefore paramount to establish accessible pathways of dignified and lawful migration for those who are most in need.
Both the UN and the World Bank have already called for new multilateral and bilateral agreements specifically for structured resettlement. But who will take in such large numbers of people? Most nations have made it clear that they wish to distance themselves as far as possible from this matter. But if the lowest-emitting nations are the ones most affected – does it not follow that the highest emitting culprits should bear the responsibility of taking care of those displaced? Research from the International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management proposes a country rating system based on environmental pollution, resource consumption, and human development rankings, which would suggest that Australia, the US, Canada, and Saudi Arabia should each take in approximately 10% of global refugees. Meanwhile, New Zealand has already become the first country to pioneer a new model for a climate refugee visa. While it only offers 100 places (a small dent in the staggering number of migrants), the scheme will mean that migrants are supported in their resettlement and readjustment, and in their search for work.
The international community should begin following in New Zealand’s footsteps. Thus far, however, we have failed to reach an international agreement on climate change displacement coordination facilities. A controlled planned migration ensures dignity for those in need and prevents the escalation of humanitarian crises and conflicts. It should not have been so readily dismissed by the international community. Without the proper commitment to such a framework, the ideas that are needed to make change will never successfully be implemented.
Securing protection for climate refugees will ensure that no one is left behind. Extreme weather events and rising sea levels are already causing irreversible damage for people around the world. By 2050, we are looking at a staggering number of human beings displaced from their homes and lands due to environmental degradation and climate change. Should rich Western countries like Australia have an obligation to protect the world’s most vulnerable communities? Perhaps it is time for governments to step up to the challenge.
The fact that there remains no framework to cope with staggering numbers of people displaced every day is proof that climate change and its consequences remain a political problem.