Climate Refugees: A Growing Crisis

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has declared the disaster displacement caused by climate change to be the ‘defining crisis of our time.’  Entire nations are already experiencing the impact but it is the particularly vulnerable communities living in certain geographical areas and in conflict-affected countries that are often disproportionately affected. The UNHCR reports how these communities struggle to adapt to the increasingly hostile environments, which are being hit with increasing intensity and frequency by disasters triggered by climate change. The Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed in the UN General Assembly in December 2018, directly addresses this growing concern. It recognizes that “climate, environmental degradation and disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements.”  Yet, more needs to be done to enable these communities to survive. 

The BBC reports how those living in ‘climate hotspots’ often have limited natural resources, such as drinking water and food. For example, crops and livestock struggle to survive in areas that have become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. Moreover,  in such conditions, “climate change can act as a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing tensions and adding to the potential for conflicts.” Aljazeera explains that this produces a “domino effect of disaster upon disaster triggered by climate change battering already impoverished communities, leaving them no time to recover.” Hazards resulting from the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as abnormally heavy rainfall, prolonged droughts, desertification, environmental degradation, or sea-level rise and cyclones are already causing more than 20 million people to leave their homes and move to other areas, according the BBC. It is also important to note that often those living in climate hotspots are those people that have nowhere else to go. The UNHCR describes how refugees, internally displaced people, and the stateless are on the frontlines of the climate emergency. Already struggling to survive, the effect of climate change has further worsened their living conditions.

Consequently, some people have been forced to cross borders to escape the climate change disasters. These people are in need of international protection, and refugee and human rights law should therefore have an important role to play in this area. Al Jazeera describes the warning of scientists that in the next few years “human movement across and within borders due to climate change-related events will exponentially increase.” Human Rights First describes how this will create new categories of migrants and refugees that will further strain already limited aid resources and refuel international tensions. This is particularly tricky in a time when migration is fiercely debated in the international community and refugees and asylum seekers are increasingly denied safety in many parts of the world.  It is vital to understand that unless countries implement policies to deal with this issue, further potentially violent conflicts will arise, economies will suffer, and human suffering will increase. 

The UNHCR plays a leading role in the Global Protection Cluster for protecting and assisting people who are forcibly displaced and cannot return home. The organization can “deploy emergency teams to support registration, documentation, family reunification and the provision of shelter, basic hygiene and nutrition.” In 2020, UNHCR deployed teams to assist in Central America where an estimated three million people had been affected by Hurricane Eta. Similarly, when Tropical Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi in March 2019, the UNHCR relocated refugee families to safer shelters and provided them with tents, sanitation equipment and clean water. Similarly, the UNHCR has been helping Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh to mitigate the effects of monsoon storms, flooding, and landslides.

One of the clearest examples of climate refugees can be found in the Pacific Islands. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the sea level is rising at a rate of 12 mm per year and has already submerged eight islands, “prompting a wave of migration to larger countries.” By 2100, it is estimated that 48 islands will have been lost to the rising ocean. Human Rights First describes the 2015 case of the Teitota family who applied for refugee status in New Zealand, fleeing the disappearing island nation of Kiribati. Their case, which was “the first request for refuge explicitly attributed to climate change” did make it to New Zealand’s High Court but was later dismissed. 

The position of climate refugees remains very difficult. Amnesty International explains that according to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees,  a  ‘refugee’ is defined as a person who has crossed an international border “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” In some contexts, the definition extends to persons fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order.” It is therefore unclear whether climate refugees are covered by the protection of the convention. Often climate refugees will have a valid claim for refugee status where the adverse effects of climate change interact with armed conflict and violence. However, the term climate refugee is not endorsed by UNHCR, and it is more accurate to refer to “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.” I find this language problematic because it implies that climate refugees are not refugees in the same way that someone facing man-made violence is. The fatal effects of climate change are clear, and there is no immediate evidence that it is improving – although we must keep trying. What is needed now is immediate international action to recognize these refugees and give them the aid they need.

Lola Perle


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