climate refugee

The term climate refugee is used by some social analysts, commentators, and activists as short-hand to describe people forced to flee their homes due to the impact of natural hazards associated with warming climates. The term is often employed broadly to include people who have been displaced within their own countries as well as those who seek protection and assistance abroad. However, the term is legally and bureaucratically complicated on many fronts, not the least of which is the difficulty of drawing a straight line of causality between climate change and a particular weather-related event that caused a particular person to flee. Another complication is the fact that law makes a distinction between those displaced within their own countries, and those that flee across international borders. People displaced within their own borders, as citizens and habitual residents, retain all the same rights and privileges that they had prior to displacement. Called “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs, they are protected under international human rights law, which has been consolidated and clarified under the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Displacement linked to disasters is also included within the legally binding 2009 African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. The term refugee is already defined by the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1971 Additional Protocol. Under the 1951 Convention, a refugee is a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Those forced to flee their homes to another country due to the impacts of disasters are thus not usually covered under the legal definition of a refugee under the 1951 Convention. However, there is a growing debate on how the 1951 Convention, regional refugee conventions, and national refugee laws could cover situations of disaster displacement across international borders. (See Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda, Annex II, p. 48-50, in the TAAG bibliography.) Multiple other terms have been proposed and are commonly used, including environmental migrant, defined by the International Organization for Migration as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.” (International Organization for Migration 2005) The Geneva-based Nansen Initiative, a multi-state initiative that has sought to pragmatically bridge the evident gap in international law, developed an even more diplomatically careful working definition endorsed by 109 government delegations in the 2015 Nansen Initiative Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change (Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda): “cross-border disaster-displacement,” which is understood to encompass “people displaced across borders in the context of disasters including the impacts of climate change.” The Nansen Initiative and its follow-up the Platform on Disaster Displacement have used this term to include displacement linked to all natural hazards, which also helps avoid becoming mired in debates over terminology and legal definitions to the detriment of finding international, regional, and national solutions to the multi-faceted challenge of disaster displacement itself. The Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda consolidates examples of effective practices for states to protect cross-border disaster-displaced persons beyond use of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and to avoid the need for people to flee across borders in the first place. As of 2018, none of these terms or definitions have been universally accepted under international law, but the people affected by disasters caused or intensified by climate change continue to exist and to flee. However, displacement linked to disasters and climate change has been increasingly included in international agreements and processes, including the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the 2016 Agenda for Humanity, the 2016 draft articles on the protection of persons in the event of disasters, the 2017 UNFCCC Task Force on Displacement, the 2017 Ethical Principles in Relation to Climate Change, and the soon to be adopted (2018) Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees. While these are political, not legally binding, commitments, they indicate that states are increasingly committed to addressing the protection and assistance needs of people displaced or at risk of being displaced by the impacts of natural hazards and climate change. Many governments do not systematically collect data on the number of people displaced in disaster contexts — although this is changing with the inclusion of disaster displacement within the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction and other agreements. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre collects annual estimates on disaster displacement. It currently only has the capacity to estimate the act of displacement, but not whether those displaced crossed international borders, although it is working to develop this capacity. On average, disasters have caused the displacement of some 24 million people per year – the equivalent of one person every second – since 2008. (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre 2018) Multiple examples of cross-border displacement have been identified using a variety of sources, including by reviewing migration data for spikes following disasters; for examples by geographical region, see Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda Annex I. (KS with Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat)

Related interviews: Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat, Justin Ginnetti, Nazhat Shameem Khan

Back to glossary