Environment Refugees’ Unclear Legal Status: New Approaches Urgently Needed, Study Says

Environment Refugees’ Unclear Legal Status: New Approaches Urgently Needed, Study Says

Shalom City Refugee Camp in Kenya. Photo credit: MMFO.org via flickr.com


The phenomenon is well known since long, but concrete numbers are rare: more and more people are forced to relocate permanently from their homes, due to environmental degradation and ecosystem losses.

Projections for 2050, released by the International Organization of Migration in 2008, range from 25 million to one billion people displaced by the consequences only of climate change. Their livelihoods are threatened in many ways: farmers lose arable land due to droughts and other extreme weather events whereas islands and coastal areas are affected by devastating storm tides. As a result, people migrate from environments which no longer guarantee food stability and which no longer are hospitable for human civilization.

Numerous experts and policymakers therefore demand a new definition of the term “refugee” and a legal basis for “environmentally displaced persons.” Several attempts werre made within the last 30 years, but a workable solution is not yet found.

To apply the refugee status on environmental displacees would not only require an exclusive causal link between a specific change in an environment and the person’s decision to migrate, it would also affect the specific guarantees warranted to refugees according to the Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951.

A recent documentation, commissioned by the German Evangelical Church’s development agency Brot für die Welt, discusses ways and prospects to integrate the issue linkages between environmental degradation, forced migration and displacement in international negotiations on legal frameworks.

The authors discovered several legal regimes that could serve as a first step for further refinement: the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) that acknowledges explicitly the link between environmental factors and migration. Furthermore, the precautionary principle, explicitly endorsed in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), could be interpreted to apply to environmentally induced migration.

A rather innovative approach to address the apparent gap in international law could be the “Responsibility to Protect.” This principle, originally evolved against a background of genocide, tries to make it incumbent on states to take protective measures in events where human rights are imperilled. The study also informs about national precedents, such as Australia’s Migration Amendment Bill of 2007 that contains a definition of “climate refugees” and empowers the government to allocate visas to people displaced subject to the declaration of a “climate change-induced environmental disaster.”

The authors stress the necessity to prepare commensurate policies and legal regimes to adequately cope with the upcoming migration flows. Neither precise numbers of “climate refugees,” the study argues, nor precise predictions of eventual climate impacts should be of immediate concern. Although robust figures on environmentally induced migration, desertification etc. are hardly available, politicians and legal experts should deal with the subsequent challenges in a constructive and humanitarian way, notwithstanding “whether there will be 25, 50 or 100 million uprooted people looking for new whereabouts.”

Further reading:
“Climate Refugees” beyond Copenhagen: Legal concept, political implications, normative considerations (pdf), Brot für die Welt, Stuttgart 2010.

See also:

In Search of Shelter. Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement (pdf), Koko Warner, Bonn 2009.


One thought on “Environment Refugees’ Unclear Legal Status: New Approaches Urgently Needed, Study Says

  1. Hello, This is such an excellent article,

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from the University of Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.

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