Defining Climate Refugees

Climate RefugeeUnder the Geneva Convention, a refugee is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. However, when migrants flee a country due to climate change, they cannot seek refugee status because the Geneva Convention does not cover persons not being able to return to their country due to climate change destroying their livelihood or their homes.  So when the 2010 Haiti Earthquake struck, all the displaced Haitians were unable to seek refugee status. Luckily, Brazil still accepted the Haitians into its country and allowed the Haitians an opportunity to make Brazil their legal residence. However, that is not true for all environmental migrants.

Throughout the world, there are groups of migrants who are forced to leave their country in search of new opportunities because climate change has destroyed their way of life. Whether it would be droughts, floods, typhoons, earthquakes, rising sea levels, or pollution, these climate refugees are forcibly displaced to go elsewhere. However, migrants moving to other countries without refugee status is a terrible situation to be in. On top of losing their monetary possessions, climate refugees are not allowed refugee rights under the Geneva Convention: access to the courts, to primary education, to work, and the provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form.


At the COP24 side event Implementation of Article 8 of the Paris Agreement and decision 49/CP.21, Panelist Shérazade Zaiter shared that the International Center for Comparative Environmental Law (CIDCE) is working on creating a legal framework for climate refugees. To start, CIDCE is working to define the term climate refugee like the Geneva Convention has done for refugees. Without the benefits and rights of refugees, climate refugees will struggle to find opportunities for a new life elsewhere. Sherazade mentioned that even if countries began implementing the recommendations from the Task Force on Displacement (TFD), the lack of legal infrastructure for climate refugees will make the benefits from the recommendations difficult to reach the climate refugees. The solution from the TFD to address displacement is enhancing opportunities for regular migration pathways, including through labour mobility, consistent with international labour standards.

However, environmental refugees will be unable to work under the Geneva Convention. As of now, climate refugees need to rely on countries to behave like Brazil and accept and provide rights to climate refugees regardless of the lack guiding international law. To provide climate refugees rights, CICDE is also working on a proposal for a Convention to establish a legal framework to guarantee rights under international norms to climate refugees. Even though the legal term is not exactly “climate refugee,” the classification of a climate refugee is the same as “déplacés environnementaux.” Chapter 4, Article 12 of the draft provides climate refugees sixteen defined rights which allows them to live, work, and gain an education. Moving forward, this Convention is definitely necessary for the future of climate refugees and needs to be discussed at a higher level.

Human Mobility in the Face of Climate Change mobility in the face of climate change is an issue that is closely linked to Loss and Damage (L&D). Under Article 8 of the Paris Agreement, L&D includes extreme weather events as well as slow-onset events. Both extreme weather and slow-onset events could necessitate human mobility or displacement, whether it be rising sea levels displacing coastal communities and entire islands or increasing hurricane and tsunami threats that cause communities to move inland.

In the face of these threats, the COP has taken action. At the end of COP21, decision 1/CP.21 requested that the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for L&D create a task force on displacement “to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.” Since the COP issued this decision last December, the Executive Committee (Excom) of the WIM has published its 2016 Report to give an update on its progress over the last year, including information on the displacement task force. In the report, the Excom stated that it initiated the task force at its latest meeting and requested that the task force deliver its findings on displacement by COP24.

Keeping in line with this increasing focus on human mobility and displacement due to climate change, Thursday featured three side events on this topic. The first event discussed human mobility in the context of organizations and frameworks outside of the UNFCCC and in some instances, how those organizations and frameworks intersect with mechanisms under the UNFCCC. For example, Dina Ionesco with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) discussed a technical meeting and workshop on human mobility that occurred recently in Casablanca, Morocco, with the WIM in order to discuss capacity building, and action and implementation under the WIM. The WIM continues the call for expert advice from UN organizations and other expert bodies on the topic as part of action area six in its initial two-year workplan, further emphasizing the importance of human mobility and displacement under the WIM.

Another side event focused on the impact and importance of human mobility and displacement in especially vulnerable countries with a focus on a rights-based approach to displacement. This side event featured speakers from APMDD, COAST Trust, LDC Watch, and Friends of the Earth Africa and included discussions on what types of terminology is appropriate—migration or displacement—when discussing human mobility and climate change. Terminology in the context is important because they have set definitions in international law and these definitions don’t always conform with the context under which some human mobility occurs.

The final event from yesterday focused on cultural and heritage losses associated with human mobility and displacement. This event grounded the discussion in the noneconomic loss felt by many communities who voluntarily migrate or who are forced to leave their home behind in the face of repeated natural disasters or rising sea levels. Noneconomic losses are often overlooked when discussing human mobility because it’s difficult to assess these losses when conducting a cost-benefit analysis on whether to uproot communities. However, determining noneconomic losses, like loss of culture, are important to ensure any voluntary migrations are successful. The impacts are real and felt by all of the community members who are forced to leave their homes and sometimes livelihoods behind. Attending to and understanding these communities’ cultural wellbeing in addition to their physical wellbeing is a vital part of the conversation when discussing human mobility and displacement. With the new task force on displacement under the WIM, the above concerns should be taken into account in order to ensure the success of the program in understanding the full range of issues associated with human mobility and displacement due to climate change.

Where to Next? Climate-Induced Migration

2015-08-06-1438884195-3002752-climatechangeToday is human rights day at COP21. “Human Mobility and Climate Change” was a timely event that shined a light on climate-induced migration.

Climate change drives human mobility, and is projected to further increase the displacement of populations. While migration is generally a voluntary movement, human mobility displacement occurs in situations where people are forced to leave their homes. COP21 gives policy-makers an opportunity to mitigate the displacement of populations that lack the resources to address extreme weather events.

Past UNFCCC processes have recognized the significance of human mobility; the first reference of population displacement emerged in Cancun. It made another appearance in paragraph 7 of the 2012 Doha decision. Nicolas Hulot—Special Envoy of the President of the French Republic for Protecting the Planet—is pleased that the draft texts that have been submitted for agreement in Paris thus far mention migrants in paragraph 10:

Emphasizing the importance of Parties promoting, protecting and respecting all human rights, the right to health, and the rights of indigenous peoples, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and under occupation, and the right to development, in accordance with their obligations…

The panelists said they now feel justified in their outspokenness regarding climate migrations. Still, most yearn for better research and increased capacity-building.

Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council reported that 11 million people were displaced last year from conflict and violence. In 2014, one person was displaced every two seconds. However, social and political conflict are not the only instigators of mass displacement. Few realize that the number of people displaced by natural disasters since 2008 is 22.5 million. Climate change has plagued societies with food scarcity and water resource issues. The Pacific Islands have had two Category 5 typhoons just this year. South Africa is dealing with threatened food security. Countless other countries are heavily affected by droughts.

Egeland encourages States to recognize this “mega-problem” in a legally binding document, and agree that displaced persons have (1) the right to receive assistance if they are forced to flee, and (2) the right to rebuild, live, and integrate elsewhere if they cannot return. “We are way behind in protection and assistance to this group” of which Egeland says “we haven’t even recognized the size.”

lr-figure8UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Turk, argues that protection must be central to the international response to human mobility. Assistant Secretary-General Kyung-wha Kang agrees. She urges policy-makers to mitigate consequences, and to ensure that displaced people are protected and their rights preserved. She says we need to integrate displaced people and support migration and relocation as part of climate control adaptation. Kang calls for a shift from crisis response to crisis risk management.

Kang pointed out that only one percent of international aid went to disaster risk reduction between 1991 and 2010. World leaders need to manage the risks that “we already know.”

Seb Dance is a member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Heath, and Food Safety. He predicts that COP21 is going to be the most successful COP thus far. However, he fears that existing policies are outdated and might undermine commitments made in the Paris Agreement. He warns from repeating the “same mistakes we’ve been making for decades.”

The climate crisis has become the “ultimate injustice;” climate change affects mostly individuals who played no part in creating it. Hulot believes humanity can be recovered as the “major feeling that brings people together.” Regardless of the content of the Paris Outcome, he says, this is only the beginning.