There is no universal term or agreed definition to describe people displaced due to environmental phenomena or climate change. Different concepts have been circulated by media and academia, such as climate-environmental refugees, climate migrants, climate displaced persons, and eco-migrants. For instance, in recent years, the media has pushed the term ‘climate refugees’ as the most suitable concept. [i] However, the term does not exist in international law, and the definition of refugee itself does not contemplate environmental disasters as one of its elements. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines the word ‘refugee’ as a person who has fled a country “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” [ii]
Moreover, the 1969 OAU Convention [iii] and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration extended the definition to persons fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order.” [vi] Therefore, despite being a multilayered event, it is arguable to consider environmental displacement as part of the refugee definition since this concept has got its grounds in fear provoked by persecution or human conflict. Indeed, the term ‘climate refugee’ is also avoided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which employs other terms considered more accurate such as ‘persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.’ [v]
While these debates have taken place on the concept of ‘refugee,’ the term ‘climate-induced migrants’ has recently gained relevancy by focusing on the linkages between environmental change and human mobility. This tendency was firstly recognized at the International Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2010 held in Cancun, Mexico which called upon national governments to take “measures to enhance understanding, coordination, and cooperation concerning climate change-induced displacement, migration, and planned relocation, where appropriate, at the national, regional and international levels.” [vi] Nowadays, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has developed a non-normative definition for climate-induced migrants:
“Environmental migrants are 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 homes or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.” [vii]. Furthermore, the IOM points out the importance of avoiding such terms as climate refugees since they might undermine refugees’ international legal framework and protection guidelines. Instead, the IOM encourages using the existing legal bodies and instruments of the humanitarian and human rights law to address climate migration. [viii] Consequently, in the absence of agreements and even without a specialized legal framework concerning environmental displacement, the term ‘climate-induced migrants’ remains the internationally preferred category to address people displaced by climate change.