Climate change affects no two people the same. Depending on your sex, location, socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, climate change affects you uniquely. One overlooked and an often voiceless group of people affected by climate change is children. Children forced to move due to changing climates are not often explored by the media or literature, but they are an increasingly growing group of refugees. By 2050, the World Bank estimates that 143 million climate refugees will come from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. These areas – especially Sub-Saharan Africa – also have some of the largest populations of children relative to their population size. Child climate refugees need our help. This is not a distant problem either: UNICEF estimates that over 50 million children have already been displaced due to climate. But do states have any legal obligation to help children displaced by climate change?
Becoming a refugee as a child is a traumatic experience. Children often experience psychological disorders, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can cause withdrawal and maladaptation to society. Whether they fled due to religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, or femicide, it deeply affects the child’s psyche. The first five years of life play a “vital role in the formation of intelligence, personality and social behaviour” as well as affecting “the capacity of for later participation and productivity in their communities, workplaces, and societies”. Fleeing as a child also prevents children from accessing a full and proper education. While feeling, children do not have access to education and when taking refuge in camps, obstacles such as discrimination, language, and bureaucracy remain. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 50% of the 3.5 million primary school-aged refugee children do not attend school.
Becoming a climate refugee adds another dimension of complexity to being a child refugee. A lack of legal recognition of climate refugees prevents children from accessing the most basic of services. If denied refuge, children cannot access education, healthcare, housing, and other necessities. And whilst there is some coverage in media and focus on literature about the plight of child climate refugees, there has been little exploration about what should be done to help this forgotten generation.
To help child climate refugees, attention should be shifted from their status, or rather lack of status, of refugee to the fact that they are children. Various legal protections exist to protect the rights of children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by all large refugee-hosting nations, guarantees protections to children such as the right to education, the right to healthcare, the right to culture, and the right to being protected by the state. These rights are furthered bolstered by the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals, namely: quality education, reducing inequality, good health, and well-being. Overall, children’s rights are protected but are not protected through the framework designed to protect refugees. Whilst this is a problem that needs addressing in order to achieve long-term stability, in the short term, alternative protections can be used to guarantee rights to protect child climate refugees. Simply, the notion that states have no legal obligation to protect child climate refugees is incorrect and immoral.