Today, global warming is less and less questioned and is very often at the centre of social and political debate. Yet, it is rare to hear about climate refugees, even though many researchers predict that by 2050, around 200 million people will be forced to leave their habitats because of climate change[1]. While there are an estimated 80 million displaced people in the world today, very few of them enjoy the protection of refugee status. If this already impressive number doubles or triples in the next 30 years, the issue of climate refugees should be at the forefront of our minds.

A concept difficult to define

In fact, there is no official definition (yet) that delimits the notion of climate refugee. Since 1985, the term environmental refugee has been used, which is a broader concept and encompasses many more elements than climate refugee.

Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas, in their article entitled Preparing for a Warmer World: Towards a Global Governance System to Protect Climate Refugees, discuss this concept, which is still not widely used in official texts, and define refugees as “people who have to leave their habitats, immediately or in the near future, because of sudden or gradual alterations in their natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity”[2].

In addition to these elements, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions will cause other harmful consequences such as famines, infectious diseases, etc. This is especially the case in developing countries, as they have fewer resources to finance drastic but necessary measures to deal with rising sea levels, lack of drinking water, and other impacts of global warming, in contrast to richer countries[3].

Credit: UNHCR

Furthermore, it seems that the continents that will be most affected by these incidents will be Asia (rising sea levels, droughts, lack of freshwater) and Africa (extreme droughts). Latin America is also likely to be heavily impacted. Many will move within their own countries; others will have to seek international protection outside their borders. What is certain is that global warming will displace millions of people in the next few years[4].

Although it is impossible to predict exactly how many people will be displaced by 2050 and the numbers are given by the researchers are only estimates, 200 million refugees would be ten times the number of people currently under UNHCR protection.

Yet environmental or climate causes are not included in the 1951 Geneva Convention or in any other international treaty.

A small step forward by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2019

When a resident of Tarawa Island in the Republic of Kiribati – where the consequences of global warming are already significant – applied for asylum in New Zealand and was denied status by all New Zealand institutions, he turned to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, claiming that New Zealand had violated his right to life (Article 6 of the ICCPR).

Although it has endorsed the decisions of the New Zealand authorities, the Committee specifies that its opinion is taken “without prejudice to the continuing responsibility of the State party to take into account in future deportation cases the situation at the time in the Republic of Kiribati and new and updated data on the effects of climate change and rising sea-levels thereupon” and adds that “without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving States may expose individuals to a violation of their rights under articles 6 or 7 of the Covenant, thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending States”.

It asserts that people cannot be forced to return to their country of origin if the impacts of global warming are “such as to threaten their lives or expose them to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and thus it “recognises the international dimension of climate change and its human rights implications”[5].

However, the Committee remains a group of experts, its decisions are not binding despite the undeniable authority that emanates from it. The very foundation of international law remains the sovereignty of States, which must therefore decide to comply with these measures… or not. What is certain is that it is still too early to see whether this decision has had a real impact[6].

What solutions?

As explained above, there is no legally binding text to protect climate refugees. In fact, the term “climate refugee” is currently a descriptive term and not a status that confers rights on the individual and obligations on States[7].

The 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Protocol defining the status of refugees focus mainly on political refugees persecuted by States, which does not include environmental or climate refugees.

Indeed, Article 1 of the Convention defines the term refugee as any person “owing to a 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; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it” [8]. This definition leaves room for a very vague interpretation. The words ‘with good reason’ alone are a highly subjective concept that depends on the psychological biases of the person making the decision rather than on objective conditions that clearly edify the types of persecution experienced[9].

Although the Geneva Convention remains the reference framework in the field of asylum law, it is sometimes criticised for having a “narrow and partisan” conception of the protection of asylum seekers, as its imprecise definitions have allowed some States to make arbitrary provisions concerning the implementation of asylum legislation and the recognition of refugee status[10]. The definition of refugee itself is very “vague” and has been designed to protect a “specific group” of individuals and thus excludes many, including climate refugees.

Furthermore, the Geneva Convention was drafted in a historical context of the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, which has long since disappeared. The negotiations that led to its drafting took place between the United States and the European States of the Western bloc. The provisions made were mainly intended for individuals fleeing the Soviet Union. It was inconceivable at the time to imagine an influx of people seeking asylum due to internal conflicts or natural disasters.

However, some researchers, such as Marie Courtoy, argue that climate refugees could fall into the category of a social group, namely “a group that shares the characteristic of living in the same area or even being vulnerable because they have less income”[11]. This would not be the first time that the Convention has been interpreted broadly. Indeed, the category of the social group already includes gender, sexual orientation, etc. In this case, there is no persecution of the State itself, but the state is failing in its duty to protect its population by refusing to fight global warming properly. But this raises the question of shared burden; why should it be the affected States, often developing countries, that have to deal with global warming caused mainly by the industrialized countries?

Moreover, States have never been willing to soften the protection system and welcome displaced people from the South in general. This has been illustrated again recently with the migration crisis, the Rohingya migration, the new migration policies put in place by the UK following the Brexit, etc[12]. Western countries are therefore not going to extend the term refugee to a group of people that would be dozens of times larger than the current categories. 

Photo: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

Furthermore, within the European Union, the fear surrounding refugees creates a climate of mistrust that leads officials to ask for more and more evidence of persecution, and if there is none, this is used as a justification for rejecting the asylum application. The so-called ‘vulnerability condition’ makes distinctions, establishes categories and pushes refugees to have to prove their vulnerability[13]. It is extremely complicated for individuals who have fled their country because of climate change to demonstrate that they will suffer serious physical harm or that “environmental conditions would be such as to jeopardise their right to live in dignity”[14] and they are therefore very often denied access to refugee status.

Moreover, most climate refugees will not cross borders and will find shelter within their country of origin. Thus, it is impossible for them to be considered as refugees under the definition as it is written in the Geneva Convention, which stipulates that the refugee is outside his or her country of origin, and would then not benefit from the protection granted by the Convention.

Finally, climate refugees do not require the same kind of protection as political refugees, as most of them do not leave their country of origin, they can benefit from the protection of their State, which should in fact be financially supported so that it can put measures in place to protect its population (unlike political refugees, who are persecuted by the State itself)[15].

Adopting a protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is also a solution that has been suggested on several occasions, which would set out how to ensure adequate protection for people displaced by climate change. In 2006, at COP16 in Cancún, there was a discussion of “measures for understanding, coordination and cooperation on displacement, migration and planned resettlement as a result of climate change, as appropriate, at the national, regional and international levels”[16]. But there has been no real progress since.

Finally, other researchers have recommended the creation of a sui generis climate refugee protection regime with the leadership of an international organisation, a well-established institutional framework and some clear principles put forward by Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas for example[17]:

  • The principle of Planned Relocation and Resettlement, i.e. establishing durable solutions for people displaced by climate change rather than emergency responses, as their displacement can be predicted.
  • The principle of Resettlement instead of temporary asylum as there is no possibility of a return to their home State.
  • The principle of Collective Rights for Local Populations as opposed to the Geneva Convention, which focuses on individual persecution. In this case, entire populations (cities, villages, regions, etc.) will be affected.
  • The principle of International Assistance for Domestic Measures, i.e. most displaced people will have found refuge in their own country so it will be more a question of offering support to the State so that it can put in place the necessary measures rather than protecting individuals directly.
  • The principle of International Burden-sharing given that global warming affects everyone, but to different degrees, and that the industrialised countries are mainly responsible for it, it seems normal and fair that not only the most affected countries should pay the price[18].

In any case, it is urgent to take measures in order to be properly prepared for the changes that are already underway and that will massively displace populations in the near future.


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