Climate refugees, lacking protections, can’t even live like refugees

At the UN General Assembly’s first-ever Summit for Refugees and Migrants this week, world leaders are working towards a resolution to the growing refugee crisis. According to the UN, an “unprecedented series of simultaneous, complex and protracted crises and humanitarian emergencies” has created the perfect storm, leaving the international community facing a daunting migrant crisis that shows no sign of relenting.

As of 2015, there were 65 million forcibly displaced persons in the world, including over 21 million refugees, three million asylum-seekers, and over 40 million internally displaced persons.

These statistics include an unknown number of climate refugees, driven to relocate due to natural disasters and other adverse impacts of global warming. To-date, climate refugees are not officially protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention. The solution is not necessarily as simple as just amending the Convention, which was adopted before human-driven climate change became its own global crisis, and entered the global consciousness.

“With the international community unable to address the current flux of refugees and migrants, it is extremely important for world leaders who are attending the UN Summit to draw the link between climate change and forced migration,” said Alice Thomas, Climate Displacement Program Manager for Refugees International.

Thomas said the reasons for this are twofold. First, because the adverse impacts of climate change, such as “mega-floods, extreme droughts, growing food insecurity, and sea level rise” are increasingly permanently driving people from their homes. Secondly, the current international framework for protecting refugees doesn’t include people uprooted specifically by these causes.

The stakes are extremely high. Approximately 37 million people in India, 22 million in China, and 21 million in Indonesia will be at risk of displacement from rising sea levels by 2050, according to the the Asian Development Bank. Millions of people across the world, including recently in Louisiana, have been forced to flee due to extreme flooding made worse by the impacts of climate change.

Even the proper use of the term ‘climate refugee’ remains unresolved. As Thomas pointed out, a refugee is someone who is forced to flee because their government is unable or unwilling to protect them. When it comes to ‘climate refugees,’ the problem is not necessarily with their own government, but the “actions of other countries” that are forcing them to migrate.

Roger-Mark De Souza, the Director of Population, Environmental Security and Resilience at the Wilson Center, reiterated Thomas’ concerns.

“‘Environmental refugee’ and ‘climate refugee’ are inaccurate and simplified terms that confuse legal protections afforded to refugees, as defined by the UN Convention on Refugees,” he said. “Those displaced by disasters or climate change are not protected by the Refugee Convention. Whether or not they should be covered by a similar pact is an open and very difficult question because of political sensitivities, tracking responsibilities, and the existing refugee crisis.”

De Souza emphasized how any international designation should not absolve governments of their responsibility towards those displaced by environmental factors.

“How governments manage natural resources and respond to climate change can be just as damaging as the climate effects themselves,” he said, noting that it is difficult to separate out climate impacts from other contributors to migration, such as political, social, economic, and demographic circumstances.

While De Souza stated that people displaced by natural disasters are less likely to create conflict due to the vulnerability of their circumstances, he did say that “an increase in numbers could exacerbate violence and conflict as populations concentrate and put cities under stress, and competition for resources grows.”

De Souza and Thomas mentioned the Nansen Initiative, now called the Platform for Disaster Displacement, as one promising effort to address the problems with the current international framework. Launched by Norway and Switzerland, and now led by Germany, the PDD is a state-led, bottom-up program that creates a toolbox for international cooperation on cross-border, disaster- and climate change-induced displacement. The UN’s refugee agency supports the Nansen Initiative and its follow up, the PDD.

In an op-ed this week in The Huffington Post, Christina Figueres, the head of the UN’s climate convention until recently and the leader behind the passage of the Paris Agreement, warned how the the ‘massive’ refugee crisis and the numerous urgent tasks at hand are only getting bigger.

“With temperature records being broken month by month, the impacts that climate change has had on conflict and refugees in places like Syria and Mali will only grow,” she wrote. “With sea-level rise advancing more quickly than scientists predicted, those communities in the South Pacific and in Alaska who have already been forced to move will be joined by many more. Though climate is not the only factor impacting the choices being made by these people, it is a real and growing danger.”

Thomas said the main obstacle in rising to these challenges is overcoming a lack of political will to both address the root of the problem, climate change, as well the actions required to address climate displacement and migration.

“The Paris Agreement was a huge success on many levels but it still does not go far enough in terms of keeping global temperatures at a level necessary to avoid potentially large scale human displacement,” she said. “In order to better prepare for this reality we need to take immediate action to support the most vulnerable countries and communities to put in place measures to avert displacement by building resilience, reducing displacement risk by enhancing disaster risk reduction measures, and adapting to unavoidable climate change effects.”

On Monday, delegations at the UN summit adopted The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that the Declaration will mean that “more children can attend school; more workers can securely seek jobs abroad, instead of being at the mercy of criminal smugglers, and more people will have real choices about whether to move once we end conflict, sustain peace and increase opportunities at home.”

As Climate Home noted of the draft Declaration, it recognizes “that climate change is becoming a driver for people to leave their homes. Still, the rules are written for those escaping war zones or persecution, not creeping desertification or weather disasters.”