The Third Rail of Climate Change: Climate Refugees

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The World Bank’s World Development Report 2010 finds that climate change at its current rates will lead to “a vastly different world from today, with more extreme weather events, most ecosystems stressed and changing, many species doomed to extinction, and whole island nations threatened by inundation.”

The report is dire: 2 degree Celsius warming, now guaranteed by climate scientists, will result in 100 million to 400 million people at risk from hunger and disease due to increased droughts and flooding, 1 billion to 2 billion will experience water shortages, and per capita incomes will decline 4-5% throughout the developing world as the agriculture and tourism people depend on for their livelihoods declines.

By mid-century, between 25 million and 1 billion people will likely be displaced due to climate change, an analysis by the International Organization for Migration suggests.

Some of these climate refugees will cross international borders; others will move within their borders. But people who are displaced by climate change have only temporary rights to shelter rather than permanent rights to resettlement under current international laws. Several countries, including the United States and the UK, have occasionally issued temporary visas for people displaced by natural disasters, but they have no long-term relocation policies for people whose homelands become unlivable due to climate change.

There were rumblings in 2001 of a precedent-setting agreement between the low-lying Pacific island nation of Tuvalu and New Zealand to accept Tuvalu’s entire population of 11,000 should climate-related evacuation become necessary. The existence of such an agreement is a common myth.

New Zealand only accepts refugees under the United Nation’s 1951 and 1967 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The government’s immigration policy only extends to Pacific island countries via family and economic ties under the Pacific Island Access Category for which it has yearly quotas, currently 75 annually from Tuvalu and Kiribati, 250 from Tonga, 1,100 from Samoa.

“New Zealand’s immediate climate change focus is on effective and comprehensive global mitigation to reduce emissions, and adaptation action, so as to avoid such migration scenarios in the first place,” say officials from New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs and Trade Department. New Zealand supports “disaster prevention and mitigation activities with partner governments, regional agencies and civil society to ensure that communities are better prepared to endure and recover from crisis situations.”

The EU has studied the impact of climate change on migration through its EACH-FOR program. The multi-regional, two-year studies found that migration is a complex decision and “longer term or permanent migration, in contrast to seasonal or temporary migration, is becoming more common, particularly among younger generations.”

But the EU does little more than acknowledge that certain countries are on the front line of climate change and that the EU will face increasing “migration pressure” from the developing world which will bear the brunt of climatic impacts.

The EU’s proposed responses, says Edward Ricketts at the EU’s Chamber of Commerce in London, are limited to “greater EU disaster response and conflict prevention capabilities” as well as “more ‘carbon diplomacy,” establishing joint agreements for technology transfer to help countries reduce their emissions.

Franck Duevell, a senior researcher at the Oxford University-based Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, explains that the lack of policy response by governments has to do with the unreliability of the numbers of people expected to move:

“Estimates and forecasts we have heard over the past 30 years have almost always turned out to be utterly wrong and completely unreliable. There are almost always far too high. If I remember the 1980s, the break down of the eastern block — they said there will be 20 million Russians moving west and exactly the opposite happened, 10 million people moved into Russia. It was the same thing with the EU accession.

"If we talk about issues like Africans moving north as climate migrants, some sources say it’s two and a half to three million moving North, but if we look at the apprehension figures, it’s actually probably much lower, maybe 100,000 a year.”

More over, the ability to distinguish between causes of migration is politically charged.

“There have always been periods of droughts in Africa and central Asia forcing people to move. There has always been climate-induced migration, but climate change-induced migration is something fundamentally different," Duevell says. "It’ll be tricky … to distinguish and define exactly who is a refugee who is an economic migrant.”

“Academics are usually unhappy with the way politics try to neatly distinguish and define these categories because in reality we very often find them blurred.”

What is certain, in Duevell’s mind, is that climate induced migration will likely be intra-regional, rather than inter-regional.

When natural disasters occur, it is neighboring sovereign territory to which refugees flee. There will also be secondary migration, “coastal or rural populations will often move within the country, and there they would encounter the indigenous populations of the cities.” Those in the cities will feel both housing and pressure on public services and may then chose to move on themselves. “Very often, these would be the better educated people with language skills … and that certainly could effect countries which have some links with these sending countries like the UK and Bangladesh,” Duevell says.

The global financial crisis, he says, complicates matters: Most developed countries’ immigration policies make allowances for family ties and historical migration trends. It is likely that this is where developed countries will first begin to change their immigration policies. The same is true of migrant laborer turnover.

While it is likely that future climate change refugee agreements will be regional, an international policy discussion is warranted.

Right now, people displaced by the effects of climate change don’t qualify for official refugee status under the mandate of the UN High Commission on Refugees because they aren’t being “persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Instead, they are considered either migrants, meaning they moved voluntarily, or internally displaced people.

The UNHCR’s current mandate is insufficient to help those displaced by climate change, and right now, the UNHCR opposes changing the legal definitions. The agency wrote in an August paper:

“While environmental factors can contribute to prompting cross-border movements, they are not grounds, in and of themselves, for the grant of refugee status under international refugee law. However, UNHCR does recognize that there are indeed certain groups of migrants, currently falling outside of the scope of international protection, who are in need of humanitarian and/or other forms of assistance.”

Duevell points out,

“We have international law for children, for women, for refugees … but there is no international framework regulating climate-induced migration.

"It seems obvious that there is a protection gap, and there is a need for a very specific international arrangement which is trying to regulate what is to come in an orderly manner and that would need to be an international agreement involving the international community.”


See also:

Environmental Refugees and the Definitions of Justice

Disaster Displacement Driving Millions into Exile

As Global Warming Makes Crops Impossible, a Shift to Camels

Climate Debate: Two Futures, One Choice


(Photo: Tuvalu school by mrlins / CC BY 2.0)