Climate Change & Migration

Written by August 15, 2014 UNHCR 0 Comments

Rising sea levels. Protracted drought. More frequent and powerful storms. The adverse effects of climate change are all too familiar. “Climate change over the 21st century is projected to increase displacement of people,” as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted in its most recent report. Not only will natural hazards increasingly force affected populations to temporarily flee affected areas, but more gradual, irreversible changes will likely result in the loss of traditional homes and ways of life, forcing permanent displacement.

The authors of the report note that climate change can also indirectly raise the risk of violent conflict, precipitating further displacement. Indeed, the latest “Global Trends” report from UNHCR reveals that a majority of the estimated 51.2 million “persons of concern” live in “climate change hotspots.”

The fact that climate change and dramatic climatic events are likely to cause significant forced migration has led some to adopt the term “climate refugees” to describe such forced migrants.  UNHCR does not favor the term for two reasons. First, most displacement will occur within – not across – international borders. Second, a person who flees because of climate change is not likely—by that fact alone—to have “a well-founded fear of persecution” within the meaning of the 1951 Convention.  A decision by the New Zealand’s Court of Appeals in May provides an example.  The case rejected the appeal of Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national who sought to become the world’s first “climate change refugee.” Citing the rise in sea level and environmental degradation rendering his home in Kiribati unlivable, Teitiota claimed that he was subject to “persecution” under the Refugee Convention. The court determined that returning Mr. Teitiota and his family to Kiribati would not expose them to persecution, even if their living conditions were inferior to those in New Zealand. Moreover, the court found Teitiota’s argument to be an impermissibly broad interpretation of the Refugee Convention, emphasizing a need for human agency and a clear link to one of the Convention’s five enumerated grounds to constitute persecution.  (UNHCR would therefore feel more comfortable with terminology such as ‘external displacement’ to refer to cross-border movements driven by disasters or environmental factors, until States settle the terminology.)

This is not to say that existing international and regional refugee instruments could not be applicable in situations where the impact of climate change is an exacerbating factor of conflict, violence or public disorder. Thus, there can be a case for refugee protection in situations where harmful action or inaction by a Government in dealing with climate‐related events is related to one or more of the Refugee Convention grounds, such as denial of humanitarian assistance to a minority group.

UNHCR supports the Nansen Initiative, a state-led consultative process launched in 2012 by Switzerland and Norway. The Initiative’s primary goal is building consensus on key principles and elements regarding the protection of people displaced across international borders in the context of disasters, including those linked to the effect of climate change. Its steering committee is made up of nine countries, and it is currently conducting regional consultations with states, NGOs, academic institutions and other actors.

UNHCR is working within an inter-agency context with a range of partners, especially members of the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility along with a number of other multilateral and civil society organizations, including IOM, NRC/ IDMC, UNU, UNDP, ILO, OHCHR, Sciences Po (CERI) and Refugees International.  The Advisory Group focuses on human mobility both as an adaptation strategy and as a dimension of loss and damage, with the aim of leveraging evidence and enhancing knowledge and understanding of human mobility prompted by climate change. The group’s work informs several major interrelated policy processes on climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development that are expected to culminate in agreements in 2015.

While forced migration due to climate change will not ordinarily be a basis for protection under the 1951 Convention, is there nonetheless a philosophical argument that the principles underlying the concept of refugee support extension of international protection to such persons?

An article by Matthew Lister,* forthcoming in the Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy, provides such an argument. While Lister agrees with the New Zealand court that the Refugee Convention, as it stands, does not permit the inclusion of climate change migrants, he explores the normative justifications underlying the Convention to find that the its rationale may extend beyond its legal language.  He argues that an approach that grants refugee status to a limited portion of climate change migrants would avoid the need for any fundamental shift in the prevailing understanding of refugee protection.

Lister defines “refugee” by looking at the obligations of the international community under the current refugee regime. He identifies two primary principles of that regime: non-refoulement and the provision of a durable solution. If any climate change migrants require both of these protections, they should fall within the same definition as refugees seeking protection on one of the five Convention grounds.

Distinguishing between short-term displacement, such as that experienced after a natural disaster, and long-term displacement, such as that expected in low lying nations like Kiribati and Tuvalu, Lister concludes that the latter circumstance follows the logic of the Convention. Residents forced to flee a sinking country are both unable to return to their country of origin and require some sort of durable solution in another country. In other cases, such as that of rising sea waters in Bangladesh, displaced residents will be able to relocate internally and would therefore also fall outside the definition of refugee.


* The Global Views blog is meant to serve as a forum for refugee policy discussions. UNHCR does not necessarily endorse the views expressed by Professor Lister.