“Climate refugees.” Like many topics regarding the climate, you’ve probably seen this wording being used more often, especially more recently. This simple term, consisting of two words that lead to explosive emotions for many around the globe, encapsulates the urgency of the climate crisis. In the last 30 years, the number of people living in areas that have a “high risk” of sea level rise increased by over 60% to 260 million. That is almost equal to the population of Indonesia, the fourth most populated country in the world. Most of the people at risk are from developing countries, or tiny island states that are at risk of completely submerging, leaving its population a country without land. Six Pacific Island nations including Kiribati are at risk of complete submersion. Without a country, millions will have to seek refuge elsewhere. Despite the fact that many climate migrants will have to seek refuge in a different country than their own given that their country might be fully submerged underwater, there is no judicial base for the term “climate refugee.”
Legally, climate refugees don’t exist. The definition of a refugee was created over 70 years ago in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, organized by the United Nations. And sadly, it hasn’t changed since. According to the Convention, a refugee is someone who is “unable or unwilling” to return to their country with a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This was a convention that was created in order to create protection for people who have migrated to different countries as a result of World War II—a direct reaction to the extreme events and threats at the time. As a result of an extreme, a definition was created. The definition included reflections that were necessary after the extreme: reasons of “race,” religion,” and “nationality” came first. Being a member of a certain discriminated group was recognized as something that might lead to persecution. Being “unable” or “unwilling” to trust the protection of your own country was the second possibility of being a refugee. This is important for refugees—while being unable to return could severely limit the number of refugees who are fleeing persecution, the word unwilling allows those who don’t feel safe with how their countries are taking care of them could simply leave. There doesn’t have to be a gun directly pointed at your head—social instability and uncertainty can be a reason for leaving. The general situation in the country becomes a reason for refuge.
The Convention definition definitely covers a lot, and we can not disregard all the good it has done for people leaving their countries for social reasons. Regarding the extreme circumstances in World War II, it reached its aim of providing a legal basis for refugees. However, the extreme of the 1940s is not the only extreme of today. Covering social persecution—from race to religion to nationality—is not enough to address the problems we are facing in the 21st century. New threats await us. New extremes.
While the Convention makes space for other grounds, it discusses refugees as people who face persecution. Persecution is a social treatment. However, the climate is not social. Our new extreme can not be targeted with the definition above. Sea level rise, drought, extreme weather events—although largely the result of human activities—are scientific phenomena that can not be blamed on the direct country they are experienced in. It is not the country's actions that migrants have to flee from—it’s the anomalies in the climate and the problems that come with it. Climate change isn’t a result of the actions of the countries that are being fled, but a result of our collective actions as humanity.
Ironically, the countries from which the most climate refugees come from are the ones that contribute the least to climate change. Heat waves are among the most worrying—and deadly—aspects of climate change, and they are taking over countries near the equator. These tropical countries have on average a lower GDP per capita than the countries who contribute more to climate change, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United States and Canada. Having a higher increase in temperature variability as a result of anthropogenic climate change in the developing nations will have “substantial social, economic, and ecological consequences” that will increase inequality within the human population. Yet, “climate refugees,” despite the clear consequences, do not have a legal basis for their escape.
It’s not that the term “refugee” has not tried to be redefined. Environmental refugees have been a defined concept since the 80s. While the definition is different amongst various commentators, three main categories of environmental refugees exist. The first category are those who leave due to “temporary environmental stress” and who will return once the area is rehabilitated. This includes people who are dealing with natural hazards. The second is those that are permanently displaced due to permanent environmental change—such as the building of dams. The third category includes those who migrate for better life quality due to “a result of progressive degradation of environmental resources.” Defining “environmental” and “climate refugees” helps people gain a sense of urgency towards the issue. Interestingly enough, all these definitions that are being created don’t carry any legal weight behind them. While these definitions help the general public define and categorize these types of migrants, as well as make the term more widely used and understood, why hasn’t there been legal change for these refugees?
Perhaps we should take a step back. According to the World Bank, 216 million people will be displaced in their own countries by the year 2050. Currently, about 26 million people are displaced by disasters every year—that’s one person fleeing every second. For many people displaced, there is no chance of returning home. Droughts, sea level rise, frequent extreme weather events are here to stay. But up to this point, this displacement has largely been internal. Most people who are displaced because of the climate don’t leave their country. They move within the borders of their nation. This is why the term “migrants” has more frequently been associated when talking about people displaced from climate change. Internal climate migrants are more frequent—so most climate migrants are not actually pushing for protection at an international level. Many, including Dina Ionesco, the head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division of the UN Migration Agency has suggested that this is the main reason why we should stop focusing on the “climate refugee” aspect of the issue that the “media are pushing.” Ionesco mentions that even though the media has been focusing on this aspect, small island nations do not want to become climate refugees but to stay in their homes and “move in dignity and through regular channels without abandoning everything behind.” This makes perfect sense.
Who wants to be forced out of their homes, whatever the reason is? Not me. Not you. No one in their right mind. No country would like to fully abandon their nation, no country would want to not “move in dignity,” but there is nothing dignified about your home being under attack. This time, weapons are not bombs or guns, but rising tides and increasing environmental catastrophes. How is it possible to move in dignity when your home, your land, your geographic roots are disappearing as you move? There is nothing dignified about carrying on with your life in your hometown, knowing that in the next decades it is going to disappear. As much as citizens would want to live normally, it is not possible. And even though they might not like it, most will have to move in the very near future. Not because there is a direct guarantee of destruction of their lives, but a general risk that will linger throughout the community. Just like when at war, there is a general fear in the air.
Progress, although vague, is being made for those escaping this fear. In 2020, crucially, the United Nations ruled that people who have fled to other countries to escape effects of the climate crisis cannot be forced to return home by their adoptive countries. This was in response to the judgment of The UN’s Human Rights Committee's judgment of the case of Mr. Teitiota from Kiribati. In 2015, he had been deported from New Zealand because remained in the country after his work visa expired. Mr. Teitiota challenged this decision, arguing that his life was at risk in his country, Kiribati, due to rising sea levels that threaten to completely submerge the nation. Regardless, Mr. Teitiota’s objection was turned down, and he could not return to New Zealand.
Even escaping a country like Kiribati that is clearly one of the most under threat, the migrant was forced to return home with his family. Even when it is known that his home will most likely be underwater by the time his kids are his current age, he was sent back. He was unable to secure a future for his children. The UN’s reasoning was that there is no current threat to Mr. Teitiota’s life that was observed. True. He, most likely, is not going to die tomorrow from extreme flooding. However, the same applies for refugees, in the 1951 definition. People “unable” or “unwilling” to return to their home countries due to “well-founded fear.” Mr. Teitiota is certainly able, but is not willing. Isn’t worrying about extreme floods that are quickly sinking your country a well-founded fear? Apparently not. So what good does the UN’s decision do? Who does it apply to? This very vague ruling does not lead to solutions.
It’s important to take into account what the nations in question think about the situation. The ex-president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, acknowledged that 32 out of the 33 islands would be underwater according to the IPCC’s projections. But they do not want to leave. Faced with the possibility of the country sinking, Tong said that they “have to look and consider all possible ideas, no matter how […] unrealistic, no matter how impossible” because they are “faced with an impossible situation”. Tong states: “it’s too late for us,” acknowledging that the Island nations’ time is up, that they will eventually sink. But instead of abandoning their nation fully, they have other plans. They would rather attempt to tackle the impossible than disappearing off the map. For Kiribati, two main ideas were being developed under the ex-president Tong. The first was building floating islands through a Japanese company, and the second was relocation to Fiji. Kiribati had bought land—about six thousand acres—in Fiji. Not for immediate relocation. But to have options. To provide food security. To provide an alternative. And the Fijian president said they were “willing and ready” to accommodate Kiribati’s population—if worse comes to worst. More recently in 2020, the new president Taneti Maamau said that their new plan was to “raise their islands” through dredging. This meant that they would scoop out mud from the harbor and bring it over to the land in an effort to raise the land. Ionesco is right that they do not want to abandon their land and become refugees. But until what point can they resist?
According to many experts, one fourth of the expected 200+ million climate migrants are likely to move to a different country in search of a better life. That is over 50 million people fleeing their own countries. 50 million climate refugees. Yes, it is true that in retrospect, there are far more climate migrants than refugees, But should that take away from the fact that we shouldn’t pay attention to them? Does the importance of one take away from the other?
It shouldn’t. We are talking about 50 million people. Internal migration, while a very serious issue on its own, has different challenges. It is mostly citizens relocating within a country’s borders, which is much easier compared to moving internationally, and much less paperwork. However, climate refugees, in order to flee as a refugee and not go through the normal immigration cycle, need the backing of legal processes. We must make sure to give migrants the option to flee the country, given the risks that staying might bring.
The risks that climate change causes are many. While more obvious risks, such as sinking land, drought, and extreme weather events exist, that’s not it. Climate change also leads to higher conflict. In Africa, a 1% increase in temperature leads to a 4.5% increase in civil wars the same year. By the year 2030, according to calculations from over a dozen climate models, there will be more than a 50% increase in armed conflicts in Africa. How? These regions heavily depend on agriculture for their economies. Economic welfare is indicated as the most important factor that causes conflict. As climate change increases, agricultural productivity decreases. As a result, conflicts arise more frequently.
And it’s not only in Africa that climate change relates to conflict. There is a “long history of conflicts” over water. And many conflicts in the past and present where climate change was a threat multiplier. The Syrian conflict is one the more recent ones. Social, political, religious disputes, as well as economic hardships, exacerbated by climate change have caused the conflict. “Severe multi-year droughts” since the mid-2000s along with “inefficient and often unmodernized irrigation systems and water abstractions by other parties in the eastern Mediterranean” was a contributor to mass migration to urban centers in Syria, leading to “food insecurity for more than a million people, and increased unemployment—with subsequent effects on political stability.” The Syrian refugee crisis was one of the biggest in recent years, and it was partially caused by climate change and severe drought. Climate change leads to social instability. Climate change indirectly pushed towards conflict. Climate change, with time, caused and will cause millions of refugees. Refugees that, if tried to migrate outside of their country at the time drought was going on, would have probably had their cries of help ignored. Refugees that didn’t, couldn’t leave, until they fit the 1951 definition. Until a threshold of social instability is passed.
Climate change is likely to push towards the 1951 definition of extremes. So why are we not stopping this push from happening? Why do we wait until things get bad? More importantly, why don’t we recognize climate extremes as a bad living situation that should be fled? What will happen when Kiribati is down to one island and there is severe unemployment and land conflicts? Why are we tolerating severe droughts in Syria until it causes large conflicts? Why don’t we act earlier?
Earlier. This is why it is important to recognize climate refugees legally. It shouldn’t come to this. Drought and extreme weather events are already enough of a reason to make somewhere unlivable. On top of that, leaving things as is and not providing that escape leads to more social problems in the future. We shouldn’t allow this to happen. People who want to escape should be able to.
Terminology matters in the law. By recognizing climate migrants who leave their countries as refugees, we can allow for a smoother transition for many who seek protection from the present dystopia they live in. Their present dystopias—although enough of a reason to leave—is likely to lead to a much more complicated issue that is covered by the 1951 convention. Instead of waiting, we must allow refugees to have a chance at a new life. The only way to do that is by recognizing them.