Maddie Grounds, political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service (IAS), writes about the global plight of environmentally displaced people. IAS offers legal aid for asylum-seekers, trafficking survivors and domestic abuse survivors.
Climate Refugees are defined as people who have been forcibly displaced as a result of environmental factors caused by climate change and natural disasters. Every year since 2008, 26.4 million people are forced to leave their homes due to severe weather events such as flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes and droughts.
Despite the global magnitude of this issue, environmentally induced displacement is not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention on the grounds that climate refugees are not fleeing persecution: a requirement needed to fulfil the traditional ‘refugee’ model when applying for resettlement in another country.
The Protection Gap
Currently, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees extends solely to people who are fearful of being persecuted as a result of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion and as a result, are unable to seek protection in their home country.
As environment-related causes neither fit this category nor are present as their own separate category, an increasing number of people experience inexorable peril – with no choice but to leave their homes – whilst being unable to receive the same protection as those falling under the ‘refugee’ classification.
For the estimated 200,000 Bangladeshis who are displaced each year due to river-bank erosion, appealing for resettlement will entail almost impossible barriers in proving their desperation. Similarly, the populations of the islands Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu – a tenth of whom have migrated within the past decade – will have to struggle against their absence of current international legal recognition.
A key challenge in legislating protection for ‘climate refugees’ lies in the complexities of defining the term: the idea of human displacement as a result of climate change is a comparatively recent concept, predominantly emerging in accordance to the rapid and destructive effects of Global Warming.
The proposed definition by academic researchers Docherty et al. (2009) is certainly useful in defining the circumstances of ‘climate refugees’, comprised of the following parts: ‘forced migration, temporary or permanent relocation, movement across the borders, disruption consistent with climate change, sudden or gradual environmental disruption, and a more than likely standard for human contribution to the disruption.’
The impact of our climate on human mobility
Global Warming – overwhelmingly as a result of human activity – has had enormous and irreversible effects on our climate, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010. In the near future, Latin America will see water availability decrease, Europe’s coastal flooding will rise and the death rate from disease associated with floods and droughts is expected to increase in some regions of Asia. In Africa, between 75 and 250 million people are predicted to be exposed to increased water stress by next year.
Whilst climate change will undoubtedly affect us all, it is the world’s poorest people, already living in precarious environments, who will be hit the hardest. Rising sea-levels and extreme weather events will be disastrous for those living on marginal land, or in drought or flood-prone cities and countryside, leading to huge numbers of human mobility. Chad, with one of the fastest-growing populations in the world, was rated as facing the greatest peril, out of 186 countries assessed in a European Parliament report.
Yet, according to an Oxfam report, the poorest 50% of the global population emit only 10% of emissions whilst the richest 10% are responsible for 50% of emissions. With far more resources, richer countries like the UK have a duty to act fast to avoid dangerous climate change, prevent increasingly disastrous impacts from forcing more people out of their homes and support the growing number of desperate climate refugees already facing the consequences of Climate Change.
Migrants or Refugees?
Whether or not these groups should be labelled as ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ is another highly debated issue. Dina Ionesco, Head of Migration, Environment and Climate Change at the UN, believes the latter term fails to recognise that migration is not necessarily forced and could weaken the refugee status of those who are in need of protection because of war and persecution.
Her argument includes the fact that climate migration is mainly internal – and therefore does not require another country’s protection – whilst the creation of a special refugee status could detract from discussions of preventative measures and environmental solutions that would mean people would not have to leave their homes in the first place.
Comparatively, the organization Friends of the Earth argues the phrase ‘migrant’ implies their move to be voluntary, even in cases where they are fleeing for their lives. Current refugee law makes clear distinctions between refugees and migrants, with the latter automatically labelling someone as less entitled to legal assistance due to their choice in relocating. For individuals who have forcibly become homeless and remain trapped in worsening environmental conditions, ‘migrant’ simply cannot account for their vulnerable and dangerous state.
For example, Sahia, a woman living in Bangladesh, was displaced by river erosion after her house was completely consumed by water. Her and her family are now struggling to survive, having to migrate seasonally so her husband can work in a brick factory whilst saving only £10 a week for essentials other than food.
In today’s aggravated environmental climate, ingraining the protection of environmentally-displaced persons into a context of law is paramount. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that, as a result of extreme environment changes, there could be as many as 200 million of these refugees by 2050. For those who have no choice but to leave their country, a chance of resettlement – or even to apply for British Citizenship – must be taken seriously in consideration of our rapidly deteriorating climate. Now is the time to legislatively secure a new category of refugees and finally close the protection gap for a huge number of environmentally displaced victims.