Climate refugees: The definition and protection gap

“Some form of objective category must be implemented into global law and practice, to ensure the protection of individuals and communities who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.” Luna Williams, Political Correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service, discusses how refugees displaced by climate-related disasters are currently not protected under international asylum law, a situation that must change as the climate emergency forces more and more people from their homes.

Submerged tree in Bangladesh
Submerged tree in Bangladesh

A submerged tree in Bangladesh, where worsening flooding regularly forces people from their homes.

Luna Williams

According to the UN, we have just eleven years left in which to stop a climate catastrophe. After this time, the environmental damage which has been wreaked on the Earth will become irreversible, and the planet will be permanently altered.

Scientists have predicted that continuing increases in global temperatures will lead to a toxic cocktail of melting ice caps and rising sea levels, droughts and advancing desertification.

We have already begun to see the effects of this on the world’s ecosystems; species across the globe are struggling to survive, weather conditions are changing and humanity is feeling the effects.

Research indicates that the Earth’s global temperature began accelerating in 2010. Since this time, the number of people who have been displaced by natural disasters and extreme weather conditions – such as floods, droughts and windstorms – has averaged out to 26.4 million a year.

Some of these people have been able to find shelter in their own countries. In Bangladesh, for example, many of the people who live near water bodies have learnt to move inland for the rainy season, while their villages flood, and then move back once water levels have dropped in the drier months. 

Others have not been as fortunate. The people of the Pacific Islands of Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu, for example, are currently surviving on land which sits just a few inches above sea level; many refer to these islands as some of the most globally vulnerable to climate change, with flooding and erosion a common (and rising) occurrence. In turn, the people of these islands migrated at a rate of one in ten in the last decade to escape from the conditions of their home countries.

As it stands, there is no clear definition for these people in terms of their legal status; many refer to them as ‘climate refugees’, but they are not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention’s definition, which is used by global asylum law and policy. According to this, a person can claim their right for refuge if they have a genuine and well-founded fear of being personally persecuted in a way that threatens their lives and/or safety. 

The issue with this is that the environment does not persecute individual people or communities; it is arbitrary.  

As a result, people who are forcibly displaced by environmental disasters or extreme weather conditions – either for fear of their safety or an inability to survive (in situations where food is unable to be produced, or livelihoods upheld) – are not protected.

Until now, the unresolved issue of how to legally define such people has meant that this hasn’t been addressed, and while efforts have been made by regulatory bodies, like the UN and the European Parliament, a clear-cut category has yet to be defined.

There has been extensive debate over the terminology, with some suggesting that those displaced cannot be described as refugees without calling into question the traditional refugee model, and therefore causing the meaning of the term itself to be called into question. Those that make this argument conclude that any action that does this poses a great risk to those who seek refuge under the model currently and suggest that ‘climate migrants’ might work better when forming a category.

But others argue that the term ‘migrant’ implies some element of choice, which forcibly displaced people do not have.

While it is important that discourse about climate change and displacement takes place, these kinds of debates are causing clarification for people affected to be delayed further.

One thing that is clear is that, until humanity can come together to tackle and prevent a climate catastrophe, more and more people will continue to be displaced. While this happens, some form of objective category must be implemented into global law and practice, to ensure the protection of individuals and communities who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.  

This article has been written by Luna Williams, political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers that offers Legal Aid support to asylum-seekers and refugees.