The consequences of environmental degradation – such as deforestation, soil erosion, water shortages and natural disasters – threaten the livelihoods of millions of people across the world forcing them to seek refuge elsewhere within their home countries or abroad. According to the 2018 World Bank report, by 2050 over 143 million people could be forced to migrate to escape the impacts of environmental degradation. These migration flows are expected to have a disproportionate impact in the poorest areas and communities of the world in addition to having major security, political and social implications globally.
The figures report that by 2050 near 40 million people will be forced to migrate in South Asia. Nowhere will the impact be felt more acutely than in Bangladesh, with projections suggesting that the country will host a third of the internal climate migrants from this region, In fact, in May 2020, the Cyclone Amphan forced three million people to evacuate their homes in Bangladesh and India. Governments in the region have started to draft policies to mitigate these environmental threats. Nevertheless, because of capacity and financial constraints, there is an increasing need for international support and assistance to prevent these negative effects of climate change, especially when it comes to protecting the rights of the affected population.
Problems to applying the 1951 Convention to climate refugees.
A major problem arises when we pay attention to the protection of climate refugees under the current international refugee law. The 1951 Refugee Convention is very precise when it comes to defining the characteristics required to be legally considered a refugee and, therefore, benefit from the institutional and legal protection that comes with the refugee status. According to the Convention, to be granted the status of refugee a person needs to prove a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
Nevertheless, when trying to prove the refugee status of climate it is almost impossible to demonstrate an existing fear of persecution based on one of these specific reasons. Even if climate degradation is related to the failure of governments to design effective policies to protect the environment, this cannot be qualified as persecution towards targeted groups of people. Moreover, climate change is an international phenomenon brought by the actions of a variety of governments and private agents around the world, especially industrialized developed states. We cannot then identify a persecuting actor from which climate refugees are escaping from.
In addition, the 51 Convention requires the person to be outside of their country of nationality, hence, there is a need to cross international borders. This poses two legal difficulties when trying to prove the refugee status of a climate refugee. On one hand, nearly 80% of people displaced because of environmental issues remain in their country of origin. On the other hand, climate refugees that do leave their country of origin tend to seek refuge within the states that have played a major role in creating these environmental problems in the first place.
Hence, since under the existing law, a refugee has to be persecuted because of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and also, to be outside of his country of origin and to be unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; we cannot apply the current refugee status to climate refugees.
Difficulties in proving the reasons to migrate
Most social scientists agree that migration processes are empirically complex phenomena in which social, political and economic factors have major roles to play. For this reason, when paying attention to climate refugees, it is hard to identify the nexus between environmental degradation and migration, especially when we take into account that climate refugees are usually originally from the poorest regions and communities of the world where there are high levels of political, economic and social instability.
Nevertheless, even if it can be difficult to prove that environmental degradation is the main reason to migrate, it is undeniable that climate change has caused the destruction of millions of people’s livelihoods in their homelands leading to food insecurity, health issues, development challenges, inequality and instability. Furthermore, the fact that the most affected regions of the world are the least responsible for accelerating climate change in the first place, brings the climate refugee discussion to the centre of the climate justice narratives and calls for a greater international cooperation to protect climate refugees’ rights.
Climate change: an international responsibility and way forward
While most national and international courts have reached the same conclusion that the current refugee status cannot provide the needed protection for environmental-related refugees, there is still a lack of international protection for victims of environmental degradation and climate change. This issue has been highly securitized through the lenses of xenophobia and fear of migration from neighboring and, especially, developed Western countries. This challenges the creation of the legal and institutional protection that climate refugees’ need.
Many proposals have emerged to fill this legal gap. In 2015, the Paris Agreement established a taskforce to develop recommendations to address environmental-related displacement. However, despite these developments in creating an integrated approach to address the climate displacement issue, there is still no effective international biding legal text that protects the rights of the population affected by climate change.
Hence, the international community has an urgent and collective responsibility of protecting climate refugees. This responsibility goes beyond the existing framework governing traditional refugees’ protection in order to address the damages of climate change and protect the human dignity, rights, and livelihoods of those forced to move because of environmental degradation.