by Ana Grolli and Marta Aragão
As the effects of climate change have become increasingly apparent, a new term has emerged in the discourse surrounding migration: “climate refugees”. In this article, we explore the reasons why we should not call such individuals “climate refugees” and why more accurate and empathetic terminology is essential.
In this article, our aim is to explore the concept of climate refugees and related issues in a way that’s accessible and engaging, rather than delving into the depth of academic discourse. Our goal is to spark conversations about this crucial topic and draw attention from the international community towards the urgent need for policy development to address the challenges faced by climate refugees.
Climate change and climate-displacement
In recent years, as the effects of climate change have become increasingly apparent, a new term has emerged in the discourse surrounding migration: “climate refugees”. They are individuals or communities who are forced to leave their homes due to the adverse effects of climate change. These effects can include rising sea levels, extreme weather events, prolonged droughts, and other environmental changes that make their traditional habitats uninhabitable or unsustainable. As a result, climate refugees migrate to seek safer and more stable living conditions, making them a significant and growing global challenge that requires attention and solutions to address their plight.
Therefore, the main question is: can we address displaced people due to climate change as “climate refugees”? According to Alex Randall, “there are a great number of different definitions of the term “climate refugee”. However, it is worth noting that there is no official definition.” (1). The UNHCR also does not address refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and stateless people as “climate refugees” but stresses they are on the frontlines of the climate emergency (2).
While we believe that the intention may be to highlight the urgency of addressing climate-related displacement, labelling people as “climate refugees” can be problematic and might be avoided. We are now going to explore the reasons why we should not call such individuals “climate refugees” and why more accurate and empathetic terminology is essential.
Using the term “climate refugees” to describe people displaced by environmental factors oversimplifies the intricate causes of their migration, which are often a blend of environmental, economic, political, and social factors. This simplification can hinder effective efforts to address the root causes of displacement. Additionally, it raises legal and political concerns, as refugee status is defined by specific international conventions, potentially complicating legal processes for those facing persecution or violence. Referring to individuals as “climate refugees” can also perpetuate a narrative of victimhood, overlooking their agency and resilience, and may lead to stigmatisation.
Furthermore, it fails to account for regional variations in climate impact and may inadvertently place blame on migrants for their displacement, rather than recognising the broader role of climate change and societal factors in driving migration.
Several organisations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Bank Group, the France- Presse News Agency, warn of the catastrophic effects of climate change.“In 2023, the UN predicts that at least 3.4 million people will be affected across the Horn of Africa (…). In Somalia (…) the combination of drought and conflict has displaced over 1.7 million people inside the country since last January (…)” (3). By 2050, 216 million people will be internally displaced by climate events” (3) as the International Red Cross “estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political refugees fleeing from wars and other conflicts.”(4).
The current climate crisis in the global context needs urgent attention and consideration by governments and societies. It is an issue that requires immediate action and not a position of inaction as the governments have been assuming. In fact, climate change has no limits as the impact of its effects (floods, storms, wildfires, droughts, extreme heat, rising sea levels, beyond others) affecting not only in countries in the Global South, but in the Global North too, as a consequence of that, obliging people to relocate to other places, leaving their homes behind, looking for better life conditions.
Internal displacement is currently the reality of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants. There are several testimonies of climate-induced migrants, part of the report (1) called “Moving stories: the voices of people who move in the context of environmental change”(1,5) whose main purpose is to call the attention of citizens all over the world, by telling serious, inspiring, and unfortunately sorrowful stories of their path, as people impacted by climate change, such as the following case:
“We were trapped in the house for two days until someone came and rescued us in a boat, and we were taken to the local gymnasium which was being used as an evacuation centre. We stayed there for a week but it was so crowded that we decided to leave and go back to the ruins of the house. It proved impossible to live there as well, so we left after another week and spent the next five weeks staying with relatives. I don’t know what the future holds. We are not allowed to go back and live in the place where our old house stood as the government says it’s a risk of flooding if there is another typhoon. (…)” (Rosalie Ticala, 33, mother of six, Philippines, Mindanao Island).
Also, the same organisation also published a podcast named “When people moved podcast” which portrays several disasters suffered by many climate migrants, in many countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, Mexico, among others.
With the climate-induced migrants testimonies, there is a sense of awareness regarding the daily life of people who had suffered the consequences of the climate change and so as the impact of the inaction of governments to take the responsibility to act for the sake of the right to life, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to housing, food, water, as enshrined in Articles 3 and 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (6) and in other international instruments such as Article 11 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (7).
Legal Mechanisms for climate-displace individuals
The Refugee Convention and international law can be valuable tools for addressing the complex challenges faced by individuals who are displaced due to the impacts of climate change. While the Refugee Convention primarily addresses refugees fleeing persecution, its principles and international legal frameworks can be adapted and expanded to provide protection and assistance to climate refugees. We suggest some approaches that might be useful below:
Protection from harm, a fundamental principle of the Refugee Convention, designed to shield individuals from persecution. While climate-induced displacement isn’t explicitly covered by the Convention, some displaced people may confront persecution or human rights abuses in their home countries due to their displacement. International law can be invoked to argue that climate refugees might qualify for protection if they can establish a credible fear of harm directly linked to their displacement. Additionally, some countries and regions have introduced complementary forms of protection for those who don’t meet the stringent criteria of the Refugee Convention but still require international assistance and refuge, potentially extending such protection to climate refugees who don’t fit the traditional refugee definition but face severe harm or human rights violations.
The principle of non-refoulement, enshrined in the Refugee Convention, prevents the forcible return of refugees to places where their life or freedom would be jeopardised. This principle can be applied to prevent the deportation or return of climate refugees to their home countries, where they may encounter life-threatening environmental conditions, human rights abuses, or persecution.
Moreover, customary international law, which evolves over time and reflects the general consensus of states, can be invoked to argue that climate refugees possess rights and deserve protection under broader principles of international law. Existing international human rights instruments that safeguard the rights and dignity of all individuals, regardless of their legal status, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various international treaties on civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, can also provide protection to climate refugees. Furthermore, the international community has recognized the need to address climate-induced displacement through agreements like the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, which emphasise cooperation, coordination, human rights, and protection for those affected by climate change.
Finally, advocacy efforts and legal actions can contribute to shaping the legal landscape for climate refugees by raising awareness and arguing for their rights and protection within existing legal frameworks, with legal precedents set in domestic and international courts playing a crucial role in establishing important standards for the safeguarding of climate refugees. And to not forget, demand accountability from the oil companies and fight for the end of fossil, since these are primary things that cause: climate change, soil exploitation derived from derivative of states’ interventions. There is still a lot to be done to ensure the effectiveness of the measures to protect these kind of refugees, taken by governments in direct collaboration with societies.
(1) RANDALL, Alex for Climate and Migration Coalition, “Climate Refugees definition: can we define a climate refugee?” Accessed on 19.09.2023: Climate refugees: what is the definition? How is it decided? (climatemigration.org.uk)
(2) UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency: https://www.unhcr.org/uk/what-we-do/how-we-work/environment-disasters-and-climate-change/climate-change-and-disaster
(3) Climate Migrants: who are they and where will they go? (2022). Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pO18pM9ZLj4
(4) Environmental Refugee. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Geographic: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/environmental-refugee/
(5) (9) Randall, A. (n.d.). Moving stories: The voices of people who move in the context of environmental change. Retrieved from Climate and Migration Coalition: https://climatemigration.org.uk/moving-stories-report-the-voices-of-people-who-move-in-the-context-of-environmental/
(6) Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1948). Retrieved from United Nations: https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights
(7) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. (1966). Retrieved from United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner: https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/international-covenant-economic-social-and-cultural-rights
(8) Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. (1951). Retrieved from United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees: https://www.unhcr.org/media/convention-and-protocol-relating-status-refugees
(9) Mayer, B. (2011). The International Legal Challenges of Climate-induced Migration: Proposal for an International Legal Framework. Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy, 22, 64. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1755622#
(10) Rosignoli, F. (2023). Seeking Recognition for Climate Refugees. Are States the Only Game in Town? Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. Retrieved from https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2023/03/15/seeking-recognition-for-climate-refugees-are-states-the-only-game-in-town/
(11) The Paris Agreement. (2015). Retrieved from United Nations Climate Change: https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement