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This article has been written by Anusha Arif.

Abstract

This article deals with the question of climate refugees and environment migrants. It delves into the differences of both terms and also looks into the recognition of these vulnerable groups in international law. It discusses the relevance of the issues of climate induced migration in the current context of the world.

Background

The displacement of people due to change in environment factors or even an increase in disaster risk is not a new phenomenon however with the discourse on climate change and its implications on human lives, the people acquiring the status of climate refugees has become more relevant. When the word ‘refugee’ is used to describe a person, the usual connotation attached to it is to assume that the person was forced to flee their home or country due to war, internal aggression, politically motivated persecution, etc.

However, climate change and its related effects can also cause major disruption in the living conditions and therefore, force individuals or groups to flee from their homes, villages and in certain cases may also require transnational movement of people.While the World Economic Forum estimates that there are around 272 million international migrants (which make up for 3.5 per cent of the global population), it also adds that millions are forced to leave their homes for reasons such as conflicts, violence and climate change. The usage of the word ‘refugee’ has also attracted criticism which has lead to a more acceptable term of ‘environment migrants.’ Yet, the international community does not recognize the rights of climate induced migrants or refugees. The Refugee Convention (1951) and its related protocol relating to the status of refugees (1967) remain silent on matters of climate-induced refugees and do not recognize climate as a reason to acquire the legal status of a refugee.

However, in the current context, this idea seems outdated. With climate change dictating the interaction of humans with the world and the threats arising thereof, the need to give climate refugees an internationally accepted legal status should be a leading matter of concern to grant protection to this mass of people directly affected. This paper provides an insight into the development of the international environmental law concerning climate refugees and the protection that should be extended to this group of people in the foreseeable future.

Climate Refugees- Across the Globe

There are many who debate about the word ‘climate refugee’ or ‘environment refugees’ for fair representation of people who migrate due to climate-related issues as it is generally believed that the word ‘refugee’ does not include people who simply migrate. With development challenges that aggravate that issue of climate change by making the process even more rapid, the disruption of local ecosystems in many cases that lead to unavailability of water, increase food insecurity due to crop failure and as a stated increase in disaster risks. The denial of legal usage of the term does not take away the magnitude of the problem faced internationally. Even though, little data is available to project the numbers of this issue. To quantify, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released data to show that number of people displaced by climate change-related 21.5 million, pointing out that “in addition to sudden disasters, climate change is a complex cause of food and water shortages, as well as difficulties in accessing natural resources.”

The problems of climate refugees are known throughout the world. In first of its kind reported incident in Britain, the Welsh villagers in Fairbourne face the threat of floods due to rise in sea level. The villages that constitute nearly 450 houses are now struck with risk of increase in disasters which has affected their community lives and livelihood prospects.
While some other countries including India and Somalia, have higher levels of internally displaced people due to climate change and related risks. In most poor countries such as Somalia, the consequences have been devastating, in the years 2019 and 2020, the country has been disproportionately affected by climate emergencies. Droughts across the country have led to suffering and displacement, with an estimated 5.4 million individuals predicted to be struggling to feed themselves and their families by July 2020.

India has been greatly affected by this issue as well, in fact, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Committee in 2019 stated that India had the largest number of internally displaced people in 2019. The condition did not improve in 2020, there were many disasters struck areas within the country with forest fires claiming parts of Uttarakhand and Nagaland, cyclones including cyclone Amphan that affected large parts of West Bengal and other instances of floods. A new report pointed out that nearly 39 lakh people in India were internally displaced due to climate disasters and conflicts in the year 2020. The report also suggested that nearly 76 per cent of the internal displacement in 2020 was triggered by climate disasters.

Even with the selective data available from national reports, it can very well be understood that climate change has become a global threat, it has also affected a large number of people and this number is set to grow with the urgency of the climate change matter. 

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Recognition of Climate Refugees under International Law

The problems of displacement of people due to natural factors occurred way before scientific interest was taken in climate change as a subject of study. In a proposal for a Convention for Climate Refugees the term climate refugees have been defined as “people whom climate change forces to relocate across national borders.”Six elements that have to be met with are – forced migration, temporary or permanent relocation, movement across national borders, disruption consistent with climate change, sudden or gradual disruption and a “more likely than not” contribution for the human contribution to disruption. However modern disaster theory argues that there is an element of human intervention along with vulnerability that leads to the occurrence of a disaster even one considered a natural disaster.

While certain countries have taken individual steps in their respective capacities such as the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons, 2009 that recognized natural factors of climate as a reason for displacement and provides protection thereof, or the Swedish Aliens Act 2005 that grants asylum to the persons displaced due to an environmental disaster yet, internationally the term has not been given its requisite importance.

The fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mentioned the “potential for population migration” due to an increase in the number of areas affected by droughts and an increase in the intense tropical cyclones activities. However, the proposition for a separate convention for climate refugees has been met with hesitation in the international community for various reasons. Firstly, there is no common acceptability or universality of the term ‘climate refugees. It is therefore fundamentally an issue that cannot simply be agreed upon. Secondly, the process of a convention is a long and lengthy one and requires due deliberation by various parties as highlighted already in the 2011 International Dialogue on Migration and the recently adopted Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The issue is also that in most cases, climate migration remains internal. Thirdly, it is felt that opening up the Refugee Convention, 1951 might weaken the status of the already recognized refugees, the problem of isolating environment/ climatic reason for migration or displacement is also relevant.

Conclusion

Even with all the relevant consideration of the problems of recognition of climate refugees with the growing number of issues that currently persist and are set to rise in the coming future, there is a need to recognize the problems associated with climate migration or displacement. International Environment Law has been used as a tool in many cases even through the agreements such as the Paris Agreement, 2015 to highlight the responsibilities of government in their respective capacities to control the issues of climate change through reducing the emission levels. In this context as well, while certain countries have very high levels of internal displacement due to climate change others have not yet experienced it.

International consensus on protection of displaced people affected by climate change must be based on the understanding of the complex relationship between conflict and disaster in displacement. The two, layered with poverty and weak governance, together influence decisions to leave a disaster-affected region. This consensus and recognition becomes even more relevant considering the agenda of the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) that recognize the eradication of poverty (Goal 1), climate action (Goal 13) and push for institutions that promote peace and justice (Goal 16). The world cannot expect to achieve sustainable development while ignoring the recognition of rights of millions of people who suffer direct consequences and are suffer the reality of climate change.


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