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Now is the time to legally recognize climate refugees

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By Rai Friedman

· 7 min read

The need to legally protect climate refugees

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)

“over 376 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced by floods, windstorms, earthquakes, or droughts since 2008, with a record 32.6 million in 2022 alone. Since 2020, there has been an annual increase in the total number of displaced people due to disaster compared with the previous decade of 41% on average”.

The European Parliament confirmed that the upward trend was “alarmingly clear” and that climate change is the driving catalyst inferring “’climate refugees’ will continue to rise”. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, 1.2 billion people could be displaced by 2050 “due to natural disasters and other ecological threats”. Although there have been significant strides to confront climate-related migration, national and international responses are limited and inadequate.

Climate refugees are not legally recognized or protected under international refugee or human rights law, as outlined in the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. With the exception of sudden onset disasters, there are few cases where climate change is recognized as the sole proprietor for movement. Environmental migration has generally been miscategorized by the composite nature of forced migration, or, has been understood as economic and thus voluntary. For instance, in Southeast Asia, although ecological factors such as drought or rising sea levels are major drivers for migration, it is expressed in terms of economic loss since the economy is dependent upon agriculture, horticulture and livestock. 

“Refugee protection includes all activities aimed at achieving full respect for the rights of refugees” This includes enabling an environment conducive to respect all human beings, preventing or alleviating immediate effects of a specific pattern of abuse, and restoring dignified conditions of life through reparation, restitution and rehabilitation. Refugee rights are built upon inalienable human rights such as the principles of universality, equality, and non-discrimination. When individuals are protected under international refugee law they are protected from involuntary repatriation, otherwise known as refoulement, and gain residency rights and protections within their host country such as housing, education, employment, and family reunification, among others.

Establishing a direct causal link between the movement of people and the environment is difficult to ascertain. Oftentimes, areas that experience extreme climate stressors are compounded by internationally recognized issues that cause displacement. This includes conflict, political instability, low levels of economic development and human rights abuses. The decision to leave someone’s home is often embedded in several factors, where climate change impacts may only be one. Furthermore, those who migrate due to climate stressors will often do so within national borders, to be broadly recognized as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), thereby not officially documented as refugees. 

“There are no reliable estimates of the number of people on the move today or in the future as a result of environmental factors. The reason for this is twofold: a difficulty untangling the reasons for migration and the lack of official figures on within country movement” (United Nations University)

According to UNHCR, there are currently 117 million people forcibly displaced, accounting for 1% of the global population. If climate refugees were to be included in the internationally recognized definition, that number would drastically increase and would account for a much higher percentage of the world’s population. Although there are no legally binding regimes that protect climate refugees, there are national, regional and voluntary compacts that uphold commitments to address cross-border movement.

The Cancun Outcome Agreement in 2010 propelled states to recognize climate change-induced migration, displacement and relocation as an adaptation challenge and allowed them to agree to broaden their understanding and cooperation. This led to the launch of the Nansen Initiative in 2012 which was a bottom-up, state-led consultative process, that explored the compounding effects of climate change and forced migration and facilitated multidisciplinary dialogue to improve global understanding of relevant challenges, to address recommendations for action. The Nansen Initiative was signed by over 100 governmental delegations and focused on strengthening consensus among states regarding the protection agenda, and for its outcomes to be sustained through domestic, regional and global levels, eventually creating new laws, soft law instruments and binding agreements.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by 193 UN Member states and explain the protection for climate refugees. For instance, SDG 13 on climate action outlines several targets to address the climate crisis: 

13.1: Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries

13.2: Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning

13.3: Improve education, awareness raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning

So why is migration excluded from the COP28?

Two weeks ago, the Conference of Parties 28 (COP) kicked off in Dubai for the annual UN Climate discussions regarding a joint approach to climate change. The binding commitment of the UN parties is to address “dangerous human interference with the climate system” and stabilize levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. COP 28 covered 29 themes, ranging from accountability, education, finance, nature, technology, and so much more. The issue however is that the topic of forced migration due to climate-related events was seldom mentioned.

Throughout the 12-day conference, only 5 events covered the topic of climate-related migration. Out of these, only two events had a primary focus on policy and discourse. Historically, the global discourse around migration has been approached apprehensively by state actors. Currently, 76% of the world’s displaced populations are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, which often do not have the infrastructure or resources to care for mass migratory populations. Host countries often look to Western countries to share the resource burden, and contribute financially, or otherwise, though are seldom met with long-term investment. Opening the debate to include climate refugees under the internationally recognized definition would invite rhetoric around nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, and xenophobia. Furthermore, it could prompt discussion around the other types of asylum seekers who are not recognized under international law, such as economic refugees, or it could lead to limiting the protections of refugees rather than expanding them.

The climate refugee crisis will only intensify in years to come. Climate refugees are not being included in the COP discussions, because of their lack of legal recognition within the international community. Including climate refugees as a main topic during COP would mean that the international community would be willing to accept responsibility and endeavour in meaningful problem-solving engagements. Ultimately, that would mean significant investment from affluent countries who may not value the sentiment of adhering to the call – they are not directly affected, so why should they invest? 

So how can we #HelpFromHome?

When the 2030 SDGs were first published in 2017, the then 17 goals did not have a single indicator that mentioned refugees or displacement. It was not until 2020, and rigorous effort, research, and advocacy, was an 18th goal included in the SDGs to include migrants and refugees, now known as SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities. This is an example of community engagement and perseverance which enabled change. 

Climate refugees cannot be disputed, nor excluded from the conversation surrounding climate change. Although there are other forums, such as the Global Refugee Forum, which focus specifically on migration, climate refugees are a distinction that cannot be ignored. As an international community, we must put pressure on climate actors to include climate refugees under the legally recognized definition, as well as within global forums that focus on climate change to foster innovative and durable solutions.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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Apap J & Harju S (May 10, 2023) The Concept of ‘Climate Refugee’: Towards a Possible 

Definition. European Parliamentary Research Service. 

Friedman, L (November 20, 2023) What is COP28? And Other Questions About the Big U.N. 

Climate Summit. New York Times. 

Podesta., J. (2019). The Climate Crisis, Migration, and Refugees. Brookings. Retrieved from: 

The Nansen Initiative. About us. Retrieved from: 

UNHCR (2022). Figures at a Glance. 

UNHCR (2023) Global Appeal 2023.,2023%2C%20according%20to%20UNHCR's%20estimations

UNHCR. Rights and Duties.

United Nations University (November 26 2015) 5 Facts on Climate Migrants.,figures%20on%20within%20country%20movement

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About the author

Rai Friedman is the Founder and CEO of the NGO Global Rights Defenders, which advocates for refugee and human rights worldwide. She is also a policy and migration consultant, and welcomes new ventures, collaborations or partnerships. She is a multilingual individual with demonstrated professional experiences in the international development sector as it relates to policy & advocacy, research, migration and human rights. She has worked in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North America. Currently she is in Kenya implementing a research project with Global Rights Defenders focused on barriers to socio-economic inclusion for refugees. 

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