James LeGallais, Queens University.
Discussions of environmental impacts on migration patterns are a relatively recent phenomenon. This focus has increasingly demonstrated how individuals are forced to leave their homes due to these impacts, which has led to the emergence of the term ‘climate’ or ‘environmental refugee’. However, this term, despite being first discussed in the 1970s, has not been included as a category under the definition of refugee put forward by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). There have been efforts to institutionalize this term, however the majority have been unsuccessful, and as such there are arguments to be made as to the most effective way to protect Climate Refugees in the future.
The absence of ‘Climate Refugee’ as a category under the UNHCR can be explained not only by the recent emergence of environmentalism within migration discourse, but the inability to isolate environmentally induced migration from other forms of migration. Efforts to institutionalize this category, on an international, regional and national scale have been insufficient if not completely unsuccessful. This lack of success is the result of international efforts to include this category being swept aside by the UN, national efforts being insufficient and largely reactive in nature, and regional efforts being nearly nonexistent. However, if effectively implemented, regional policies have the highest potential to effectively protect Climate Refugees the future.
The Absence of Climate Refugees as a Category under the UN
The absence of Climate Refugee as a category under the current definition of refugee can be explained as the result of the recent emergence of environmentalism and the inability to isolate environmental migration from other forms or migration. The most widely accepted definition of a refugee was first established in 1951 and confirmed in 1967, as put forward by the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, respectively. This definition limits refugee status to a person who flees their country due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted…”. The relatively late emergence of environmental discourse in regards to migration in the 1980s and 1990s, explains the initial absence of Climate Refugees as a category within the United Nations definition of a refugee. However, this explanation fails to address the reason why the category of Climate Refugee has not yet been amended into the Refugee Convention.
The continuation of this absence can be attributed to the difficulty in isolating migration resulting from environmental changes from migration due to other factors, as well as arguments against why it should be considered separately. The inability to isolate climate change as a factor causing migration is due to the fact that climate induced migration is largely an internal process, occurring gradually within borders rather than across them. This makes it difficult to ascertain numbers regarding climate induced migration patterns, as although internal displacement rates are much higher than international migration, internal displacement cases often go undocumented. Furthermore, it has been proposed that environmental migration should be understood as a “multi-causal phenomenon” which should not be separated from economic and forced migration. This argument has been used to suggest it is unclear why environmental factors should gain “precedence in labelling refugees.”
Lastly, it has been argued that the tendency for violence to occur due to the increasing scarcity of resourcesproduced by climate change means those fleeing this environmental persecution already fall under the current definition of a refugee. This phenomenon has been referred to as the nexus dynamic, which further supports ‘Climate Refugee’ being unnecessary as a distinct category.
Institutional Efforts to Categorize Climate Refugees
Policies and institutions meant to address Climate Refugees have been ineffective on international, regional and intrastate levels. At the international level, institutional implementations of policies meant to address Climate Refugees have been ineffective. Currently there is no institutionalized model for dealing with environmental refugees at the United Nations. This has been attributed to the fear of states being unable to control the predicted influx of Climate Refugees, and the abdication of responsibility by states for environmental damages they have caused. States have been hesitant to govern Climate Refugees, as this would entail a “state responsibility for transnational environmental pollution,” where nations would be forced to admit guilt for environmental damages. This would support the normative argument that smaller, less developed states more impacted by climate change should receive funding from nations who have a higher responsibility for negative environmental impacts.
Furthermore, states fear losing control of their borders due to the potential influx of large numbers of Climate Refugees. Despite the International Organization for Migration (IOM) adopting a definition for the term Climate Refugee, both the UNHCR and IOM have cautioned “against using the term since [it has] no basis in international refugee law and could undermine the… protection of refugees.” The UNHCR and IOM have adopted this stance because if the category of Climate Refugee is adopted internationally, countries might begin to apply a stricter definition of political refugees and admit fewer refugees in general.
While regional efforts to include Climate Refugee categories and policies have made more positive progress, they are limited in scope. The most significant of these agreements is the 1969 African Refugee Convention and the Organization of African Unity. These agreements gave large “powers to states to provide refugee status to all people compelled to flee across national boundaries by reason of any human-induced disaster irrespective of whether there is a fear of persecution.” This has been highly effective as this region has had the highest number of Internationally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and has allowed for gradual pre-emptive movements which mimic the effects of climate change on migration. However regional agreements have only put forward the need for IDP protection, and beyond the EU very few intra-state agreements have been made which allow for the free movement of refugees or people.
At the inter-state level, institutional efforts to specify Climate Refugees as a category of migrants have occurred through the use of environmental degradation as a factor when assessing asylum claims. However, there exists no climate change migration or protection visa within the immigration laws of any country. Largely, institutional state responses to the displacement of individuals by climate change have been reactive rather than pro-active, and implemented on a case by case basis. These reactive policies, however, will be ineffective in addressing issues that affect a large population of people at once; such as land loss caused by rising sea levels impacting high density areas situated in low lying land such as South East Asia. This will be exacerbated by problems which could occur from individual states giving insufficient attention to problems of climate change in domestic and foreign aid focused policies.
Protecting Climate Refugees in the Future
The most effective method to protect Climate Refugees in the future is through the implementation of slow, gradual policies which pre-emptively respond to and address the source of environmental migration problems. These problems would be most effectively addressed through the United Nations creating a set of international agreements to regulate and bind all countries. However, this is not likely to happen due to many states’ fear of large influxes of Climate Refugees. Nor is it likely that interstate policies meant to address immigration issues relating to climate change will become universal, or adequately address the severity of these problems. In the past, effective state policies have not been thoroughly developed unless there is an immediate need to do so, by which time it is too late, as demonstrated with the case of South East Asia. Regional policies, while not universally adopted, have been the most effective in addressing climate related migration, as demonstrated with the Africa Refugee Convention. Furthermore, regional agreements are much more likely to be implemented due to their ability to be molded to specific regional contexts. Effective regional policies could, in theory, allow for pre-emptive migration by authorizing the crossing of national borders within a region in the face of detrimental environmental impacts, while allowing communities to remain intact. Individuals forced to move would be able to “preserve their community and settle as a group in a region similar to their home region.”This would increase the likelihood of individuals pre-emptively moving to regions which contain similar elements to their homeland but lack the environmental vulnerabilities. Additionally, regional agreements could solve the dilemma created by individuals who initially moved due to temporary environmental degradation which has become permanent in their absence. This would additionally address the issues of individuals who have moved due to circular labour patterns or temporary work opportunities who are no longer able to return home due to changes in the environment. However, regional policies would need to be carried out in conjunction with national policies to address individuals who are less able to move, and areas which are remote and largely inaccessible.
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