Climate Change Refugees: Legitimate Status or Just Child’s Play?

Climate Change Refugee map. Arianna Cooper

By Arianna Cooper

The metaphorical force of the canary in the coalmine. [1]

Climate Change: a change in weather patterns altering the global temperature for an extended period of time due to certain human activities.   

Climate change is a popular crisis in the environmental and conservation field. The topic has been picked over by scientists, economists, theorists, and more. At this time, Climate Change Refugees have a similar status to that of a first-year college student landing an internship that requires 5-year experience. In other words, Climate Change Refugees are not acknowledged under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. [2] This term has been placed on this select group of individuals via the media. A Climate Change Refugee does not have any legal standing and thus impedes any formal required action in the case of an emergency relocation.

Refugees with Human Rights?

Human rights are entitlements that are protected by the United Nations and other nations across the globe. These rights extend to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the Refugee Convention.

“The definition requires (i) a fear, (ii) that is well-founded, (iii) of persecution (iv) based on reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” [3]

The major issue with climate change is that the populations that will be first impacted are not protected under this convention. As Duong (2014) explains, a “climate change refugee is actually an international misnomer.” [4] The standards listed above only apply to and protect individuals who are “being forced to return to homelands from which they flee, and, more importantly, allowed to resettle and establish new lives in host countries.” [5] Thus, Climate Change refugees are not “refugees” in the legal sense. [6]

Define a Climate Change Refugees…

The Climate Change refugee status is a contested term in the political sphere. In 2007, the United Nations came out with a report that separated the term into three distinct categories: “environmentally motivated migrants, who may leave a steadily deteriorating environment; environmentally forced migrants, who have to leave in order to avoid the worst; and environmental refugees, who flee the worst, including natural disasters.” [7] Additionally, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) prefers the term environmentally induced migrants, “mobile subjects with agency in a changing environment.” [8] This embodies people or groups of people with reasons encompassing “sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions.” [9] These individuals will feel “obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.” [10]

The difficulty with having a multitude of terms lends to policies that are not capable of being grounded with specific protections. In addition, with varying definitions of each term the people affected will not have a solidified body of law to protect them. For example, in 2002, Diane Bates employs the term environmental refugee as a select body of individuals “who flee any environmental harm.” [11] The issue with this definition is in her subcategories. She bases them off of types of harm: environmental refugees are divided into “disaster refugees, who flee natural or technological disasters; expropriation refugees, who are permanently and intentionally relocated by economic development or war; and deterioration refugees, who leave their homes because of gradual environmental degradation.” [12] Docherty & Giannin (2009) argues that the definition of Climate Change refugee is connected to “human activity and climate change displacement, yet it remains flexible enough to protect climate change refugees within the constraints of evolving science.” [13] Depending on the source, each definition in its language will vary, but these are six characteristics that many definitions align with:

  1. Forced migration;
  2. Temporary or permanent relocation;
  3. Movement across national borders;
  4. Disruption consistent with climate change;
  5. Sudden or gradual environmental disruption and
  6. A “more likely than not” standard for human contribution to the disruption. [14]

Docherty & Giannin (2009) argues that the definition of Climate Change refugee is connected to “human activity and climate change displacement, yet it remains flexible enough to protect climate change refugees within the constraints of evolving science.” [15]

Case Study: Small Island Nation

“We wouldn’t like to eventually get forced out of our place and be classed as environmental refugees. That has a negative attachment to it. It’s like considering ourselves like second-class citizens in the future. It devalues your feelings as a human being. It makes you feel small and negative about yourself. And it doesn’t make you fully human. And the question is, who has the right to deny myself the joy of feeling human, of feeling fully human? Because we are born equal and we should be treated equally.” [16]

In the late 1980s, Small Island States were declared the most vulnerable population with regards to Climate Change. Tuvalu is one of the few islands that has a plethora of research. This island, like others, is supported by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). [17] Tuvalu, which was formerly known as the Ellice Islands, is a small island nation in the Southern Pacific. This island’s highest point is “only five meters above sea level and most of the twenty-six-square kilometer island nation is less than a meter above sea level.” [18] Politically, Tuvalu is a quiet, peacefully island of a population around 10,000, yet has become the scandal of the environmental news world, acclaimed in 2007 as the ‘first’ climate refugee island. [19]

Environmentally, Tuvaluans have had to adapt to the “scarce resources and fierce tropical storms that struck the island once or twice per decade.” [20] These climate shifts records to become increasingly severe in the 1990s. The impact on the island is destroying “main roads and croplands, compounding the food and freshwater scarcities.” [21] Australia and New Zealand have offered refuge, along with the Pacific Access Category (PAC) agreement, for certain individuals on the island.  In order to qualify for this agreement individuals must be between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, be an acceptable for employment in New Zealand, and meet a minimum level of English-language ability. [23] Australia, specifically the Australian Green Party, in 2007 has started to marketing to Tuvalu “accepting 75 climate refugees per year.” [24] Many Tuvaluans see this migration as a fresh start to increase their chances for education, employment, and other social/economic needs. [25] Tuvalu is a media superstar for impacted Climate Change communities.

Who is helping? What is being done?

Climate Change refugees are an environmental policy experts’ disaster. EACH-FOR, IEA (International Energy Agency), and other governmental bodies have started to address the Climate Change crisis on a policy level. [26] The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Millennium Development Goals, International Council on Human Rights Policy, Stern Review, Kyoto Protocol, and other policies have begun to assess the risks of Climate Change. [27]

The Future: Impending Doom?

In order for climate change refugees to begin to have a safer place in this world, the international law community needs to edit and adapt their Refugee Convention to incorporate climate change refugees. Climate Change will not be able to be solved overnight nor will we be able to reverse all of the impacts that we have caused. Many more disasters will unfold in the coming years and millions of lives will be affected by climate change, but if we continue to search for the solutions we can be a part of the global resilience era.

[1] Farbotko, C. & H. Lazrus, (2012). The first climate refugees? Contesting global narratives of climate change in Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Duong, T.T.V. (2014) When Islands Drown: The Plight of “Climate Change Refugees” and Recourse to International Human Rights Law. Penn Law: Legal Scholarship Repository. 1249.

[4] Ibid., 1248.

[5] Ibid., 1249.

[6] Ibid., Farbotko & Lazrus 2012, Lister 2014.

[7] Docherty, B. & T. Giannin. (2009) Confronting a Rise Tide: A Proposal for Convention on Climate Change Refugees. Harvard Environmental Law Review. Farbotko & Lazrus 2012. Williams, A. (2008) Turning the Tide: Recognizing Climate Change Refugees in International Law. Law & Policy. 364.

[8] Farbotko & Lazrus 2012, 7.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Docherty & Giannin 2009, 365.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 371.

[14] Ibid., 372.

[15] Ibid., 371

[16] Farbotko & Lazrus 2012.

[17] Williams 2008. Knox, J.H. (2009) Linking Human Rights and Climate Change at the United Nations. Harvard Environmental Law Review.

[18] Duong 2014, 1243.

[19] Duong 2014. Farbotko & Lazrus 2012, McAdam 2011.

[20] Duong 2014, 1247.

[21] Duong 2014. McAdam 2011, 1247.

[22] Williams 2008.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Farbotko & Lazrus 2012, 10.

[25] Farbotko & Lazrus 2012, McAdam 2011.

[26] Helm 2008.

[27] Hodgkinson et al. 2009.

Endnotes

Duong, T.T.V. (2014) “When Islands Drown: The Plight of “Climate Change Refugees” and Recourse to International Human Rights Law.” Penn Law: Legal Scholarship Repository.

Docherty, B. & T. Giannin. (2009) “Confronting a Rise Tide: A Proposal for Convention on Climate Change Refugees.” Harvard Environmental Law Review.

Farbotko, C. & H. Lazrus, (2012) “The first climate refugees? Contesting global narratives of climate change in Tuvalu.” Global Environmental Change.

Helm, D. (2008) “Climate-change policy: why has so little been achieved? Oxford Review of Economic Policy.

Hodgkinson, D., T. Burton, L. Young & H. Anderson. (2009) “Copenhagen, Climate Change ‘Refugees’ and the Need for a Global Agreement.” Public Policy.

Knox, J.H. (2009) “Linking Human Rights and Climate Change at the United Nations.” Harvard Environmental Law Review.

Lister, M. J. (2014) “Climate Change Refugees.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy.

McAdam, J. (2011) “Swimming against the Tide: Why a Climate Change Displacement Treaty is Not the Answer.” International Journal of Refugee Law.

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