The Forgotten Victims of Climate Change: Climate Migrants without Refugee Status
Greta Kaufman (she/her)
ELR Staffer ’24
The Nexus Between Climate Change and Migration
Climate change has already caused humanitarian crises like natural disasters, water scarcity, sea level rise, desertification, and food insecurity in many countries worldwide. According to estimates by the Institute for Economics and Peace (“IEP”), climate change could displace as many as 1.2 billion people by 2050. The IEP predicts that the humanitarian crises caused by climate change will have a cascading effect in countries that already experience unrest, including Afghanistan, Syria, and India. The impact of climate change is expected to weigh most heavily on the international community’s most vulnerable civilians. Despite this, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”), the UN’s refugee agency, has not yet endorsed the term “climate refugee” for individuals who are forced to migrate as a result of climate change.
Seeking Refugee Status Due to Climate Change
Climate migrants are not protected by international law. The UNHCR defines a refugee as a person who has crossed an international border to flee persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” To qualify for refugee status, one must have a well-founded fear of oppression which forces them to leave their home nation. The definition is intended to cover people fleeing dangerous conditions for legitimate reasons, yet it does not encompass climate migrants. In fact, migrants displaced due solely to climate change do not fall within the UNHCR definition of a refugee at all.
This gap in the refugee definition forces migrants displaced primarily by climate change to rely on alternative grounds to seek refugee status and its accompanying protections. For example, armed conflict is often relied upon by climate change migrants as the basis for refugee status because climate change often interacts with violence that forces people to move. Even so, the lack of an international definition for climate change as a basis for refugee status limits the available options for people displaced by climate change.
Climate Migrant Case Studies: The Horn of Africa and Bhasan Char
The magnitude of this issue is illustrated by climate change-induced desertification in the Horn of Africa. The desertification has forced thousands of people to cross international borders. Many of those individuals rely on subsistence farming for survival, yet because of water scarcity and desertification, many Ethiopian and Somalian nationals have been forced to flee poverty, starvation, and violence in their home countries for the Dadaab Refugee Complex in Kenya. This camp was only intended to temporarily shelter up to 90,000 people but now is overwhelmed with more than double that.
Another poignant example is the Bangladeshi Rohingya refugees “warehoused” in Bhasan Char. Bhasan Char is a floating silt island off the coast of Bangladesh that currently houses nearly 100,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar. Bhasan Char was created as an alternative to other regional refugee camps prone to fires and floods but has quickly developed into a humanitarian crisis as an unstable island vulnerable to climate disasters like flooding and cyclones. As a growing number of refugees attempt to flee the island, conditions on Bhasan Char have been deplored by human rights groups, but because of rising sea levels and population density in the region, there is nowhere for them to go. These conditions have left tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees trapped in a camp the Human Rights Watch has compared to “an island jail in the middle of the sea” without refugee status protections.
Climate change will not disappear anytime soon and will only continue exacerbating international human rights crises. As such, it has become increasingly urgent for the international community to rework the refugee definition to meet the changing conditions faced by displaced people worldwide. Suggestions include revising the 1951 Refugee Convention definition to include language explicitly protecting climate migrants and adopting a Climate Refugee Convention.
Additionally, individual governments can craft domestic policies that protect climate migrants. National responses to climate migration go hand-in-hand with a revival of the 2012 Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement (“Nansen Initiative”). The Nansen Initiative was a state-led push to coordinate international responses to disaster-related migration. In 2016 the Nansen Initiative’s successor, the Platform on Disaster Displacement, was launched to further encourage policy initiatives of the Nansen Initiative investigation. Still, many nations do not have policies to recognize and protect climate migrants.
Another iteration of these programs could include a “polluter pays” approach in which the countries or corporations that contribute most significantly to climate disaster-related displacement are responsible for financially supporting climate refugee relief efforts. The “polluter pays” principle brings causation and enforcement questions, but strategic litigation could provide a creative legal solution to the precarious situations faced by climate migrants. In any case, a collaborative international response is necessary to address the impact of climate change on refugee crises.