There is no (legal definition of) climate refugee

Tsunami warming in Tuvalu

Tsunami warming in Tuvalu

In the public debate on climate change, politicians, journalists and activists often mention the threat of the increasing number of “climate refugees”. The “climate refugee”, however, does not exist legally.

A unique definition

After the disastrous events of the Second World War and the ensuing massive movements of population fleeing across Europe, the United Nations General Assembly decided in December 1950 to convene a conference to negotiate and sign a Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and Statelessness persons.
In July 1951, twenty-six countries were represented in Geneva to agree on a new Convention framing a legal status and an international protection for refugees.

The main input of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is to give an international definition of the term “refugee”. The article 1-A.(2) stipulates three different criteria for the status of refugee:

  • The fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion;
  • The person is outside the country of his or her nationality (or habitual residence);
  • The person is unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country.

Only these three elements frame the international legal definition of a refugee. This is why a so-called climate refugee does not match the criteria of the Geneva Convention.
For example, if we consider that Katrina in 2005 was a climate change related event, the fact is that the persons displaced did not flee the USA and did not fear to be persecuted for their race or opinion. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, these movements are named internal displacements and people are displaced persons.  At the opposite of “refugees”, the displaced persons do not have any particular international protection and remain under the protection of their state.
To overcome this legal obstacle, some law professors such as David Hodgkinson (University of Western Australia), Michel Prieur (University of Limoges – France) have coined the expression of climate displaced persons or environmentally displaced persons.

A growing number of climate displaced persons

Quantifying the number of climate displaced persons and environmentally displaced persons is quite a difficult exercise and until 2011, data on this matter were direly scarce. In June 2011, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) released a report showing that in 2010, more than 42 million persons were displaced because of natural disasters. Among these 42 million persons, NRC highlighted that 90% of them were displaced because of climate related events such as floods and storms.

NRC 2011

Furthermore, Norman Myers (University of Oxford) estimates that by 2050 “there could be as many as 200 million people overtaken by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration, and by sea-level rise and coastal flooding“. The seriousness of the situation forces the international community to find appropriate solutions.

Which solution(s) for a full protection of the climate displaced persons?

At a conference organised a year ago at the Law School of the University of Columbia (NYC, US), lawyers and professors met to discuss means and solutions for a protection of the climate displaced persons and especially in case of the disappearing of a territory or a State (for example with the Small Island Developing States of the Pacific and Indian Oceans). Michel Prieur and David Hodgkinson proposed two drafts of international agreements to first offer a legal status to the climate displaced persons and second to circumscribe the instruments of their protection.

In the light of the past and current incapacities of the international negotiations on environment to foster actions meeting the current and future needs  (Copenhagen or Rio), it seems – unfortunately – difficult to imagine that States could agree on a status of climate refugee and an international legal protection.

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