‘Climate refugees’ not recognized as ‘refugees’ by UN

credit: Ellie Johnston

Survival is not negotiable. And yet the right to survival for millions of people who have had to leave their home due to the effects of climate change is given little recognition by the United Nations and most countries. These environmental and climate refugees face uncertain conditions as they seek new homes in areas that can be less than accommodating—to say the least. A new report out of the UK suggests that by the end of the century one billion people could lose their homes to climate change.

What happens to these people when they are forced beyond their country’s borders and into foreign lands?

Refugees, as defined by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, can be granted asylum in other countries. The UN definition of ‘refugee,’ however, does not include those who are displaced by the impacts of climate change. The definition is exclusive to those who “have a well-founded fear of being persecuted” if they return to their country. Some have proposed that the definition could be expanded to include environmental disasters, though this is unpopular due to fears that it may undermine the already tenuous status of political refugees. What is needed is possibly an entirely new UN treaty or an amendment to an existing one that codifies the rights of those who are forcibly displaced by climatic and environmental disruptions and must leave their countries.

Where this threat is most apparent is in two of the lowest-lying countries. Tuvalu and the Maldives are considered to be in grave danger by sea level rise and may find their land submerged by end of century given the most dire climate predictions. President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, has already put out a call to other nations seeking land for his entire country of 300,000 in the event that their country becomes flooded. Land is a fundamental aspect of a country and without it questions arise about the legitimacy of the country’s sovereignty and the citizenship of its people. Without a nation people will become “stateless” and their rights are thrown into a murky grey area of international law that leaves their right to a place to live in question.

The majority of those displaced by climate change do not leave their country but move to places that are more habitable within their own nation. The UN does not consider them “refugees” either, because they haven’t left their country (in addition to being displaced by climate change). Just because a person is able to remain in their own country does little to lessen the severity of their circumstances, often every bit as dire as those who seek refuge beyond their nation’s borders. Those who remain in their country often face little protection and assistance from governments that are grappling with the effects of climate change whether they be due to sea level rise, drought, or other disasters. People displaced by climate change in their own countries are recognized by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which includes those displaced by “natural or human-made disasters.” Though this document is widely accepted by nations, it is not legally binding, so is not always implemented.

The UN climate negotiations (COP 16) that are beginning in Cancun this week, may take some steps towards adapting to disruptive climate changes, but will very likely do little to directly address the rights and needs of climate refugees. Though adaptation is a critical step towards preventing the occurrence of climate refugees and may be the best course of action that we can hope for from international agreements. National governments can be pushed to recognize the rights of climate refugees in legislation. The Sierra Youth Coalition is taking a stand for climate refugees as Canada considers changes to their refugee laws. Sweden, however, has set the example for other countries with the Alien Act, which recognizes the needs of those who are “unable to return to the country of origin because of an environmental disaster.” What if our nations changed the discourse to one that sees refugees (and other immigrants) as an asset in building national diversity and resilience rather than as a burden on the economy that must be shut out?


About Ellie


Ellie works at Climate Interactive where she supports web development, communications, administration, and simulation development. She is also the Director of the Lead Now Fellowship at SustainUS, an organization that empowers youth to promote sustainable development. She has years of experience coordinating efforts to address climate change, from the local level to the international climate change negotiations, especially among young people. Formerly, she was Chair of SustainUS and a Project Coordinator on Berkshire Publishing's Encyclopedia of Sustainability. She has also served as the Chair of the Southern Energy Network's Steering Committee, Executive of Sustainability in UNC Asheville's Student Government, founder of the NC Student Climate Coalition, leader of her campus environmental group, and speaker at dozens of conferences and community events. In all of these roles she has worked to facilitate a greater understanding of the opportunities we have to address our global challenges from climate change to resource scarcity. Ellie has a B.S. in Biology from the University of North Carolina Asheville. Currently, Ellie lives in the southern Berkshires of Massachusetts.

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