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What hope for environmental refugees?

Published 16 Aug 2015
Sinead Mulders-Jones

One out of every 122 people living in the world today is either a refugee, seeking asylum or displaced within their own homeland. A recent United Nations report stated that by the end of 2014, the number of forcibly displaced people across the globe had reached 59.6 million, the highest since World War II. More than half of these are children.

Currently only those fleeing from persecution have any significant international legal protection. This protection is enshrined in the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. A refugee is defined as someone who is forced to flee their homeland due to persecution because of their race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion. This definition, however, excludes environmental refugees who can be defined as individuals who must flee their homes due to environmental degradation, natural disasters or the effects of climate change and global warming. If a person crosses into another country fleeing environmental disaster that State has no obligation to help – the refugees have no legal protection and no right to seek asylum.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees recognises that climate change and environmental disaster contribute to forced migration across borders, however it does not consider this grounds for granting refugee status. It opposes any efforts to expand the Refugee Convention to include those fleeing their homeland for environmental reasons, claiming that doing so would undermine the legal protections of existing and future refugees.

The international community recognises that climate change is a growing global issue. The focus, however, is on mitigating the effects rather than helping those whose homes and livelihoods have become unsustainable. The term climate change or environmental refugee is not recognised under international law. There is no lead UN agency, convention, protocol, framework or specific guidelines focusing on those who flee their homeland as a result of climate change and environmental disaster. No country has a special visa category for individuals displaced by climate change.

The impacts of climate change are widespread and increasing. In 2012, 32.4 million people were displaced by environmental disasters. Extreme weather events are becoming more common, compromising infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries and ecosystems which we need to survive. Rising sea levels are having devastating impacts on low-lying areas, such as the Pacific Islands, which are sinking and are likely to be unliveable by the end of the century. The International Organisation on Migration projects that by 2050 the number of people displaced by climate change could reach 250 million.

The reality is that at the time the Refugee Convention was drawn up the disastrous impacts of climate change could not have been envisaged. Now that the global landscape is changing there have been calls to expand the Refugee Convention to reflect the needs of those displaced by environmental challenges.

With the number of environmental refugees set to dramatically increase in the future the world needs to devise strategies to deal with this new wave of migration. Whether that is the creation of a UN agency, a convention on the rights of environmental migrants or special visa categories for those displaced by climate change and environmental disaster. Australia and the international community need to utilise the momentum of the United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Paris later this year to not only create a binding and universal agreement on climate change but to also address the massive wave of environmental migration looming on the global horizon.

Sinead Mulders-Jones recently graduated with a Bachelor of International Development Studies from the Australian Catholic University. As well as interning with AIIA she currently represents Plan International as a 2015 youth ambassador. She has previously interned in Bangalore, India with the Concerned for Working Children, a Nobel Prize nominated non-profit that defends the rights of working children. Sinead is eager to begin a career in the development sector with a non-profit or in the public service working in policy or research area.