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Climate Displaced People - The refugee of the 21st Century

Published 12 Dec 2018
Nicole King

Many nations have become increasingly hostile to immigrants, whilst the inaction on climate change will lead to catastrophic impacts that will force millions to migrate. In this setting the issue of climate refugees or Climate Displaced persons, as this article will refer to them needs to be resolved. We are currently facing the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II. Compared to the end of the war where there was 60 million displaced people, and only 7 border walls, as of the end of 2017 there were approximately 68.5 million displaced people and around 77 walls, and these numbers are increasing.

Climate change is already a very pressing issue for many people around the world. Nearly every will face some migration due to rising sea levels, which is only one aspect of climate change. Increasing natural disasters, desertification and rising temperatures will force people to migrate in search of more liveable conditions. Most of this migration will occur within countries, however, there are some nations that will potentially see all of their land under water, such as the small island nation of Kiribati.

The ex-president of Kiribati is calling for “Migration with Dignity” which would entail a proactive plan to deal with the impeding impacts of climate change. Instead of people being displaced, they would be given the skills and strategies to migrate to where they wish. This would enable them to more easily integrate into their chosen society, find their place and be a contribution rather than a burden. For this to happen there needs to be a new norm that would be specifically for people that are going to be displaced or forced to migrate due to environmental stressors and impacts from climate change, as trying to integrate them into the Refugee Convention would be impeded by a range of challenges.

There are numerous reasons for why Climate displaced people should not be considered refugees. Firstly, they do not fall under the original definition in the UN Refugee convention, that considers a refugee as someone with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political group” (Art. 1, 1951 Refugee Convention). Moreover, to amend this definition to consider those facing climate-induced migration could open up the convention to political opportunists that may try to weaken existing obligations. On top of that the process of renegotiation would most likely be a much lengthier process than creating a new one for Climate Displaced people.

Secondly, Climate Displaced people are quite different to what would be considered a ‘normal refugee’. Most of this migration will be gradual rather than a sudden movement of thousands of people, except maybe in the case of a severe natural disaster. Additionally, a lot of this migration will occur within the nation. Although this happens currently, it is generally due to conflicts or issues caused within the state whereas many of the people that will fall under ‘Climate Displacement’ will be from nations that more than likely to did not significantly contribute to the current CO2 levels that are causing these issues.

Following on from this point, the third issue is that in some instances, it will be entire nations that will be forced to migrate. There is currently no doctrine or norm that is prepared to deal with that. Will these people be able to move as a nation and be given territory somewhere else? Or will they have to be separated? If that happens how will they be able to keep their cultures and traditions from being lost?

Finally, many of these people do not wish to be referred to as refugees and plan on doing everything possible to avoid the destruction of their land. They should be afforded all the help that can be offered to support this, as an attempt to mitigate the negative externalities of climate change.

Whilst efforts are being made towards providing options there is no fully comprehensive plan of action that will allow all of these people to migrate with dignity. The only examples tangential to necessary action are the New Zealand government’s plans to offer special visas to Pacific Islanders forced to relocate and the Platform on Disaster Displacement which encourages nations to assist these people to migrate in the face of their lack of legal recognition. There is also the Global Compact for Migration, that will be signed in December and covers all dimensions of migration including that induced by environmental factors. However, it is not a legally-binding document that will provide Climate Displaced People with legitimate options when they are prepared, or finally forced, to leave their homes.

The international community must come together and deliver a legitimate solution. One that will recognise these Climate Displaced People under International Law and provide a comprehensive plan when the time to migrate arrives.

Nicole King is in her final year of a double degree in Arts (Government and International Relations, Spanish and Latin American Studies) and Economics (Environmental and Resource Economics) at the University of Sydney. She has participated in language exchange programs in both Belgium and Spain, which is where her passion for international relations began. Nicole’s main interests are in environmental politics and international security, and in particular how those two areas intersect and relate to one another. Having previously interned with the Diplomacy Training Program she is also concerned about human rights issues.

Nicole is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.