The climate refugee: a term can save people

by Shan Huang

The term ‘climate refugee’ may still be an unfamiliar concept for some, although we may occasionally see it in the media. It is clear that climate change can impact our security, economy and development, but can the terms ‘climate’ and ‘refugee’ link together as a concept? Is it just used by media to catch our eyes by combining two current topics? Do the people who are displaced by natural disasters really need the title ‘refugee’ to obtain necessary help from the international community? This short article will illustrate that the answers to both questions are positive, first by discussing the definition of a climate refugee and then by considering relevant examples, which can help us understand the need to define this group of people.

What does ‘climate refugee’ mean? If we search ‘climate refugee’ on Wikipedia, the website will automatically transfer to ‘environmental migrant’. They use the definition from the International Organization for Migration (IoM) to explain as follows: 

  • ‘Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.’ (see IOM’s discussion note on 11.11.2007).

However, the fact is that the status ‘climate refugee’ has never been recognized by international law. Indeed, it has barely appeared in international discourse. This unrecognized term might be used by the media to attract attention, but experts are now trying to find a precise definition for it and are committed to expanding the definition of the refugee. This could then push international actors to widen the definition of a refugee within current conventions, opening the door to increased protection for climate refugees in the future.

On the one hand, refugees typically suffer for various reasons including political prosecution, social oppression and huge environmental change at the same time, so it can be hard to separate them. For example, the continued drought in the Middle East could have contributed to social tensions that preceded the Syrian Civil War (see more at Climate change 'will create world's biggest refugee crisis'). On the other hand, to what extent can we say that some natural disasters are severe enough to force people to identify themselves as refugees? For example, if we consider people who suffered from desertification as climate refugees, there would be millions of people desperately seeking basic help from their own governments and the international community concurrently. Thus, this begs the question as to whether current resource levels can meet this groups needs, as the interests of host countries must be considered by policymakers as well. This is one of the controversial topics people have been discussing since the term ‘climate migration’ was proposed for the first time in 1976 (see more discussion and controversy about this topic here). Because of the vague definition of this group, it is also hard to find reliable estimates of climate change induced migration and the precise level as such (see more at IOM and Climate and Migration Coalition). Despite the difficulty in defining this group, there is still an urgent need to broaden the definition of refugees in international laws. The following paragraph will explain this matter of urgency with two examples.

Bangladesh, located on the Indian ocean, is situated primarily more than 12 meters below sea level. Climate change, especially the greenhouse effect, is a huge problem here, as every one meter increase in sea levels equates to an 18%-20% loss of habitable land (see UCAR’s report). After frequent floods and sea water destroyed their houses and farm land which local life heavily relies on, thousands of Bangladeshi families had to leave their homes and move to informal settlements in the capital city, Dhaka, where they face severe overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions. The local government does not have the ability nor the financial resources to improve the situation (see more about Bangladesh at 'Boats pass over where our land was': Bangladesh's climate refugees – photo essay).

Another example of climate migration is in Kiribati, where rising sea levels are swallowing low-lying islands at an increasing rate. Although they have built walls around their houses to mitigate against this, such small efforts are powerless when confronting global environmental change. Their previous president Anote Tong even bought a huge island in Fiji for Kiribatis if their whole country disappears (information from TED speech Why climate change is a threat to human rights). People in this small and beautiful country adapted the same way the Bangladeshis did to survive: moving to the capital city (see more at Kiribati’s dilemma). The real difference between these two groups of displaced migrants is that young people in Kiribati are now the last generation that can live in their home country since there is no land for future internal resettlement (learn more at Inside Kiribati: The Island Being Erased By Climate Change). 

As shown above, both countries can do nothing by themselves but to wait for help and assistance from other countries. Once we expand the definition of the refugee in international conventions, climate migrants will have the right to move internationally, claim asylum and maintain a decent quality of life that upholds their human rights.

Climate change is an issue that affects everyone. It is clear that we need cooperation between countries, international organizations and the private sector to halt environmental disaster and to prevent a new migration crisis unfolding in the coming decades (see more suggested solution at the end of IOM’s discussion note).

Read more about the refugee crisis here.