So far, the international legal system does not recognize people who move due environmental degradation or climate change as refugees. But recently the link between environment and displacement has, at least, been subject to more attention at the international level.
You have probably heard about the Global Compact on Migration. It is the UN compact that almost toppled various European governments last fall and was also the target of a major fake news campaign.
A process that was initiated in the UN by Obama in 2016, eventually led to an – unbinding – compact on migration that was accepted in December 2018. But not by all: it was opposed by the USA, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Israel, and or absence or abstention of tens of others, including Austria, Australia and Italy.
This was certainly in part because it caused so much public resistance, even if a lot of it was based on incorrect information, and the compact was a fitting target for the anti-immigrant ideological right.
All in all, many see it as a historical achievement that an agreement was even reached in this political climate. What you might not know, is that many see this compact as an achievement especially from the point of view of an environmental issue.
“It is the first international agreement that sees the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation as drivers of migration. It might be the most important thing in this compact”, says Ida Schauman from the Finnish Refugee Council.
The compact mentions in length, and in multiple passages, about the effects of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters, and their links to migration.
“There was a lot of interest by countries during the negotiations to highlight climate change and natural disasters. The issue is as well addressed as it could be in such a text”, says Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, a Thematic Specialist at the International Organization for Migration.
For a layperson, the link might seem obvious – well yes, people will move if their village is permanently flooded, or desertification makes their fields infertile.
But in the context of international diplomacy, what matters is how things are talked about and which words get printed – whose way of seeing the world and narrative is accepted.
This wording also has a direct consequence on what international organizations, including UN agencies, work on and who they cooperate with, and what sort of projects get supported.
The compact also mentions various ways to address the issue, from disaster preparedness to climate change adaptation and mitigation in the countries of origin.
“The goal is that people don’t have to migrate if they don’t want to”, summarizes Traore Chazalnoel.
Of course, it remains to be seen how countries will act on what was agreed, since the compacts are non-binding. But at least the need to address climate change and other environmental causes of forced migration might get more attention and funding worldwide.
“The fact that over 150 countries are behind this, and acknowledge these things are connected and something has to be done, helps us to bring the cause forward internationally,” says Marika Palosaari, Regional Programme Coordinator from UN Environment.
“It is a historically significant step forward that they are included,” she emphasizes.
Already the space that these questions get in international discussions reflect a wider recognition of the effects of climate change and the links between displacement and environmental degradation.
“The thinking has really changed. Partly because climate change and environmental issues have gotten to the political agenda in a completely different way than in the past”, Palosaari says.
But what is striking following the commotion over the Compact on Migration, is that few people talking about it even knew that there was another one – the Global Compact on Refugees – that was negotiated alongside it.
The drafting of these compacts started at the same time, in 2016. However, one concentrates on refugees, people fleeing from their countries, and the other on migration at large. ‘Migrant’ as a term does not specify why people are on the move – it even includes people leaving for work or family reasons.
The compact on refugees hardly got any public attention or opposition, and no one demonstrated, at least very visibly, on the streets against it. Furthermore, last December 181 countries out of 193 voted in favor of adopting the Compact on Refugees – whereas the Compact on Migration got only 152 to votes in favor.
This might seem odd for two text with the same juridical status and similar themes. Interestingly, environmental issues are glaringly absent from the Compact on Refugees.
Consider the difference: climate change and environmental reasons for displacement are mentioned in at least seven chapters in the Compact on Migration. It has a whole section dedicated to the issue.
Instead the Compact on Refugees mentions climate and environmental degradation just once – and in a telling context:
“While not in themselves causes of refugee movements, climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements. In the first instance, addressing root causes is the responsibility of countries at the origin of refugee movements.” [emphasis mine]
This formulation carefully avoids mentioning environmental reasons or climate change as direct causes or drivers of refugee movements, unlike the compact on migrants. It also leaves the responsibility to the countries of origin.
Why? Are the facts not the same for refugees and migrants?
One important difference is that there is already an international, and binding, agreement on refugees and refugee rights, and a whole UN agency (UNHCR, UN Refugee Agency) that works with them. There isn’t any similar widely accepted international text or an organization – with similar duties – for migrants, or any specific migrant rights.
These Global Compacts now are both non-binding, but whatever is written about refugees, can be linked to these binding obligations much more easily, and could hint at the opening up of the definition of a refugee.
If it was stated in an international agreement that people flee from their homes for these reasons, it would create a basis for the idea of climate refugees or environmental refugees.
This would have direct consequences on who could get a refugee status and on what basis. Tens or even hundreds of millions of people whose homes are threatened by climate change might apply for asylum.
Currently, climate or environmental refugees simply do not exist juridically.
The current definition of a refugee is grounded on the Refugee Convention, which is – even if each country has their own legislation and asylum procedures – the backbone of international protection. It goes as follows:
“A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
If you are forced to leave your home island because rising sea levels leave it under water, you cannot apply for asylum based on that. It is not considered war, violence or persecution.
But should this be changed? Shouldn’t we have a way to give the possibility of moving to the people that have no option but to leave their homes because of climate change?
“Some think climate change should absolutely be in the definition of a refugee. Others believe it would make a now strong refugee status politically much weaker”, says Ida Schauman.
Schauman even reminds us that the UNHCR is very careful about how they define a refugee, and they emphasize the centrality of conflicts and humanitarian causes that are included in the official definition.
“If you broaden the definition, some are afraid that the states will stop following it. And since we have reached a rather strong juridical status for refugees internationally, it is risky to open it up and broaden it”, she adds.
Since the issue is so hot at the moment, renegotiating the Refugee Convention – that dates back to 1951 – and reconsidering the definition of a refugee might actually lead to something much weaker.
In New Zealand there was a case in which a person from Kiribati, Ioane Teitiota, applied for asylum on this basis that climate change was threatening to cause his home island to be swallowed by the rising sea level.
His case was turned down by the national high court on the basis of the absence of international law that would tackle this issue.
“I’m the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it’s the same as me,” he said to the BBC in 2015, after being deported back to Kiribati.
Milla Vaha, a researcher from the University of Turku, reminds us that even if the international agreements do not recognize climate refugees, there are also local possibilities for giving residence permits on the basis of environmental reasons.
Vaha says the most extensive agreement that could allow this at the moment is the Cartagena convention in Latin America. It allows for the possibility of giving protection on the basis of “other reasons that threaten societal order”, which theoretically could also mean environmental reasons.
National humanitarian protection laws, like the one currently in Sweden and previously in Finland, could also be used to protect those leaving for environmental reasons. For instance, if the person effectively cannot go back to their home country due to desertification or floods.
But these are all still only theoretical possibilities – as far as Vaha knows, there have been no cases in which protection has been given on grounds of climate change.
Traore Chazalnoel reminds us that the Compact on Migration recognizes there is a need to create pathways for people to legally move in these cases, even if not on refugee basis.
There is talk about humanitarian visas, temporary work permits, or developing other solutions for people compelled to leave for environmental reasons. Of course, again, it remains to be seen if this will be actualized anywhere.
One challenge to the idea of a climate or environmental refugee is that is hard to conclusively demonstrate that environmental reasons are actually the thing that forces people to leave.
This is both true in an individual case, where it would have to be proven in court when seeking asylum, and more widely on a systemic level.
The slow onset of environmental change is not quite as obvious as someone bombing your city or putting you in jail for your political opinions. The environment doesn’t send you signed death threats that you could bring to court.
“The way climate change creates human movement will always be mediated through some other force, like labor markets or levels of wealth and infrastructure”, says Alex Randall, Director of the Climate and Migration project on this video.
An extreme case is a natural disaster, but otherwise it is not easy to show what the fundamental reason is for people leaving, since environmental changes affect the whole of society from livelihoods to living conditions. What’s more, people’s decisions depend on many issues, such as wealth, job prospects and whether your state will assist you in case of emergency.
“It is very difficult to pick out a group of people that are climate refugees from a wider group of refugees and migrants. […] What we have, is potentially a huge group of people with a climate change dimension in their movement”, adds Randall.
In order for the situation to change, the challenge is that the public craves simple answers, courts want proof, and journalists need short headlines.
And meanwhile, millions of people who will have to leave their homes because of floods, drought or disasters still have little or no hope of getting legal status elsewhere.
Text: Veera Vehkasalo
Photos: Vanessa Riki