The refugee regime in an era of climate change

refugee; climate change

This year is the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Signed by 146 parties, the Convention established a regime that is still in place today. It was originally designed to provide protection to Europe’s Jewish population, who fled Nazi violence during World War 2. Its wording was very specific and reflected the geopolitical landscape of its time, defining 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 opinion”.

The world is very different now. We are keenly aware that climate change increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and that these natural disasters can result in large-scale forced migration. This has led some to adopt the term “climate refugee” (and before that, “environmental refugee”) to refer to those forced to move. The original intention behind this labelling was to secure protection for people who may have lost everything to natural disaster before being forced to leave their homes and livelihoods behind. However, the definition of a refugee within the 1951 Convention—someone with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted”—doesn’t offer an option for recognition for such people.

The use of the term climate refugee also provokes disquiet in policy circles. Recent decades have seen an erosion of the goodwill once held towards victims of persecution. Many countries are tightening their immigration regimes, even though new rules will impact the vulnerable most of all. The huge numbers associated with potential future climate displacement—although often based on shaky assumptions—have contributed to an increased focus on national security and possible militarisation of borders. Those familiar with the practical challenges of the refugee regime worry that any attempt to expand its scope to cover climate displacement will result in its complete undoing.

But communities forced to move by climate change are most commonly those who have contributed least to causing it. Providing them with protection evokes our moral duty to ensure fairness and equity through climate justice. So the question remains, in what ways can we support the most vulnerable? 

bushfire; climate change
Bushfires in Tasmania. Photo credit: Matt Palmer/Unsplash

Addressing this question is more important than ever because richer nations are showing a lack of commitment to the issue. Directing climate finance towards adaptation programmes that increase resilience would be one way to prevent displacement, by supporting vulnerable communities to remain in situ. However, at the recent G7 summit, new commitments to increase climate finance were conspicuously absent

Perhaps the answer lies further away from the global stage. Regional diplomacy and capacity building gave birth to the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention in Africa, and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration in Latin America. Both documents include a more expansive definition of a refugee. The latter, for example, covers individuals suffering “generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive human rights violations, and other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order”. Although not legally binding, many of the Latin American states have adopted its provisions into domestic law, and arguments are now made that environmental change meets the definition of disturbing the public order. So could a regionally-focused approach be the answer?

Following the case of an I-kiribati man named Mr. Ioane Teitiota, who sought climate refugee status in New Zealand, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released a document in which it stated “people displaced by the adverse effects of climate change and disasters can be refugees under regional refugee criteria”.

But the reality of the moment that we live in is that most states are increasingly unwilling to sign up to commitments that touch on the contentious issue of migration. So even non-binding multilateral agreements may not ultimately be the answer. Fortunately, this is not the only option to secure protection for the vulnerable. Multilateral bodies such as the Platform on Disaster Displacement are working to strengthen policy protections at the national as well as regional level, and to prevent or reduce the risks of displacement. Only time will tell whether they are successful—though time is something that many do not have. 

As important as it is to extend support to those displaced in the context of climate change, we must also not lose sight of the fact that it is typically only one factor contributing to mobility, whether forced or voluntary. While responding to the needs of the most vulnerable, we must look to the conditions that have caused that vulnerability and address the root causes. We need to strive towards a world in which no one is forcibly displaced by climate change if we have the capacity to prevent it. We cannot leave the vulnerable to navigate these risks alone.


Simon Loveday is a student on the MSc Migration, Mobility and Development programme at SOAS. He is currently researching migration in the context of climate change, focusing on how the narratives surrounding the phenomenon impact on our ability to advocate for climate justice. Simon is a passionate climate activist, and a BSAC scuba dive instructor in his spare time at SOAS

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