“One of the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration.”
This was the prediction of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the very first Assessment Report, published in 1990. Over 20 years, and four more assessment reports later, it appears that this global consortium of scientists was on to something. As the impacts of climate change become more tangible, threatening livelihoods and physical space, environmentally-motivated migration is on the rise. While an international conversation has begun on the issue, and terms like “climate refugees” begin to make their way into our vernacular, the international community seems unprepared for this new type of migration.
Given the reality that anthropogenic climate change is itself a contentious idea in some circles, the jump to claim that forced migration is occurring directly from climate change impacts is difficult. Migration motivated by environmental conditions is not a new story. The practice has been essential to human evolution and survival over the course of history. Consider pastoralist tribes throughout the world who have sustained a culture based on moving with the ebbs and flows of resource quality and availability. Contemporary large scale movements of people due to environmental conditions are also not hard to call to mind. In both developed and developing nations, natural disasters like cyclones and floods occur frequently and are almost always associated with mass displacement.
So is climate induced migration any different? In my eyes… yes. Absolutely. When people flee their homes because of an imminent natural disaster, they typically do so with the intent to return. A cyclone may cause huge damage to infrastructure and homes, and require a rebuilding process, but these types of fast-onset natural disasters do not typically cause permanent displacement. Environmental harm due to climate change, however, is different. The impacts of climate change are slow-onset, meaning they build over time and are not really expected to culminate in a headline-grabbing, one-time event. Instead, phenomena like desertification, erosion, land loss and changes in soil fertility are gradual processes that eventually reach a tipping point when they render a place unlivable. Deteriorating environmental conditions caused by climate change are more likely to effect spatial geography, livelihoods, and production patterns in a way that may permanently preclude the ability for communities of people to survive there.
The line between the temporary displacement of people due to natural disaster and permanent climate-induced migration can be difficult to locate. The ambiguity makes measurement a daunting task. Many people and organizations have attempted to quantify how many climate migrants exist in the world, and to make predictions on future cross-border flows. These estimates range anywhere from 20 million to 200 million. (Check out the BBC’s coverage on the contentious measurement process.) The wide range of predictions is not only due to the difficulty of separating temporary environmental displacements from permanent climate migration, but also with the motivations of the estimators. As the fight continues to force developed nations to take the global climate change issue serious, advocates are motivated to make high estimates of migration flows in hopes of stirring fears and catalyzing action.
In the context of this emerging conversation, people fleeing their homes because of climate change have been dubbed “climate refugees” in the media and in advocacy circles. This term has been used to refer to those people who have crossed borders to escape climatic changes, but also seems to be used more generally to refer to anyone who has left their traditional home because of climate change. However, the use of “refugee” is misleading, and some would argue dangerous. Refugee is a legal status, granted under the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention. This status offers specific standards for the treatment of refugees, and provides them with a level of protection not granted to people who have simply migrated to a new country. In order to be granted refugee status under the convention an individual must prove that they are fleeing their home because of race, religion, nationality, their membership in a particular social group, or because of political opinion. Under the convention, there is no option to claim refugee status as a result of environmental degradation. So while the term “climate refugee” is tempting to use, as it invokes a certain sense of urgency and dire need, it is not accurate and can lead to the assumption that these “refugees” have access to certain benefits that they do not.
Until recently, this distinction between the idea of people as climate refugees and their actual status under international law has been primarily academic. But as but as the impacts of climate change are experienced at increasing rates, the problems are becoming more tangible. For example in 2012, after his temporary visa had run out, a man from Kiribati applied for refugee status in New Zealand. On his application status he cited the reason for his concern as the threat of sea level rise against the coral atoll where his family lives just above sea level. He was denied refugee status and returned to Kiribati. And if you are American sitting there thinking “this has nothing to do with my country”… think again. The people of Newtok, a small Alaskan village a few hundred miles south of the Bering Strait, are being hailed as “America’s first climate refugees”, as erosion and sea level rise threaten to turn their coastal village in to an island.
While the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) does not seem to have any intention of amending the Convention on Refugees to include those people who migrate because of climate change, the UN system and other international organizations do recognize the potential severity of the issue. While they don’t yet consider climate change as a direct migration catalyst, it is viewed as one of the many drivers of migration and the UN predicts that it will be a “megatrend” in future migration patterns. UNHCR has also thrown their support behind new initiatives to further study climate migration and find a suitable path forward for dealing with this new migration driver. Most high profile is the Nansen Initiative – a globally focused consultative process that aims to assess the current operational and legal challenges to admission and length of stay in host countries for those experiencing climate displacement. Their hope is that through employing several regional sub groups, they can promote solutions that will work across the international system and allow for a consensus to develop on standards of treatment and protection of migrants.