unConventional Refugees

By Catherine Pelling | 31 Aug 12

By Catherine Pelling. This article is part of our August theme, which focuses on the environment and human rights. Read more articles on this theme.

Thus far the international community has focused primarily on the scientific aspects of climate change, with the aim of understanding the processes at play and mitigating the impact of human activity. Yet climate change is likely to pose humanitarian problems and challenges United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2009

You might be wondering why the High Commissioner for Refugees is weighing in on the worldwide climate change discussion. At first it may seem incongruous: climate change and refugees aren’t connected. Refugees arise from conflict and persecution, not global warming. Right?

Technically speaking, yes. According to Article 1 of the Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who

“As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

However, for many, there is another type of refugee: an environmental refugee. That’s where the High Commissioner comes in.

In the 1970s, Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute was the first to introduce “environmental refugee” as a term. But it was Essam El-Hinnawi from the United Nations Environmental Programme who refined the concept, defining environmental refugees as “those persons who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life”. Dr Norman Myers was another to first use the term, describing them as “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their erstwhile homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, and other environmental problems”. Dr Myers included amongst these “other environmental problems” the risk of rising seas, citing Tuvalu and Kiribati among the most “acutely vulnerable to sea-level rise and flooding” because of their low-lying geography.

There is an urgent need for action to be taken and decisions to be made

Yet, because environmental refugees (or climate change refugees as they are also called) are neither mentioned nor covered by the Refugee Convention, they are not strictly considered refugees. Calling them refugees has invoked fierce criticism, from both the academic and advocate communities. Perhaps the most commonly cited academic critic is Professor Richard Black of the University of Sussex, who, whilst consulting for the UNHCR, wrote that identifying environmental degradation as a “primary cause of forced displacement is unhelpful and unsound intellectually, and unnecessary in practical terms”.  Refugee advocates themselves have also expressed concern. They note that, apart from it having no basis in international law, the term could seriously undermine the international legal regime working to protect Convention-defined refugees and potentially jeopardise their rights.  There is the added dimension that for many, environmental degradation and loss is not an exclusive cause of forced displacement. Some people prefer the term “environmental migrants”, which can change the very meaning and reason for leaving and creates connotations of choice: people can be motivated to move at different times, for different reasons, with the environment acting as a prompt, along with economic motives.

However, describing people forcibly displaced from their home and environment, whether acting in advance or at the very brink of disaster and degradation, as “migrants” completely disregards the fact that many, in the long term, will have little choice but to leave. Yet Professor Black has a point: describing people as refugees is of little use when they are not covered by the Convention.

So how should people forcibly displaced from their land, lives and homes be described? Something needs to be decided upon soon. The lack of an agreed-upon definition is one of the greatest hindrances to action.  And there is an urgent need for action to be taken and decisions to be made.

The reason for this is simple. Whilst as yet there is no agreed-upon, workable estimate of the number of current and potential people to be displaced, we do know the regions that will be most affected. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted in its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 that small island states are one of these regions, along with the megadeltas on low-lying land in Africa and Asia. Besides the consequences of rising sea levels, some of the other effects of climate change will eventually make the land uninhabitable, even before it drowns. These effects include reduced potable water supplies, reduced fishing stocks, and reduced fertility of agricultural land. As mentioned by Myers previously, Pacific island states, specifically Kiribati and Tuvalu, suffer the most immediate threat due to their particularly low-lying topography. Therefore, regardless of the exact timeframe, populations currently located on small islands and more low-lying areas will be so severely affected by the results of climate change that they will be forced to relocate.

There is no point in waiting for the international system to change; we must utilise what we have and develop it further

However, when they do leave, they are afforded little protection under international law and there are few obligations owed to them by receiving states. Sure, there is general international humanitarian and human rights law, but how many of you really trust that this will be followed by our governments? Specific conventions, laws and protection regimes exist for other people forcibly displaced: the Refugee Convention, human trafficking laws and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. And yet, for an increasingly large number of people who have lost their homes due to climate change and environmental degradation, they fall into a protection gap in international law.

This situation means that, for example, a displaced family from Kiribati will be neither refugees nor stateless people; and moving internally within the state will not really be an option considering that the entire state will be losing its habitability.

We have a moral imperative to ensure that the rights of these people will be protected when they need the protection, and that they will be helped when they need help. This imperative exists not merely because these are our fellow human beings, although that should be enough. But there is the added imperative that they are being driven from their land, home and culture thanks to the contribution of those of us living in developed states. The best way to ensure that these peoples’ rights will be protected and that they will be given appropriate assistance when the time comes is to follow the general pattern of introducing protection measures and regimes into international law. This is the crux of the issue, and the reason that a widely-accepted definition is so essential because without one, there can be no positive and productive steps forward towards protection.

However, in order for protection measures to be taken seriously by the international community, any proposed measures need to be politically viable. By extension this means that any definition of the people at the heart of the matter unfortunately also needs to be politically viable. And so we come back to Professor Black. Sadly, he is accurate when he describes the term environmental refugee as “unhelpful”. In general, most governments have enough issues with refugee patterns of migration, without including another category for consideration. If feasible action is really to be taken to ensure the rights of those displaced by climate change, we must be realistic and take into account the interests of the big players in the international community. For better or for worse, this community has its foundations in the system of states and so for now at least we must consider states’ interests.

It is for this reason that the use of the word “refugee” must be dropped from any discussion of this subject if we truly intend for serious action to take place. There is no point in waiting for the international system to change; we must utilise what we have and develop it further. Personally, I prefer and promote the term Internationally Environmentally Displaced Persons (IEDPs). This concept builds upon that of Internal Displacement, and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), whilst making obvious the significant role the environment will play in this type of forced migration. IEDPs would cover all persons displaced from their home due to environmental degradation or destruction (due to natural disasters and/or climate change) and who, either temporarily or permanently (most likely the latter) must leave their country of residence. Yes, this definition will need to be refined. But it provides a firmer foundation from which to create a protection regime to fill the current gap – a foundation that is both human rights-based and politically viable.