The legal status of ‘climate refugees’ under international human rights and refugee law




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WHAT ‘S CLIMATE GOT TO DO WITH IT?

Climate change and new migration flows: climate migration impacts on EU immigration and asylum policy

23 April 2010, Heinrich Böll Stiftung Zagreb

Margit Ammer, Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights

The legal status of ‘climate refugees’ under international human rights and refugee law


Many of the consequences of ‘unequivocal’ global warming mentioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fourth Assessment Report 20071 are already reality for many people today. However, the intensity and quantity of disasters2 and environmental degradation is on the increase.3 Developing countries are and will be particularly affected by the impacts of climate change.4

Climate change and human rights

For human beings the implications of climate change on their everyday lives are the following: Crop yields will decrease, which poses a major problem for developing countries, in which agriculture is still the main source of income for the majority of the population;5 it will become an even greater problem in combination with population growth. Further repercussions are the shortage in safe drinking water, the destruction of housing and adverse impacts on human health through extreme weather events and changes. Thus, basic needs, which are necessary to live a life in dignity (e.g. food, water, housing or health), are affected. Those basic needs find their expression in human rights belonging to everyone of us: the right to an adequate standard of living (which comprises the right to food, water, housing), the right to health and in extreme cases also the right to life. Since some human beings and communities will be affected by the negative impacts of climate change more than others, the right to non-discrimination and equality is at stake as well:6 already disadvantaged groups of the population, in particular poor people in marginalised groups (due to e.g. age, sickness, disability, gender, indigenous origin) are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change. They often live in high-risk zones (low-lying areas, arid zones) and are least in a position to adapt to the consequences (e.g. due to lack of financial resources, political participation, lack of rights, lack of access to information), which further contributes to their powerlessness.

But who is responsible for ensuring and protecting the human rights of those persons affected, in most cases living in developing countries? We know that most of the global warming of the past fifty years was – according to the IPCC – ‘very likely’ due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions,7 which can be historically attributed to a great extent to developed states. However, under traditional international human rights law, it is the home state of the persons affected, i.e. in many cases a developing country, which is primarily responsible to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and in particular to guarantee equal access to all basic human rights for all persons. Thus, climate change (caused to a great extent by emissions by third states) is now putting an additional burden on such countries.

Climate change and displacement & the importance of preventive measures

Today it is clear that due to the denial of the bases of livelihood displacement is inevitable and already happening. Still, since the consequences of climate change depend on the exposure, risk, vulnerability, and coping capacity of the countries and communities,8 measures relating to mitigation and adaptation can reduce the extent of displacement considerably. Thus, it is of utmost importance to recognise that the reception of 'climate refugees' forms only one element of the solution and to be aware of the significance of preventive measures to be taken in different areas (e.g. development cooperation, human rights, humanitarian assistance, environmental protection).9 In particular, strengthening the resilience of communities through poverty reduction and empowerment of the people affected can help adapting to climate change impacts and avoiding displacement. Empirical research projects such as the EACH-FOR project (which assessed forced migration scenarios in 23 countries) have already started to investigate the impacts in more detail.

While the number of persons already displaced and to be displaced in the future by the impacts of climate change is disputed,10 research initiatives have started to shed light on this issue: according to a study by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) together with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council several millions of persons are already displaced due to climate-related disasters each year;11 the study was based on a typology of the consequences of climate change used by the UN Representative of the Secretary General (SG) on Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) (Walter Kälin) and UNHCR; this typology should help in considering displacement scenarios and question relating to the legal status:12

  • Sudden-onset disasters (floods, storms): in 2008 more than 20 million persons were displaced due to climate-related sudden-onset disasters; displacement is to a great extent of a temporary and short-distance nature.

  • Slow-onset disasters (drought): more than 26.5 million persons are affected by 12 droughts; estimates for displacement are not easily available, more research is necessary.

  • Slow onset sea-level rise: in 2008 2,000 inhabitants of Tulun (Carteret) and 400 of Takuu Islands (Papua New Guinea) were permanently relocated. The figures are likely to substantially increase according to the IPCC. But more data are needed.

  • Displacement linked to conflict: impacts of climate change (e.g. drought) lead to increasingly scarce resources and more competition; violent conflicts may be triggered. However, more data with regard to the number of persons displaced is needed.13

So-called ‘hotspots of displacement’ are small island developing states, Africa, mega-deltas in Asia and the polar regions.14

Still, it is unclear whether or what kind of legal protection should be accorded to those displaced. In the following the status quo of the legal status under international human rights and refugee law including its current challenges are explored. Based on that, possible solutions to the problem are discussed.

The notion 'climate refugees'

While researchers and politicians started using the term ‘environmental refugees’ already in the mid-1980s15 and – with increasing scientific consensus regarding the impacts of climate change – also the notion ‘climate refugees’, there does not exist any legally binding definition of this term. Many experts and UNHCR even warn of using this term since it might deteriorate the legal status of political refugees.16 In recent research projects working definitions regarding ‘environmentally displaced persons (EDPs)’ are used to make the separation from the term 'refugee' more visible.17

In the following the notion ‘internal/international climate refugee’ or ‘internal/international climate displacee’ is used interchangeably without implying the application of the Geneva Refugee Convention to this category of persons; it is referred to persons and communities who see themselves forced or were forced to leave their homes mainly due to climate-induced degradation (i.e. see their basic needs to live a life in dignity threatened) or who – if returned to their homes – would face a real risk of a serious threat to their lives or livelihoods.
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