The Coming Age of Climate Refugees

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The term “refugees” used to refer to those people who flee their countries for fear of persecution for one reason or another. The United Nations’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees signed in 1951 defined “refugees” as “those people who are unwilling or unable to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” It has been the job of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to grant refugee status to those people who are unwilling or unable to return to their country of origin and help them to relocate themselves in countries where they can live without the fear of being persecuted.

The definition of “refugees” by the UNHCR is quite specific as to the people who are designated as “refugees.” However, many researchers and scholars studying the international movement of people soon came to realize that it was not just the people with the fear of being persecuted who seek refugee status. Hence, it became necessary to introduce the new category of “economic refugees” to distinguish it from the category of “political refugees,” which is covered by the UNHCR definition. “Economic refugees,” or “economic asylum seekers,” are those people who are “pushed out” of their home countries for lack of economic opportunities and hence seek better living conditions in other countries. The reason these people are called “economic refugees” is because that most of them are from the so-called developing countries. For example, of the total of about 15 million refugees that the UNHCR estimated to be a reliable figure as of January 1991, over 80 percent were from Africa, Asia and South America. While there is no doubt that these regions have poor records in upholding human rights, it is also the case that these asylum seekers were trying to escape destitution and poverty in their home countries.

In contrast to “political refugees” and “economic refugees,” the rise of “environmental refugees” is a relatively new phenomenon that started to be noticed by researchers and scholars in the 1970s. As the number of those people who were displaced from their homes and seek resettlement elsewhere reached as high as 10 million around 1985, it was clear that the new category of “environmental refugees” needs to be introduced in order to distinguish them from “political refugees” and “economic refugees.” The number of “environmental refugees” saw a dramatic rise in the twenty-first century with increasing instances of violent storms and natural disasters. In 2017 alone, it is estimated that 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced due to changes in their living environments, including flooding, forest fires, and violent storms.

While researchers and scholars have been advocating the adoption of the term “environmental refugees” to refer to those people who are driven out of their homes, communities, and countries due to dramatic changes in the world’s climate, there is yet no official recognition of that category of people by national governments and international organizations. As a matter of fact, the UNHCR has not granted refugee status to those people who flee their homes, communities, and countries due to weather-related disasters by calling them instead “environmental migrants.” This is so because climate change that drives people out of their homes, communities, and countries is not recognized as a clear case of humanitarian crisis unlike the case of asylum seekers fleeing their countries for fear of being persecuted. One case that illustrates the reluctance to officially recognize the category of “environmental refugees” on the part of national governments and international organizations was the case of the Teitota family from the island nation of Kiribati, whose application for refugee status in New Zealand in 2015 was dismissed by the High Court of New Zealand. The reason for the High Court’s dismissal was that climate change was not a legitimate reason for fleeing a country, although it was clear that Kiribati is one of those nations in the Pacific Islands that are slowly yet surely disappearing by the rising sea level due to global warming. This is in sharp contrast to the people from Tuvalu, whom New Zealand admitted as migrant workers.

As the number of people who are forced out of their living environments due to climate change steadily increases, it is becoming clear that national governments and international organizations need to develop a clear-cut definition of “environmental refugees,” or “climate refugees.” The UNHCR should take the initiative for the official recognition of “environmental refugees” in view of the critical role it has played in providing assistance to those people who seek refugee status for the fear of being persecuted.

The freedom of movement, in the sense of visiting places and seeking suitable employment, should be one of the basic human rights as it is indeed recognized as such in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. More recently, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration adopted by 164 countries in 2018 called on countries to make plans to support those people who are forced to relocate themselves due to climate-caused disasters. The challenge facing the world today is how to create a workable and legally binding mechanism to allow people to migrate and relocate whether the reason for doing so is political, economic, or environmental. Indeed, in most cases it is difficult to distinguish among political, economic and environmental refugees because the stresses that prompt migration are intertwined.

For references, see, for example, Barnet, Jon, and Michael Webber, “Accommodating Migration to Promote Adaptation to Climate Change”, Commission on Climate Change and Development, March 2009; Brown, Lester, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, New York: Norton, 2011; and Jacobson, Jodi L., Environmental Refugees: A Yardstick of Habitability, Word Watch Institute, 1988.