The Dilemma of Climate Refugees/Migrants

-Vidhi Dugad, SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law, Mumbai University

Climate change is one of the most serious issues we face today. This issue has gained importance not only because of its grave consequences but also because of the fact that it affects or will affect the entire world at large. As we know, climate change is affecting land, water and people alike. We are currently living in conditions where sea-levels are raising globally, natural disasters such as floods, draughts and cyclones are disrupting life everywhere. The leading cause of climate change is the emission of greenhouse gases like Carbon Dioxide, which when released into the atmosphere cause global warming which in turn leads to climate change[1].Mitigation is the only way to resolve the green climate change problem which means cutting down on the emission of greenhouse gases. If we do not focus on this now, temperatures will continue to rise; there will be unpredictable changes in precipitation patterns, hurricanes, droughts and heat waves will become stronger; sea-levels will rise to an extent that cities will be submerged in water and the arctic ice will completely melt[2]. All this will make the Earth inhabitable.

However, we cannot let the actions that are being taken by nation states and the United Nations collectively go unnoticed. The KyotoProtocol[3] and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)[4]are some of the initiative working towards improving climate conditions. The Paris Agreement marked a historic turning point for global climate action, as the world leaders representing 195 nations came to a consensus on an accord that has commitments from all countries aimed at combating climate change and adapting to its impacts[5].

Despite these efforts, tackling issues relating to climate change is a difficult task. It is not something we can expect to change overnight. When we are dealing with such a problem, it is imperative that until the solutions begin to show effect, we manage the issues that are faced globally. One such very critical issue pertaining to climate change is providing asylums or help to Climate Refugees/ Climate Migrants. Unfortunately, there seems to be no global consensus on this very pertinent issue arising out of rapid climate change.

This concern leads us to certain significant questions:

  • Who are Climate Refugees/ Migrants?
  • Is it necessary to have a deliberation on the global platform about Climate Refugees/ Migrants?
  • Can solutions be devised for their benefit?

Climate Refugees/Migrants: no precise definition

There is no clear legal definition of either Climate Migrants or Refugees under any international framework or convention. In fact, Climate Refugees are not even considered as refugees under 1951 Refugee Convention which defines the term refugees[6]. According to the UNHCR, ‘A “refugee” is defined as a person who has crossed an international border “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees). In some contexts, the definition extends to persons fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order” (1969 OAU Convention; 1984 Cartagena Declaration).’[7]

But for our understanding, climate change refugees may be considered as people who are forced to flee their homes and find shelter in other places due to the effects of climate change, environmental causes and natural disasters. In some cases, they are also referred to as environmental migrants. It is important to legally define Climate Migrants because that is the only way they can be helped. Without a legal recognition or identity, it becomes next to impossible to get them help.

Now we need to understand why Climate Refugees are not being given a refugee status under international law. Firstly, the word refugee implies that there is a right of return to the places where they came from which is next to impossible for people who flee from climate change affected areas. Secondly, there is the concern that expanding the definition of a refugee from political persecution to encompass environmental stressors would dilute the available international mechanisms and goodwill to cater for existing refugees. Thirdly, how can we set parameters for climate refugees? Climate change could have an impact on drought and then on farming. This may mean that people who move as the income from their homes due to decline in farming should be considered as climate refugees[8]However; it could well be that if they had access to other non-farming work nearby that they wouldn’t move. So, is it climate change that has caused them to move? Or is it the fact that their local economy lacks alternative employment[9]. Lastly, the migration due to climate change will largely be internal rather than international which doesn’t fit with the term refugee. Such questions are the key to why Climate Refugees have not been given refugee status. Therefore, it is difficult to define Climate Change Refugees/Migrants.

Need for global deliberation about Climate Refugees/Migrants:

Since 2008, averages of 24 million people have been displaced by catastrophic weather disasters each year. As climate change worsens storms and droughts, climate scientists and migration experts expect that number to rise[10]. Both rising sea levels and desertification of water bodies is causing people to migrate from their homes. In West Africa, Lake Chad has decreased in size by about 90% in the last 60 years and this is causing both loss of livelihood and biodiversity[11]. The desertification of Lake Chad has empowered terrorist groups to cause violence and that along with loss of livelihood has led to the displacement of almost 4.5 million people[12].

On the other hand, in Bangladesh, climate change is disrupting rainfall patterns, leading to droughts in some areas while also causing Himalayan glaciers to melt which raises sea levels and leads to soil erosion. Over the last decade, nearly 700,000 Bangladeshis were displaced on average each year by natural disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre[13]. These people either flee to neighboring nations, or migrate internally into Dhaka and have to live in slums since local authorities are unable to sustain such large-scale migration.

Even Mongolia is facing climate change problems leading to climate migrants/refugees. Much of Mongolia’s population is dependent on animal husbandry due to its geographic location. This makes Mongolia highly susceptible to climate change problems. Severe droughts and winter storms (dzud) are causing people to migrate people from rural areas of Mongolia to Ulaanbaatar which is Mongolia’s capital[14]. The problem which arises is that the Mongolia government is not able to provide even the basic necessities to these people due to the large scale of migration[15].

The Islands of Kiribati and Tuvalu are two islands in the pacific that are most affected by rising sea-levels due to climate change. The Republic of Kiribati is a low-lying island which means that it is severely affected by rising sea levels[16]. So, it is not long before this island will be submerged in water. Kiribati however faces another issue due to climate change. Coral Reef is very important to Kiribati since it is an atolls island and rising ocean temperatures are also causing this coral reef to melt. Even if we set aside these factors, pacific islands such as Kiribati are facing problems of sustainability which include access to drinking water and exposure to extreme climate conditions[17]. Kiribati’s president has already informed the United Nations about these conditions and asked for help from the international community. Meanwhile Kiribatians have already begun to move internally as well as internationally as a response to this condition[18].

The ones that remain are in a helpless situation. One such case was that of Teitiota family who fled the Republic of Kiribati and sought refuge in New Zealand. However, both the Supreme Court of New Zealand and the UNHRC denied them asylum in New Zealand on the basis that they did not meet refugee criteria as under the 1951 Convention[19]. However, this ruling was the first of its kind where the United Nation at least recognized the presence of Climate Refugees[20]. This is indeed a step in the right direction.

Climate Migrants/Refugees: Lending a helping a hand

What the international community needs to realize is that there will be no relief for Climate Migrants without global involvement. Defining the term Climate Refugee/ Migrants legally is of utmost important since without that there will be very little ways to help these people. Without a legal definition, there can be no mechanism/international laws to help Climate Refugees. The status of Climate Refugees falls in a grey area and wealthy nations have long used this as a defense from providing them asylum.

For helping places such as Republic of Kiribati, the international community must open its door to Climate Refugees. Especially nations such as New Zealand, Australia and United States of America should help by taking in climate refugees since they are geographically nearest and most capable of providing help to these people[21]. Developed nations along with trying to reduce climate change should also provide financial help to the nations where there is internal migration and should also support cross-border migration / asylum seek for migrants and refugees. Nations that are the highest contributors to emission of greenhouse gases that are the leading cause of climate change should take responsibility for their actions and as a result sustain and allow climate refugees to take asylum on their territories. The process of Climate Change is slow and therefore it gives the international community enough time to discuss and develop efficient plans that can help climate refugees who are seeking asylum globally.

To end on an optimistic note, the current Covid-19 crisis, has helped reduce some amount of the climate change problem. However, this effect is temporary. We can only hope that once this pandemic is resolved, the threat that climate change imposes will still be taken seriously and be worked upon.

End Notes

[1]United Nations Climate Change,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[2]NASA Global Climate Change,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[3]United Nations Climate Change,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[4]United Nations Climate Change ,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[5]Natural Resources Defense Council,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[6]United Nations High Commission for Refugees,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[7][7]United Nations High Commission for Refugees,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[8]Climate and Migration Coalition,, (04/08/2020),

[9]Climate and Migration Coalition,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[10]National Public Radio,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[11]UN Environment Program’s ‘The tale of a disappearing lake’,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[12]New Report Outlines Displacement, Human Mobility Figures in Lake Chad Basin,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[13]Climate change creates a new migration crisis for Bangladesh, Tim McDonnell,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[14]Climate Migration in Mongolia: IOM is Helping the Government Prepare,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[15]Climate Change and Disaster Related  Migration in Mongolia (2017-2019),, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[16]Global Warming Effects Around the World,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[17], (04/08/2020),

[18]Kiribati and Climate Change,, (last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[19]It is time to change the definition of refugee, Bill Frelick,,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[20]UN ruling on climate refugees could be gamechanger for climate action, Yvonne Su,,, last accessed on 04/08/2020,

[21]Protecting Climate Refugees is Crucial for the Future,, last accessed on 04/08/2020.

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