An increasing number of people globally are facing displacement due to droughts, famines, rising sea levels and other natural disasters caused by climate change. This class of migrants has been labelled as ‘environmental refugees’ in popular literature. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an international body reviewing trends of internal displacement, an estimated 24 million people are being displaced annually by natural disasters since 2008. This crisis will make almost half a billion people worldwide “environmental refugees” by the end of the century.
The UN Refugee Convention (1951) grants certain rights to people fleeing persecution because of race, religion, nationality, affiliation to a particular social group, or political opinion. The rights they are entitled to follow principles of non-discrimination, non-penalisation, and non-refoulement. However, people migrating due to environmental disasters have no such recognition of their ‘refugee’ status in international law, leaving them without any basic rights of rehabilitation and compensation. In September 2015, in the run-up to the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris, New Zealand reportedly refused a man and his family asylum. Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati, who had sought it on the grounds of being an ‘environmental refugee’, lost his appeal before the New Zealand Supreme Court, which rejected the argument that he faced persecution because of climate change, since no such category is listed under the UN Refugee Convention. He was deported to his native island, which regularly witnesses environmental problems including storm surges, flooding and water contamination.
The Paris let-down
The Paris Agreement presented a unique opportunity to set the record straight by addressing the challenge of increasing environmental refugees. Before the negotiations commenced, numerous demands were made to incorporate ways to tackle climate migration in the final agreement. These included recognising the threat posed by climate change to livelihoods and human safety, and environmental refugees or migrants affected by climate change; providing technical and capacity building support to national and local initiatives tackling such displacement; and developing suitable policies to manage loss and damage by addressing climate change-induced displacement. However, the Paris Agreement falls considerably short of these expectations. While some hail this agreement for alluding to the rights of ‘migrants’ in its Preamble, it is an anaemic attempt at appreciating the gravity of this crisis. There is also little follow-up in the text of the agreement to address this problem.
The agreement, in Paragraph 50 of the Loss and Damage section, creates a task force to build upon existing work and develop recommendations for addressing climate migration. But this is meaningless for two main reasons — first, the recommendations of the task force have no binding authority; and second, no details are provided on its functions, operations, funding and other aspects. This ambiguity further erodes confidence in the realistic capability of this task force to effectively tackle climate migration.
The way forward
Almost one year after the Paris Agreement, its significance in displaying collective political will to take meaningful action against climate change cannot be undermined. However, this should not excuse its deficiencies in addressing a burgeoning population of environmental refugees.
The draft of the Paris Agreement discussed before COP 21 provided for a Climate Change Displacement Coordination Facility. This facility was intended to target organised migration and planned relocation of displaced persons, securing emergency relief, and arranging compensation for those displaced — actions more meaningful than those of the task force in the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, this coordination facility did not make it to the final text of the agreement, but it may be worthwhile to reconsider its establishment.
While such a coordination facility can provide short-term support to relocate migrants and rehabilitate them in safer regions, a permanent solution requires an international treaty framework that recognises ‘environmental refugees’ and the obligations of nation states in accommodating them within their territories. We are already witnessing a world that is reactionary towards political refugees. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are two events that testify to the underlying paranoia towards immigrants. Ignoring environmental refugees or their status under international law keeps them in legal limbo and endangers their survival.
This scenario can be averted by either expanding the ambit of the existing UN Refugee Convention to include climate migration, or by creating an independent treaty framework addressing the challenges of climate change-induced migration comprehensively. It is also pertinent to mention that while India, the U.S., and China have all ratified the Paris Agreement, there is little discussion on steps to be taken by the three largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The absence of such discourse is ironic given that the three countries are predicted to suffer tremendously from climate change-induced migration, resulting in large-scale displacement of their own populations. Therefore, it should be in their collective interest to lead efforts on finding an international resolution to this problem before the ensuing harm becomes irreparable.
Ameen Jauhar is a Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi. Views are personal.