A question of rights, not terminology: ‘refugees’, ‘migrants’ or ‘displaced by climate’?

Thu, 26/09/2019 - 10:26


Climate refuge. The climate is one of the most important causes of displaced populations, yet it is not recognised as a cause when it comes to requesting international protection.

Climate change is an undeniable threat. But are we aware of exactly what that threat is or whether it affects everyone the same way? Rainfall and the variation in temperature are already causing problems for our European habits in some ways, something we’ve seen recently, and which can be terrible.

Yet in many other places around the world the effects are already so severe that according to the World Bank, there may be as many as 120 million people forcibly displaced because of the climate by 2050. That means just counting people in Asia, Africa and Latin America moving within an area without crossing any borders, but we know that migration doesn’t stop at borders.

According to the World Bank, the figure of 120 million people would be a worst-case scenario in a study it has conducted, which outlines three possible scenarios. For its part, the International Migration Organisation (OIM) talks about 200 million.  Either way, the situation can only be improved if globally networked action is taken to drastically cut greenhouse-gas emissions. That doesn’t appear to be on the agenda of the world’s major powers though, despite their current declarations affirming that it is.

Reality beyond figures

Miguel Pajares, chair of the Catalan Refugee Aid Commission (CCAR) and shortly to publish a book on this subject, confirms the most pessimistic trend : “Both sets of figures are very worrying as these displacements have been occurring for years, but only now people are talking them more. Since 2005 there have been between 17 and 20 million people forcibly displaced every year by hurricanes, rain and other sudden phenomena. That’s more than the 9 to 10 million people forcibly displaced by armed conflicts”. Pajares continues: “The pattern could become much worse if the brakes are not put on the origin of these sudden natural disasters or others that could occur in the mid or long term, such as desertification and the rise in the sea level. For instance, many more habitats could progressively disappear, such as the Sahel, in Africa.

‘Climate refuge’

People obliged to leave their home and their land because the area has been razed to the ground by a natural disaster, or because they haven’t got the means of subsistence that they had before, what are they? What term describes them?

The UNHCR doesn’t recognise the term climate refuge, because it is not set out in international law. It’s true that among the reasons described in the Geneva Convention of 1951, flight due to climate conditions does not feature as a cause for requesting international protection. The correct term, according to this body, would be displaced person, as the vast majority of displacements are actually internal, with no borders being crossed.

Internal displacements get counted, but flows of people don’t stop at borders

What this position doesn’t take into account is that firstly, in the case of natural disasters these are aggressive phenomena, almost as much as armed conflicts, and secondly, that flows of people don’t stop at borders, even though they’re difficult to quantify.

Miguel Pajares explains: “Displacements can occur at different stages. A person who has lost their rural habitat in Central America and has had to emigrate to the city because of that may end up leaving the country because of the maras. That latter step will be recorded as ‘refuge’, when really the initial movement was due to desertification. In the same way, climate migrants from the Sahel go to coastal areas and from there they can end up at our borders. It’s difficult here to talk about ‘climate refuge’ though, because it’s not a reason for requesting asylum and it doesn’t represent any legal benefit for migrants. Nobody uses it to explain their story. It’s only when we really go into people’s experience and the sequence of their migration that we can consider some as climate refugees”.

How to protect people’s rights, whether we say ‘refugees’ or ‘migrants’

According to the environmental law researcher Susana Borràs, the really important question is how we protect these people’s rights. Her essay ‘Environmental migration: between abandonment, refuge and international protection’, published in the magazine Papeles, by the FUHEM foundation, sets out proposals from different entities and bodies, such as one by Iniciativa Nansen seeking to establish an agreement between states on principles and thresholds relating to the protection of displaced people.

“Environmental changes, the origin of forced movement, can affect the right to life, an adequate diet, not going hungry, a decent home…”

There’s also the idea of establishing a specific new international agreement on migration caused by climate change or adding a protocol to the UN framework convention on climate change. Borràs is sceptical about the three proposals, considering they depend on the will of states when it comes to ratifying agreed measures and applying them.

The study by Borràs also highlights that although the refugee statute doesn’t recognise the right to asylum of people fleeing sudden or latent natural disasters, respect for human rights should guarantee their protection: “Environmental changes, the origin of forced movement, can affect the right to life, an adequate diet, not going hungry, a decent home.”

Because of this, it should actually apply to everyone, nationals and foreigners alike. Yet, as many civil entities have been denouncing for years, right now the immigration policy in the Spanish state doesn’t guarantee basic rights.

Thanks to the global mobilisation for the climate strike, driven by the young people’s movement Fridays For Future, many people are becoming aware that the emergency is upon us, that climate change affects everyone. Likewise, that we may be at the start of a new era where the right to the environment is recognised, and as a result the right to environmental refuge, and that the model of industrial and energy growth which constantly drives people from the habitats should be questioned.


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