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Who Is A Climate Refugee?

In 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released their Global Trends report. It revealed that one in 97 people were forcefully displaced from their homes due to causes like conflict and war. Another reason? Climate change. Extreme weather events and more long-term issues like drought and sea-level rise worsen existing threats and become woven in the tapestry of factors that force displacement. In some circles, people caught in the crossfire of environmental issues are known as “climate refugees.” Is this an accurate term? And how big of a role does climate change actually play in displacement?

Why “climate refugee” is a controversial term

The 2020 UNHCR report gave credence to the concept of climate refugees and what challenges they’re facing, but it’s worth knowing that the term “climate refugee” is not universally recognized. Why? Who could disagree with the reality that climate change is a problem? The reason “climate refugee” lacks an international definition is not because the UN and other international bodies consider climate irrelevant. Instead, it’s because the term simplifies a complex issue where climate is more often than not just one factor as opposed to the main cause. Dr. Nithya Natarajan, a King’s College lecturer in international development, believes most “climate refugees” are already facing major challenges and climate was just the last straw. Calling people “climate refugees” whitewashes the bigger drivers.

The legal definition for “refugee” also specifies that the person must cross international borders. When climate is the main cause for displacement, it often forces people to move around within their country and not across borders. That doesn’t mean climate never causes international displacement, but according to experts, it’s more common for people to not move far. The UNHCR’s report may not have changed the legal definition of “refugee,” but it made it clear that climate should be part of the conversation about displacement. In the future, “climate refugee” might become a legally recognized term, but for now, it’s more of a buzzy term than anything official.

Examples of climate displacement

In 2018, the World Bank released a report focusing on three regions: Latin America, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. If action isn’t taken, over 143 million people will need to leave by 2050. The Pacific Islands are also in dire straits. The sea level is rising almost ½ inch every year, leaving 8 islands already underwater. Unfortunately, because the islands are home to a fairly small population, there hasn’t been much international action despite all the press coverage. In 2015, Ioane Tetiota was deported from New Zealand back to Kiribati, which he had fled with his family because of climate-related issues like limited drinking water. His visa expired in 2010, so he applied for refugee status. It was denied. He then took the case to the UN Human Rights Committee, saying that New Zealand had violated his right to life by deporting him. While the Committee did not find the deportation unlawful, it made the ground-breaking statement that governments must take into account human rights violations caused by climate when they’re considering deporting asylum seekers.

Things are looking rough for South Asia, too. Extreme weather events like cyclones, rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and rivers flooded by melting glaciers are all major concerns. As the area sees increased urbanization and rapid economic growth, energy demand is expected to grow 66% by 2040. 800 million people will face worsening living conditions and could be forced to move. In Bangladesh alone, one in 7 might be displaced by 2050. This is because a big chunk of the population lives on the coast, which sees the most significant effects of a rising sea level, like salinization. 33 million could face health problems because of salt-contaminated drinking water. Crops are also damaged by salinization.

How to address climate displacement

What can be done for people displaced by climate if they aren’t legally considered refugees? Most are facing challenges other than climate that can get them refugee status. Climate is starting to get recognized more, however, so the international community must step up. The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals address migration and climate change in SDG 13. Countries sign on to targets like strengthening resilience to climate-related dangers; integrating climate change measures into national strategies and policies; and improving education and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation and early warnings.

Reaching these targets is not easy. It requires investment in infrastructure, emergency aid, and job security. Nations must pay attention to longer-term issues like rising sea levels as well as natural disasters like hurricanes and cyclones. Risk reduction, data monitoring, and forecast models also play an essential part in mitigating climate change. When it comes to displacement and people seeking asylum, climate must be considered. Even if the formal definition of “refugee” doesn’t change, new terms must be created and recognized. Climate displacement must be taken seriously.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.