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Protection of climate refugees requires legal definition

  • COP28 dismisses climate migration
  • Legal status for climate refugees debated
  • Call for comprehensive legal frameworks

Amidst the panels and meeting rooms of the United Nations Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai the previous year, the phrases “climate migrants” and “climate refugees” reverberated significantly. Prominent United Nations officials, external stakeholders, academicians, and activists contending with climate change’s repercussions enthusiastically employed these designations. 

Throughout a panel discussion, I emphasized that these terms lack legal significance and questioned whether climate-induced displacement victims require specific legal protections. The panelists abruptly terminated my query, much to the audience’s surprise. 

Immediately, I recalled the numerous individuals whom I was aware of as being displaced as a result of climate change:

  • The Ecuadoran refugees who sought refuge in New York after being displaced from their native land by environmental unrest.
  • The women in the Sundarban islands of West Bengal could not relocate in the face of climate-induced catastrophes.
  • Many of my Brooklyn neighbors have endured repeated home destruction due to heavy rainfall.
Without any form of international legal protection, none of them can be guaranteed a dignified existence. 

Regrettably, the indifferent reaction witnessed at COP28 indicates a more extensive trend of refusal. Legally designating “climate refugees” has been the subject of intense international debate on numerous fronts. According to multiple detractors, migration attribution to climate change alone oversimplifies a complex web of factors influencing human mobility. They contend that the terms above downplay the significance of social conditions, human and institutional reactions, and environmental stressors that escalate into crises. 

As a result of this intricacy, differentiation between climate refugees and economic migrants becomes unattainable. Contrary to initial appearances, this argument continues to endure despite projections that 1.2 billion people (PDF) could be displaced by climate-change-related hazards by 2050. 

Following the conclusion of COP28, a recurring theme entered my thoughts: “With UN initiatives such as the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, which pledges (PDF) signatories to establish “conducive political, economic, social, and environmental conditions for people to lead peaceful, productive, and sustainable lives within their own country and to realize their aspirations, no legal changes are necessary.” 

Rethinking Migration in Climate Crisis

The compact’s second objective underscores the importance of unified strategies in addressing migration difficulties caused by abrupt and gradual natural disasters. It urges the incorporation of displacement issues into a plan for disaster preparedness. 

We want to take a momentary halt. Although these policies demonstrate readiness, they need to be more adequate in providing substantial legal acknowledgment and safeguards for individuals and groups confronted with climate crises and the necessity to relocate, such as the groups and individuals I previously cited. 

The lack of a well-defined legal framework presents obstacles for individuals attempting to obtain migration status due to the effects of climate change. 

Environmentally driven calls for establishing international legal frameworks to address migration requirements have been compared to unlocking Pandora’s box. Some proponents argue that this may pose a challenge to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which rigidly defines the phrase “refugee” as “fear of persecution on account of political opinion, race, religion, nationality, or membership in a specific social group.” 

They express concerns that a disruption involving the protection of climate and environmental movements could further weaken our precarious international obligations to safeguard the rights of all refugees. They caution that this opening might eclipse the circumstances of those fleeing persecution and conflicts. 

Strategizing for Climate Refugees’ Rights

I hold profound sympathy for this concern. This critique warrants meticulous deliberation. However, this is the crux: The imperative to confront humanitarian crises caused by climate change should be supported by the intricacies of diplomatic relations and apprehension regarding possible repercussions. 

Undoubtedly, the sufferings of any persecution and the need for refuge from hostilities necessitate an urgent response. On the contrary, these intricacies should clarify the critical nature of reassessing international agreements. 

Reviewing international agreements about the realities of climate change would be the same as any other agreement. Consider the inaugural legally binding contract, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. By its objectives to “prevent perilous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” 154 countries ratified this treaty. 

Although the final result could have been better, it has set us on the path to developing the Paris Agreement in 2015 and discovering ways to advance collectively in the fight against climate change. 

Likewise, establishing legally binding conventions concerning climate refugees may not be a topic of discussion today or tomorrow. We can begin to consider or reconsider them at this moment. 

Presently, it is imperative to devise a rational and environmentally sound strategy for safeguarding refugee statuses while protecting vulnerable populations afflicted by the consequences of climate change and environmental catastrophes. This necessitates a collaborative endeavor that brings together individuals impacted by climate change firsthand, scholars, activists, international organizations, and government representatives. The objective is to reassess the legal and conceptual ramifications of developing an entirely new strategy. 

Human Rights at Climate Frontlines

Adopting an awareness of the intricate complexities posed by slow-onset climate change may facilitate the formulation of a range of approaches that interweave environmental solutions, refugee protection, and migration management for those who remain and return. Our primary objective should be to avert the distressing situation of people being forcibly displaced from their residences while safeguarding the human rights of individuals who are compelled to depart or are already replaced. 

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These approaches are consistent with prior accords; however, they require us to collaboratively reconsider and confront the changing demands and varied susceptibilities of both the human race and the environment. 

Enforcing claims at all levels of governance and ensuring access to sustainable environmental justice necessitates implementing human rights-based approaches and explicit legal frameworks. Fear should not dictate our choices. Maintaining human rights should serve as our governing principle as we navigate this complex political and climate environment. 

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