Climate Migration: Deficiencies in Current International Policies

According to the International Organization for Migration, climate migrants are people who due to sudden or gradual changes in the environment, which have a negative effect on their living conditions, are forced to abandon their homes, temporarily or permanently, and move to other parts of their own country or outside it.[1] These environmental changes are experienced both directly (through damage to homes, infrastructure, and livelihood assets) and indirectly (through disruptions to food and urban systems), although their frequency and impacts vary regionally.[2] Countries with a combination of low adaptive capacities, vulnerable geographies and fragile ecosystems will not only face the issue of combatting climate change, but also how to protect the human rights of their citizens.[3] Many of these countries have populations that are extremely vulnerable to the climate crisis because their citizens do not have the resources or capacity to leave their homes.[4] In addition, States have shown an unwillingness to adjust their harsh migration policies or invest in foreign aid programs geared towards climate migration and adaptation.  This raises issues of how to implement migration policies and protect vulnerable populations on an international scale.

Climate migrants are often referred to as “climate refugees”. However, neither the Refugee Convention, nor any other international treaty specifically addresses displacement linked to the impacts of climate change.[5] Because of this, climate refugees face the issue of not legally being considered refugees. ‘Refugee’ is a legal term which has a very specific meaning centering on a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Art. 1, 1951 Refugee Convention).[6] According to this definition, people leaving their countries for reasons related to climate stressors may fall out of the scope of the Refugee Convention’s notion of persecution because the Convention does not recognize the environment as a persecuting agent.[7]Additionally, individuals displaced by climate change will have a hard time demonstrating that they meet the ‘well-founded fear’ standard under the Refugee Convention.[8]

Despite the shortcomings of the Refugee Convention, current protections may be found in human rights law. In Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand, the UN Human Rights Committee’s made its first ruling on a complaint by an individual seeking asylum from climate change.[9] The Committee found that climate-induced displaced persons can’t be sent back to their home countries where their right to life is threatened because of the effects of climate change.[10] The Committee found that “without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights under Articles 6 or 7 of the Covenant, thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states. Furthermore, given that the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under water is such an extreme risk, the conditions of life in such a country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity before the risk is realized.”[11] From this ruling, the Committee created a positive obligation for states to take measures to prevent displacement and to relocate those adversely affected by climate change and related disasters. The decision received support from human rights and refugee rights advocates as a “ground-breaking” ruling that creates a possibility for claims for individuals whose life is threatened due to climate stressors.[12]

In the last several decades, five proposals to define and assist environmentally displaced people gained particular attention on an international level: 1) extending the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; 2) adding a protocol on climate refugees to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); 3) adopting a new legal framework; 4) promoting the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement; and 5) using temporary protection mechanisms.[13] However, states have met these proposed policies with a “wait and see” attitude, opting to implement short-sighted and ineffectual migration policies.[14] The shortcomings of a lack of international policy are currently apparent and perpetuate the growing humanitarian crisis. For example, as refugees stream out of the Middle East and North Africa into Europe and from Central America into the United States, anti-immigrant backlash has led to the deportation and displacement of thousands of climate migrants, leaving these individuals with no choice but to return to their uninhabitable homes.[15]

In the coming years, climate migration will only become more likely as the planet warms and people seek a more hospitable home. At the end of 2020, around 7 million people in 104 countries and territories were living in displacement as a result of disasters that happened not only in 2020, but also in previous years.[16] Unless binding action is implemented and accepted on an international level, high greenhouse gas emissions, inadequate progress toward sustainable development, and a lack of cooperation in migration policy will lead to multifold increases in climate related migration and displacement in all regions.[17]

[1] The Tragedy of Migrations Due to Climate Change, Sustainability For All, https://www.activesustainability.com/climate-change/the-tragedy-of-migrations-due-to-climate-change/?_adin=02021864894 (last visited Jan. 31, 2022).

[2] Robert McLeman, How Will International Migration Policy and Sustainable Development Affect Future Clime-Related Migration?, Migration Policy Institute, 1,4 (2020), https://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/publications/tcm-climate-migration-mcleman_final.pdf.

[3] Bonn, 5 Facts on Climate Migrants, United Nations University (Nov. 26, 2015), https://ehs.unu.edu/news/news/5-facts-on-climate-migrants.html.

[4] Id.

[5] Spyridoula Katsoni & Jan-Phillip Graf, The Future of “Climate Refugees” in International Law, Vöelkerrechtsblog (May 6, 2021), https://voelkerrechtsblog.org/the-future-of-climate-refugees-in-international-law/.

[6] Bonn, supra note 3.

[7] Id.

[8] Katsoni, supra note 5.

[9] Press Release, Historic UN Human Rights case opens door to climate change asylum claims (Jan. 21, 2020) https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25482.

[10] Id.

[11] Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand (advanced unedited version), CCPR/C/127/D/2728/2016, UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), 7 January 2020, ¶9.11, available at: https://www.refworld.org/cases,HRC,5e26f7134.html.

[12] Press Release, supra note 9.

[13] Chiara Scissa, Recognition and Protections of Environmental Migrants in International Law, E-International Relations (June 24, 2021) https://www.e-ir.info/2021/06/24/recognition-and-protection-of-environmental-migrants-in-international-law/.

[14] Id.

[15] Abrahm Lustgarten, The Great Climate Migration, N.Y. Times (July 23, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/23/magazine/climate-migration.html.

[16] Environmental Migration, Migration Data Portal (last updated Oct. 26, 2021), https://www.migrationdataportal.org/themes/environmental_migration_and_statistics#:~:text=define%20a%20refugee.-,Recent%20trends,IDMC%2C%202021).

[17] McLeman,,supra note 2.