Climate Change and Forced Migration: A Gap in Protection


Many people have already been evacuated from their homes, temporarily housed in camps elsewhere in the Maldives. However, eventually the Maldives may become completely submerged and inhospitable. If the Maldives become a casualty of climate change, as has been predicted, people will be forced to flee from the islands altogether, potentially becoming stateless.

Guest blog by Taylor Ackerman

The barely-above-sea-level, coral-dependent Maldives are sinking into the Indian Ocean. The apocalyptic fate is due to climate-change induced temperature increases, which have resulted in rising sea levels and dying coral reefs. In response, the state has built artificial islands—to accommodate the rising sea levels that may render previous places of residence inhabitable—and The Great Male Sea Wall—to protect Male from imposing storms. Many people have already been evacuated from their homes, temporarily housed in camps elsewhere in the Maldives. However, eventually the Maldives may become completely submerged and inhospitable. If the Maldives become a casualty of climate change, as has been predicted, people will be forced to flee from the islands altogether, potentially becoming stateless. They will have to seek protection elsewhere.

Inhabitants of the Maldives are not alone in their dilemma; millions will be displaced across the globe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted rising sea levels along with increased frequency and severity of natural disasters and storms, which will subsequently increase human displacement and environmental migration.  The IPCC has also emphasized future water stress as a result of climate change. Forms of adaptation, migration and displacement have been linked to environmental degradation and natural disasters.  As environmental degradation and natural disasters increase with climate change, so do projections for future forced migration due to these factors.  According to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there were 20 million forced migrants due to climate-related natural disasters in 2008. A 2008 working paper by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) notes that predictions range from 25 million to 1 billion predicted climate related forced migrants in the future.

Despite the large and growing population, a normative gap has yet to give them clear nominal or legal categorization. Referred to as ‘’environmental refugees” and “climate refugees” by some, or “climate migrants” by others, there is a debate over what to call individuals who are forced migrants as a result of environment degradation and natural disasters. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) defined “environmental refugee(s)” in a 1985 publication as “…people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of life.”  However the UNHCR rejects the inclusion of the word “refugee” in any term to categorize this group; they advocate the term “Environment Displaced Persons” (EDPs). The International Organization for Migration (IOM), has used the term “environmental migrants” to refer to “persons or a group of persons who for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently and who move either within their country or abroad.” Yet the organizations only offer vague definitions and terms, not recognizable legal statuses, and there is still no term or definition which has obtained international acceptance. It is the by-product of the forced-migration framework that gives little protection to this population.  This absence of clarity and legal status is representative of the international community’s lack of address for the protection of this population. In one of its working papers, the IASC noted that major agreements to address climate change such as the Kyoto Protocol and UNFCCC have failed to include provisions that protect individuals affected by climate change.

Protection for Internal Displacement and Statelessness

The environment is showing its revenge on Lanboashan, China, where worsening, polluted sandstorms from desertification attack visibility, destroy the fields, plummet the population into poverty and kill. Individuals have already fled, and as a massive sand dune slowly approaches the city, the clock is ticking before Lanboashan is entirely engulfed. As is the case for most climate-related migrants, the displacees from Lanboashan find refuge within their own state, in nearby Beijing.

The majority of climate-related migration takes place within the state. Fortunately, “internal protection” and the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) framework, such as the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (GPID), and the 2009 African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, can be developed to protect individuals displaced within their state of origin due to climate change. The GPID provides recognition of IDPs for reasons including natural disasters, as seen in the GPID’s Introduction.

“For the purposes of these Principles, internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.”

It is notable that the GPID is not legally binding, although the principles are representative of existing human rights law. Additionally, while the GPID is equipped for migration due to natural disasters, it does not provide protections and strategies for slow-onset environmental degradations. However, this human rights based approach ought to apply to all individuals including forced migrants fleeing slow-onset environmental degradation. Another protection for IDPs fleeing natural disaster-stricken areas is the IASC 2006 Operational Guidelines on Natural Disasters.  It too is not legally binding, nor does it protect forced migrants due to slow-onset environmental degradation. It should also be considered that the UNHCR works for the protection and promotion of many IDP’s, including those who have been displaced for climate-related reasons, but climate-related migration is not a part of their mandate, nor do they have sufficient resources for the task. While a framework is being built to protect IDP’s, issues of state sovereignty, a lack of legal obligations, minimal resources and an absence of safeguards for migration induced by slow-onset environmental degradation have resulted in a weak foundation for climate-related forced migrants .

If a state does disappear due to climate change, as could happen to the Maldives or other small island-states, its previous citizenry could become stateless. International law offers legal protections to people who don’t have any protection from a state. Consequently, as stateless individuals they will be under the protections of the 1954 Convention relating to Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Interstate Migration: The Giant Gap

However, not all forced migrants who flee due to climate-related causes will remain within their state of origin or become stateless. Some are forced to migrate across borders. They do not have access to protection given to climate migrants who remain within state borders, nor do they typically receive the protection and rights granted to refugees who migrate to escape conflict or persecution. They fall into a gap. In Article one of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees a “refugee is defined as someone who:

“As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Although some may be able to fall under the definition of a “refugee” given by the 1951 Convention and its subsequent 1967 Protocol, which expands the definition to those in conflict and negates the temporal limits, it is not applicable for others in the population. As a result, climate-related forced migrants often don’t have access to the rights and protections bestowed on “refugees” through the Convention and its Protocol. While efforts have been made to expand the definition of “refugee” to include forced migrants who flee for climate-related reasons through an additional protocol to the Convention, no significant progress has been made since 2006 when the Protocol on Environment Refugees:  Recognition of Environmental Refugees in the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees was drafted in the Maldives. The draft protocol’s contents were neither revealed nor formally accepted. However, the 1969 OAU Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees are both significant regional agreements that broaden the definition of “refugee”. The expansion in these regional treaties is broad enough that it could include climate displacees, but that was not its original intention.

“The term ‘refugee’ shall also apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.” –OAU Convention, 1969

“Hence the definition or concept of a refugee to be recommended for use in the region is one which, in addition to containing the elements of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, includes among refugees persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”- Cartagena Declaration, 1984

The open-ended wording of “events seriously disturbing public order” and “other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order” can easily encompass climate-change related natural disasters such as hurricanes, but slow-onset environmental degradation such as desertification may not be perceived as “seriously disturbing public order”. An additional concern with the use of these documents as a source of protection is that they are limited in scope to their region. They are not universally applicable nor internationally accepted. The OAU Convention’s legal scope is limited to the OAU member states that ratified the convention, and the Cartagena declaration is not legally binding. Human rights law has been used as a source of protection for this population, and many scholars have advocated human-rights based approach in adapting to their needs. Indeed, human rights need to be protected for all individuals, particularly those most vulnerable such as forced migrants. Yet to best ensure the rights of forced migrants fleeing natural disasters or environmental degradation, a new protective framework needs to be built or the existing framework needs to be expanded.