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2020 | OriginalPaper | Chapter

5. Defining the Category: Who Are “Climate Refugees”?

Author : Giovanni Sciaccaluga

Published in: International Law and the Protection of “Climate Refugees”

Publisher: Springer International Publishing



Generally, “climate refugees” can be considered as all individuals forced/induced to leave their houses due to global warming. Understood as such, the category is far too broad to be legally coherent. This uncertainty has contributed to the proliferation of (proto)legal classifications and definitions. Without the identification of a specific sub-category within the “climate refugeescauldron” that should be protected under international law, “climate refugees” becomes a hollow concept. In fact, just a minority of climate migrants leave their origin country in conditions of absolute need of international protection, whereas the majority is composed of “economicmigrants”. The focus here is on the aforementioned minority. While discussing existing definitions, this chapter adopts Atapattu’s notion of “forced climate migrants” and builds on it, understanding them as individuals forced to abandon their state because of the occurred impossibility there to enjoy fundamentalrights as a consequence of significant climate change-related environmental degradations.
For a recent analysis on the different approaches followed in the years to define so-called climate refugees, see Atapattu (2018). A New Category of Refugees? ‘Climate Refugees’ and a Gaping Hole in International Law. In Behrman & Kent (Eds.), ‘Climate Refugees’ Beyond the Legal Impasse? New York: Routledge, pp. 34 ff.
Ibid., p. 36.
In this sense, see Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement in the 21st Century (2011). Chairperson’s Summary. https://​www.​unhcr.​org/​4ea969729.​pdf. Accessed 12 January 2020, para. 21.
Please refer to Chapter 3
Kälin & Schrepfer (2012). Protecting People Crossing Borders in the Context of Climate Change: Normative Gaps and Possible Approaches. UNHCR Legal and Protection Research Series, PPLA/2012/01. https://​www.​unhcr.​org/​4f33f1729.​pdf. Accessed 12 December 2016. We here report only part of Kälin and Schrepfer’s categorization of environment-related migrations, by focusing only on those parts that are relevant to the present work. For seek on completeness, Kälin and Schrepfer’s categorization also highlights the cases in which a government declares a certain area to be at high risk and too dangerous to sustain human life due to environmental dangers. Consequently, the inhabitants of the area would be forced to evacuate and relocated to other places, with the prohibition of returning to their homes of origin. This type of case will affect a relatively small number of people, but could raise significant legal complexities; it is also strongly connected to the c.d. relocations induced by the construction of large infrastructure projects, such as dams, highways, power plants, etc. In such hypotheses, it is necessary to underline how the displacement of the persons involved would be, if only in theoretical line, exclusively internal; it remains, therefore, to understand how and how much international law can, if not through the adoption of guidelines and exhortative tools, be incisive in similar cases. Finally, the events likely to undermine the internal publicorder of a State, the cases of endemic violence and even of armed conflict that could be caused, at least indirectly, by an impoverishment of essential resources caused by climate change remain to be considered.
For further information on these contexts, see ex multis, the following study in environmental matters: Albert et al. (2016). Interactions Between Sea-Level Rise and Wave Exposure on Reef Island Dynamics in the Solomon Islands. Environmental Research Letters, 11. We report here the following and significant words: “We have documented five vegetated reef islands (1–5 ha in size) that have recently vanished […]. Shoreline recession at two sites has destroyed villages that have existed since at least 1935, leading to community relocations”.
Barnett & Webber (2010). Migration as Adaptation. In McAdam (Ed.), Climate Change and Displacement, Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford: Hart Publishing, pp. 42–43.
Truly speaking, a reference was made to the notion of “ecological refugees” already in 1948. See on this: Vogt (2011). Road to Survival. Cit. in Gemenne, How They Became the Human Face of Climate Change: Research and Policy Interactions in the Birth of the “Environmental Migration” Concept. In Piguet, Pécoud, de Guchtneire (Eds.), Migration and Climate Change (p. 227). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and UNESCO Publishing.
See as a matter of example, Hillary (Ed.) (2000). Ecology 2000: The Changing Face ofEarth, Joseph. New York: Beaufort Books, p. 214. See also Timberlake (1983). Environmental Wars andEnvironmental Refugees: ThePoliticalBackground to the CartagenaConvention. London: Earthscan. For an in-depth analysis on the evolution of the terminology used regarding the category of “climate refugees”, see Terminski (2012). Toward Recognition and Protection of Forced Environmental Migrants in the PublicInternational Law. Refugee or IDPsUmbrella? https://​papers.​ssrn.​com/​sol3/​papers.​cfm?​abstract_​id=​2029796. Accessed 14 September 2019.
Cf. Westing (1992). Environmental Refugees: A Growing Category of Displaced Persons. Environmental Conservation, 19, pp. 201 ff. See also Myers (1993). Environmental Refugees in a Globally Warmed World. Bioscience, 43, pp. 752 ff. Shurke & Visentin (1992). The Environmental Refugee: A New Approach, Ecodecision. Canada’s Periodical on Refugees, 1, p. 1 ff. Keane (2004). The Environmental Causes and Consequences of Migration: A Search for the Meaning of ‘Environmental Refugees’. Geo. Int’l Law Review, 2, pp. 210 ff.
El-Hinnawi (1985). Environmental Refugees. Report. UNEP. https://​digitallibrary.​un.​org/​record/​121267. Accessed 12 February 2020. It is worth recalling that El-Hinnawi was not trying to raise any kind of legal, or even ethical, argument about extending refugee law to persons displaced for environmental reasons. Rather, he merely used the term “refugee” to highlight the potentially devastating impact of uncontrolled development and pollution. file:///C:/Users/ius3/Downloads/Environment_and_forced_migration_%20(1).pdf. Accessed 17 February 2020.
In Myers (2001). Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon of the 21st Century. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 357, p. 609.
van Wormer &. Beshorn (2011). Human Behavior and the Social Environment. Groups, Communities and Organizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 279.
Bates (2002). Environmental Refugees? Classifying Human Migrations Caused by Environmental Change. Population and Environment, 5, p. 466.
See in this sense Ogata (former United Nations Commissioner for Refugees) declaration released in Geneva in October 1992 during a meeting of the Swiss Peace Foundation: “Using the term ‘environmental refugee’ to refer to all people forced to leave their homes because of environmental change loses the distinctive need of refugees for protection. It blurs the respective responsibilities of national governments towards their citizens and of the international community towards those who are without protection. It also impedes a meaningful consideration of solutions and action on behalf of the different groups. Therefore, UNHCR believes the term ‘environmental refugee’ is a misnomer”. https://​www.​unhcr.​org/​admin/​hcspeeches/​3ae68fcc1c/​statement-mrs-sadako-ogata-united-nations-high-commissioner-refugees-luncheon.​html. Accessed 25 March 2019.
The former Kiribati President words on this better explains than any other the refusal to rely on the label “climate refugee”: “When you talk about refugees – climate refugees – you are putting the stigma on the victims, not the offenders […]. We do not want to lose our dignity. We are sacrificing much by being displaced, in any case. So we do not want to lose that, whatever dignity is left. So the last thing we want to be called is ‘refugee’. We are going to be given as a matter of right something that we deserve, because they have taken away what we have”, cit. McAdam (2012). Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 41.
As Mayer explains: “By implying that migration was forced and international, the term “refugee” was analytically misleading”. In Mayer (2018). Who Are “Climate Refugees”? Academic Engagement in the Post-truth Era. In Behrman & Kent (Eds.), ‘Climate Refugees’ Beyond the Legal Impasse? New York: Routledge, p. 93.
Quite surprisingly (and radically), for instance, Gemenne has recently pointed out that the category at stake, notwithstanding the legal incorrectness of using the term refugee, should still be labeled as that of “climate refugees”, since this choice recognizes in the best way possible “that these migrations are first and foremost the result of a persecution that we are inflicting to the most vulnerable”. See Gemenne (2017). The Refugees of the Anthropocene. In Mayer & Crépeau (Eds.), Research Handbook on Climate Change, Migration and the Law. Cheltenham: Elgar, p. 394.
IOM (2019). Environmentally Induced Population Displacements and Environmental Impacts Resulting from Mass Migration (p. 4). International Symposium, IOM. https://​publications.​iom.​int/​system/​files/​pdf/​environmentally_​induced.​pdf. Accessed 12 December 2019.
Falstron (2001). Stemming the Flow of Environmental Displacement: Creating a Convention to Protect Persons and Preserve the Environment. Colorado Journal of Environmental Law and Policy, 15, p. 1 ff.
Prieur et al. (2013). Draft Convention on the International Status of Environmentally Displaced Persons (third version). University of Limoges. https://​cidce.​org/​wp-content/​uploads/​2016/​08/​Draft-Convention-on-the-International-Status-on-environmentally-displaced-persons-third-version.​pdf. Accessed 12 January 2020.
A similar all-inclusive approach, albeit limited to internal displacement, is also followed by the Peninsula Principles on Climate Displacement, that define “climate displacement as movement of people within a State due to the effects of climate change, including sudden and slow-onset environmental events and processes, occurring either alone or in combination with other factors”. See Principle 2 of the Peninsula Principles on Climate Displacement within States, Displacement Solutions, 18 August 2013. http://​displacementsolu​tions.​org/​peninsula-principles/​. Accessed 12 February 2020.
Hens (2012). Environmentally Displaced People. Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, Area StudiesAfrica(Regional Sustainable Development Review)Vol. II. http://​web.​mnstate.​edu/​robertsb/​308/​environmentally%20​displaced%20​people.​pdf. Accessed 14 May 2019.
Opening Statement by McKinley, IOM General Director, in occasion of the Conference on Climate Change, Environmental Degradation and Migration: Addressing Vulnerabilities and Harnessing Opportunities. Geneva, 19 February 2008, p. 43. https://​publications.​iom.​int/​system/​files/​pdf/​hsn_​quadrilingual_​report.​pdf?​language=​en. Accessed. 15 February 2020.
The term Internally Displaced Person, as defined in the ‘Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’ (Principle No. 2), refers to “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”. See UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (1998). Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. ADM 1.1.PRL. 12.1, PR00/98/109.
See Kälin & Schrepfer (2012) (op. cit.), p. 29. See also Zetter (2010). Protecting People Displaced by Climate Change: Some Conceptual Challenges. In McAdam (Ed.) (op. cit.), pp. 140 ff.
Mayer (2012). “Environmental Refugees”?: A Critical Perspective on the Normative Discourse. Center for Sustainable Development Law. https://​papers.​ssrn.​com/​sol3/​papers.​cfm?​abstract_​id=​2111825. Accessed 14 January 2016, p. 4.
For the Americas, see the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, adopted by the Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama, held at Cartagena, Colombia from 19–22 November 1984, point 3: “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 publicorder”. For the African continent, see the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (“OAU Convention”), adopted on September the 10th 1969, entered into force on June the 20th 1974, article 1.2: “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”.
Atapattu (2016). Human Rights Approaches to Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities. New York: Routledge, p. 165.
An important intergovernmental initiative sponsored by the Swiss and Norwegian governments, which was attended by over one hundred States with the intention of discussing the issue of climate and environment-related migration and to provide political guidelines to follow. For further information, refer to the website www.​nanseninitiative​.​org.
As per protection, the Agenda refers to “any positive action, whether or not based on legal obligations, undertaken by States on behalf of disaster-displaced persons or persons at risk of being displaced that aim at obtaining full respect of the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and spirit of the applicable bodies of law, namely, human rightslaw, international humanitarian law and refugeelaw”. See The Nansen Initiative (2015). Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in Context of Disasters and Climate Change Volume I, para. 14. https://​nanseninitiative​.​org/​wp-content/​uploads/​2015/​02/​PROTECTION-AGENDA-VOLUME-1.​pdf. Accessed 19 March 2020.
UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (2009). UNISDR Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction. https://​www.​unisdr.​org/​files/​7817_​UNISDRTerminolog​yEnglish.​pdf. Accessed 15 May 2019.
Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in Context of Disasters and Climate Change Volume I, para. 16.
Interestingly, it has been possible to insert a section on loss and damage in the Paris Agreement only because it is accompanied by a provision in the Agreement’s Decision establishing that the interested article “does not involve or provide a basis for anyliabilityor compensation”. See para. 51 of Decision 1/CP.21 (2015), Adoption of the Paris Agreement.
Decision 1/CP.21, Adoption of the Paris Agreement (UN Doc. FCCC/CP/2015/10/Add.1), 2016, para. 39: “Also requests the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism to establish, according to its procedures and mandate, a task force to complement, draw upon the work of and involve, as appropriate, existing bodies and expert groups under the Convention including the Adaptation Committee and the Least Developed Countries Expert Group, as well as relevant organizations and expert bodies outside the Convention, to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”.
Please refer to Chapter 10.
In this regard, Mayer interestingly argues the following: “[…] what international, regional or domestic laws and institutions call ‘refugee’ is only the tip of the iceberg of migrants in dire need of international protection – and yet, even among those States which did ratify the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, many, most perhaps, are in patent breach of their obligation. The international climate regime appears more and more to conform to its depiction by James Hathaway in the 1990s as an attempt by sovereign States ‘to govern disruptions of regulated international migration in accordance with the interests of States’, rather than as a humanitarian project of sorts. The recognition of a relatively tiny population of refugees has made it more legitimate for States to repress many other force migrants on arbitrary bases”. Mayer (2017). Climate Change, Migration and the Law of State Responsibility. In Mayer & Crépeau (Eds.), Research Handbook on Climate Change, Migration and the Law. Cheltenham: Elgar, p. 239.
Mayer (2012) (op. cit.), pp. 5–6.
See in this sense van der Vliet (2018). “Climate Refugees”, a Legal Mapping Exercise. In Behrman & Kent (Eds.) (op. cit.), p. 23.
Shacknove (1985). Who Is a Refugee? Ethics, 95, p. 275.
Defining the Category: Who Are “Climate Refugees”?
Giovanni Sciaccaluga
Copyright Year
Springer International Publishing

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