2nd Oct 2023


Why creating a new legal class of 'climate refugees' is a bad idea

  • Recent data shows that out of the 344 million people displaced by extreme weather conditions and natural disasters between 2008 and 2021, only two percent did not return to the subregion or place from which they were displaced (Photo:
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It is imperative that the international community focus on tempering the negative consequences of climate change and developing adaption measures, so that people in the affected areas do not find themselves displaced from their homes and may build their livelihoods.

Calls for developed countries to prepare for the arrival of 'climate refugees' and to expand the UN Refugee Convention accordingly are uninformed and, worse, counter-productive.

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As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth assessment report in March 2023, global attention has turned, even more strongly than before, to the effects of climate change on humanity. The possibility of mass migration towards the so-called Global North is increasingly being mentioned as a consequence of drought, floods and natural degradation stemming from climate change.

However, a quick check of the IPCC report reveals what climate scientists have been saying for a while now. We do not know how climate change is going to affect mobility. The IPCC report itself does mention forced migration as a possible consequence of climate change, but it makes no attempt to quantify the effects of global warming on cross-border movements, be it at present or in the future.

A study recently produced for the Swedish government puts the calamitous scenarios for mass climate migration in a scientific context.

Analysing data produced by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the study shows that out of the 344 million people displaced by extreme weather conditions and natural disasters between 2008 and 2021, only two percent did not return to the subregion or place from which they were displaced.

As for future scenarios of climate migration, the scientific community has, so far, not identified any causal pattern between climate change, conflict and migration.

In contrast, existing scenarios show that climate change is likely to result in a decline of emigration of people with the lowest levels of income, because a lack of resources causes immobility.

As Adam Reuben and I argue in a recent short paper, creating new legal grounds for 'climate refugees' would be as ill-advised as beginning preparations for mass population movements due to the degradation of the environment. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees does not include changes in the climate as a grounds of persecution of individuals.

Why shouldn't the refugee convention be revisited? First, any attempt to renegotiate this international document is bound to end up in failure. The discussions preceding the Global Compact for Migration that was adopted five years ago clearly highlighted the unwillingness by states to extend their legal obligations.

With 146 state parties to the Refugee Convention and 147 parties to the accompanying protocol, the world can only end up with a document that is less satisfactory than the one we currently have.

Second, and perhaps even more important, the term 'climate refugee' would disrupt the legal status quo, degrading the international consensus on what constitutes asylum.

The existing refugee protection regime is intended for people who are unlikely to return to their homes or who can do so only in the long run. Those who advocate a widening of the legal definition of a refugee ignore the fact the vast majority of climate-driven migrants are displaced internally within their countries. International protection is not applicable to these situations.

Also, some argue that climate change is man-made and therefore, by law, the polluter becomes the persecutor. It is indeed an established fact that developed countries in the Global North have been by far the most important polluters.

What the proponents of this argument forget though is that an expansion of the convention to take climate change into account would ask the persecuted to seek refugee with the persecutors, thus wreaking havoc with the international refugee regime. The relevant international organisations, such as the International Organization for Migration, share this scepticism with regard to codifying in a legal principle the complexity of human mobility and climate change.

Instead of starting preparations for climate-induced cross-border population movements, governments need to engage in building resilience against environmental shocks and the progressive degradation of the environment, as well as, of course, reduce the speed of global warming.

Extending the refugee convention or creating a climate-specific legal status would only be a disservice to those living in the affected areas.

Author bio

Vit Novotny is the senior research officer for migration at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, the official think-tank of the European People's Party.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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