Climate Change Refugees: The Disregarded Category of Forced Migrants


map_climatechangeWritten by Bárbara Matias, currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. 

Global leaders recently joined efforts to combat climate change, culminating in the historic 2015 Paris Agreement which classified climate change as “an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries”1. Climate change is indeed a real global concern and, though the social, economic and political implications are heavily debated, it has unquestionably produced a barely-mediatized International Human Right Law problem: Climate Change Refugees.

Also labelled climate-induced displacement, Climate Change Refugees refers to people forced to flee by reason of natural or environmental disasters, be it slow onset or urgent necessity. It ranges from voluntary migration linked to prospects of higher standards of living given deteriorating environmental conditions, to forced displacement linked to survival migration. Yet the human rights of this category of fleers aren’t protected by the lacking international legal framework for refugees and those in need. It is a topic warranting of awareness, debate and a spotlight. This short note seeks to shed some light on a sometimes disregarded forced displacement issue amid the vast field of immigration and current refugee crisis.

According to the International Organization for Migration, “future forecasts of climate change migrants vary from 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate”2. Climate change stricken persons face serious threats to food security and public health, accelerated degradation of land and sea-level rise – several scholars signaled that they “will be defined less by displacement and more by resources that are lost or redistributed. Whether displaced or not, the primary resources that will be at risk have a powerful impact on mental well-being and stability of identity and belonging”3. Nonetheless, the limited protection offered fails to address these issues. Despite being the only legally binding international document on it, the 1951 United Nations Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees operate under selective right to asylum. Refugees – defined as “A person who, owing to a 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 (…) of the protection of that country”4 – hold a privileged status under International Human Right Law, unlike other survival migrants. This narrow profile definition supposes that the state-citizen bond is severed given an involuntary cross-border flight – which discards claims of International Displaced Persons and environmental migrants, despite them gravely justifying international protection of basic human rights. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopts the conservative view that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”5, once more not fully protecting the “the right to life, liberty and security of person”6 of so many in need.

A concrete example is the disappearing islands in the Pacific. Entire nations are faced with the prospect of voluntarily fleeing now due to deficient living conditions and inevitable displacement, or become absolutely forced migrants in need of asylum when disaster hits. Again, the legal framework does not protect their plight with an international provision of asylum, which is why officials of the respective countries have denounced how they are “gravely concerned over the lack of effective international response to climate change”7. Local governments have struggled to curtail the effects of climate change, yet residents are left at mercy of the environment.

Source: The Washington Post (8), originally from: Parag Khanna, “Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization.”

Climate change and climate change refugees are not only a real problem, but a growing problem. In a globalized world operating under an international law system that assures the right to freedom of movement as well as the right to asylum, it is an issue that cannot be discarded as secondary amid the current refugee crisis. The plight of climate change refugees, be it slow onset or urgent, deserves an institutional spotlight. In this short note I took on an International Human Right Law lens paired with the right to asylum in order to consider how international refugee law falls short in protecting climate-induced migrants. Instead of the ad hoc response to refugee emergencies, a new climate-oriented approach to displacement is needed to remedy protection gaps in the human rights of all the displaced categories.

1United Nations, “Adoption of the Paris Agreement”, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9 (12 Decemeber 2015), pg. 1

2 International Organization on Migration, “Migration and Climate Change”, online via:

3 Hollifield, M., Thompson Fullilove, M., Hobfoll, S. E., “Chapter 8: Climate Change Refugees” in Climate Change and Human Well-Being (Inka Weissbecker edition, 2011)

4 United Nations, Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, 1967, Article 1

5 United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, Article 14

6 Ibid, Article 3

7 The Guardian, “Pacific nations beg for help for islanders when ‘calamity’ of climate change hits”, 13/October/2015, online via: help-for-islanders-when-calamity-of-climate-change-hits

8 The Washington Post, “Six Maps that will make you rethink the world”, 29/April/2016, online via:




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