In Love Environment

The Necessary Narrowing and Redefining of “Climate Refugee”

This is a post in response to friends who wanted to read an essay I had written for my “Global Problems in Interdisciplinary Perspective” class which my professor had submitted to the International Studies department. It’s a long read, but there are gaping holes in our current state and international apparatus that will seriously hinder how the world deals with the huge influx of expected flows of environmental refugees. The current approach is denial and delay, and without a strong recomittment to protecting the rights of displaced people, many will be left without help and protections that they are owed under international commitments.

In 1985, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) utilised Essam El-Hinnawi’s report, Environmental Refugees, thus immortalizing his definition of them: “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 their life” (Bates, p. 466). While this definition seems sufficient to both recognize the existence of environmental refugees and erect a rudimentary legal framework for their plight, in 34 years, no such recognition or framework has emerged (Murray, p. 89). At present the term environmental or climate refugee is merely a descriptor, not a recognition of obligation to protect. This is problematic, as estimates are that by 2050 some 200 million climate refuges will have fled their traditional habitat (Murray, p. 89). Commonly argued is that the definition needs refinement to best service policy formation, but newer definitions, like that of the UN’s International Organisation of Migration (IOM), remain strikingly similar to El-Hinnawi’s: “environmental migrants are [those] obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country of abroad [for environmental reasons]” (Cheshyk & Stolper, p. 40). Clearly, there has been little effort to refine the definition.

While protections for political refugees exist under the narrow terms of the 1951 United Nations Conventionrelating to the Status of Refugees (hereafter, the Convention), which were expanded afterwards to non-European political refugees in the 1967 Protocol (the Protocol), no such expansion of rights to climate refugees has occurred (Murray, p. 90). This lack of definition and legal protection is not, as some scholars suggest, due to an absence of climate data and its relation to mass social disruption. Nor is it the absence of available and binding international human rights law. Indeed, a base international agreement for the protection and health of all are firmly encapsulated within the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), its subsequent (nearly universally-ratified) Conventions of 1976 on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the plethora of other Conventions and Protocols that uphold common-sense commitments to child and maternal health, indigenous and women’s rights, and guarantee the life and well-being of all described.

This paper will address the most commonly-cited hindrance to legal recognition and subsequent policy creation – namely disagreements about the term: who is included and legitimacy of flight – but argues that the overarching ideological and economic shifts within the international liberal order within which climate refugees find themselves creates the main hindrance to their legal inclusion as refugees. This entails the shift away from the unified international liberalism of the 1940s to 1970s that accommodated the Convention (Ikenberry, p. 56, McMichaels, p. 55), towards a fractured version after the 1980s.This has resulted in first, a changing mandate for the UN’s refugee arm, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and second, a shift to a neoliberalist climate solution of adaptation(Papa, et al., pt. 2). In this context, this paper argues a solution will be twofold if climate refugees are to receive help at all: narrowed and restrictive conceptions of the term and bolstered support for the UNHCR.

A Matter of Terms

The main two issues in defining “climate refugee” are scope and related obligation. If international consensus on terminology is reached, those meeting the term’s requirements “trigger an international agreement on the part of signatory states to guarantee their protection” (Murray, p. 92). With current flows estimated at 50 million refugees and entire regions affected by climate change, which refugees are considered “legitimate” and who is actually responsible are genuine concerns (Biermann & Boas, p. 68). However, there are numerous factors that contribute to this “definition dilemma”: the multifactorial and hence multi-sectoral nature of the issue (humanitarian, security, political, and environmental aspects); the incompatibility of these various agencies and their respective mandates and policy (i.e., the eco-centric v. humanitarian or security-centric nature of agencies and/or countries) (Vlassopolous, p. 20).

Particularly wearying is the fixation of some scholars on data-collection regarding which environmental events constitute rights to protections (droughts, desertification, intensifying weather, landslides, etc.), how many people they affect (for how long, to what extent), or if climate refugees cause their own continual displacement by exacerbating ecological deterioration (Piguet, p. 76). Frequently cited in this regard is Richard Black, whose 2001 UNHCR paper Environmental Refugees: Myth or Reality? has been criticised for its assertion that because of the multi-causality of climate change migration – politics, war, geography, economics, etc. – it is impossible to actually say, due to unreliable methodology, that displacement occurs solely because of climate change (Black, pp. 3-5). In reality, blaming the lack of legal framework on having too vague a term is unfounded.

The Convention & Protocol define political refugees as those with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for [socio-political] reasons” and being “unable, or owing to such fear…unable or…unwilling to return to [their home country]” (Murray, p. 92): in spite of ample room for contestation over the subjectivity of “persecution”, states constructed and ratified legal frameworks speedily without waiting for endless streams of data. Yet, climate refugees have been waiting for consensus for 34 years amidst increasing evidence of their distress (Murray, p. 90). While data is necessary for climate change mitigation, humanitarian relief, and post-event development, whether or not a refugee will suffer drought for 5 or for 10 years, if drought is regionally historical or caused by human activity, or if they left forcibly or willingly is irrelevant to reach international consensus that the displaced still require legal rights; it seems it is not so much about accurately defining climate refugees as it is deciding at what point a person’s life and habitat are sufficiently deteriorated so as to receive help. Why is this the case?

The Wrong Era: “Development” v. “Globalisation”

An explanation lies in the non-alignment of climate refugees’ claims with the current international liberal order. The previous version of international liberalism within which the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol found success was one that envisioned a “‘one world’ global order” based on global reform through cooperation, collective security, and deep institutionalization. This “development project” era of liberalism (McMichaels, p. 55) saw the creation of a hierarchical international system with the US at the helm, “steadily taking on new commitments and functional roles, not just the “sponsor [but] owner and operator” (Ikenberry, p. 76). In this era, states’ development coupled self-gain and well-being via market principles with regulation and welfarism. The 1960s saw slight shifts, with Rostowian “modernisation” conceptions of progression taking hold: society would keep modernizing, improving, producing, and consuming in an upward, linear fashion (Rostow, pp. 53-54). This produced international cooperation and “almost boundless idealism” to implement social improvements like health and education, economic growth, and communications systems (McMichaels, p. 40).

It is within this “boundless idealism” that 145 signatories entered the Convention into force, and later the Protocol, to extend rights to non-Europeans. Expansions continued. In 1969 (entered into force shortly after, in 1974), the Organisation of African Unity drew up a Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa which expanded the term “refugee” to “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” (OAU Convention, 1969). In 1984 the UNHCR Cartagena Declaration on Refugees – specific to those from Central America, Mexico, and Panama – also extended the definition of “refugee” to those “affected by a seriously disturbed public order” (Refworld, 2019). Despite the non-binding nature of the Declaration, both use descriptors for refugees far broader than the 1951 Convention specifies (Biermann & Boas, p. 73).

This implies two things: first, the “development project” version of liberalism was still seen as the dominant framework within which to reach consensus and resolution around refugees – even if the demand for resolution on the “constantly increasing number of refugees” (Refworld, 2019) was driven by the global South; second, broader and vaguer terminology was not a hindrance to reaching an agreement on legal rights for refugees – perhaps because of clear international signals that refugees were supported. States conceded more authority to the UNHCR in reaction to rising refugee events, thus increasing its funding and mandate (Betts, p. 219). Receiving countries such as Canada and Australia, while still holding largely racist immigration policies, “readily accepted” some 180,000 European refugees by 1953 and 200,000 Hungarian refugees by 1965 (Murray, p. 94). The UNHCR’s own permissions and resettlement prerogatives thus aligned with individual states’ economic needs and semi-benevolence (Murray, p. 93).

However, according to John Ikenberry, this liberal order was put into question by multiple new factors at the end of the Cold War. The bipolarity that had made the US “more willing to undertake global responsibilities, provide public goods, and support rules and institutions” ended (Ikenberry, p. 79). New powerful economies and criticisms of the US emerged, as did interstate violence and atrocities, norm-erosions around sovereignty, and a push for human rights (Ikenberry, p. 80). This created a need for both a decisive leader and an upgraded – highly cooperative – version of liberalism in order to meet these global challenges (Ikenberry, p. 74). This updated version was tentative, but entirely possible.

In contrast, Philip McMichaels considers the old liberal order already “upgraded” to the “globalisation project” of 1980s neoliberalism – a version that makes a grim prognosis for state-led international cooperation. It is marked by the subjection of all states to economic trade and the regimes in place to protect it, which has created grossly uneven distribution of capabilities, conflicting interests, social unrest, and extreme pockets of politico-economic power. Implemented regimes like the General Agreement on Trade in Services Protocol imposed “severe constraints on the government’s ability to protect environmental, health, consumer and other public interest standards…[it] requires government proof that [state] regulations…are the least trade restrictive’” (McMichaels, pp. 142, 144-145). With these shifts in decision-making power away from states, by the 2000s international climate refugee initiatives were scarce or only occurring within some countries’ political parties in response to lack of state action (Biermann & Boas, p. 66).

Shifting Gears: the UNHCR

The “globalisation project” has strained institutions created to help refugees, namely, the UNHCR. The dis-embedding of powerful economic actors from state regulation and democratic procedures in favour of states’ economic growth resulted in handing public goods and services – traditionally state responsibility – to private actors (Avant, et al. p. 5). Because public goods transitioned from universal availability to private dispersion, gaps in coverage created greater need for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide services in lieu of state action. Simultaneously, the UNHCR became increasingly burdened with the supplying humanitarian aid for internally displaced persons, stateless persons, developing regional solutions, and repatriating refugees (Murray, p. 93; Biermann & Boas, p. 73), adding to its original mandate as primarily a legal apparatus concerned with the protection and resettlement of refugees (Murray, p. 92). By 2007, the UNHCR was dealing with 31.7 million people (Biermann & Boas, p. 73).

Unfortunately, its success – and funding – often depended on finding alignment with what powerful states wanted, largely the US (Betts, p. 221); its old mandate of resettling refugees aligned with states’ need for economic migrants during the post-war boom, but with the onslaught of government cutbacks from the 1980s, the UNHCR saw cuts to its staff by 15% (Murray, p. 95). While the economic needs of the 1970s allowed the UNHCR to confront and cooperate with governments, during the 1980s “its relationship became more adversarial and it worried that it was angering the very states on whom it was dependent to sustain its activities” (Murray, p. 95). Governments, subject to budget cuts and social unrest formed in the gaps of disappearing social goods, wanted refugees returned home. Rather than fight this pressure, the UNHCR “decided to place itself at the front of the repatriation initiative” in the early 1990s, despite the direct contradictions to its mandate of legal protection this posed (Betts, p. 223).

Too Late: Time to Adapt

While public pressure to mitigate climate change is at a fever pitch, lacking decisive action on climate change and related refugees has scholars, states, and private interests scrambling on recommendations for adaptation programs and systems, effectively bypassing mitigation (Bostanci & Albayrak, p. 214, 216). If, in an increasingly privatised and profit-driven international order, climate change is framed as a public good – something expensive and difficult to implement but universal in its enjoyment – then mitigation is undesirable for the state. Adaptation, however, is highly profitable, as it can take form as either a private or club good where access is limited and demand for adaptive measures increases as climate change gets worse, aka, “disaster capitalism”. Most cynically, repatriating refugees and encouraging local responsibility for them is one way to cut costs to receiver nations and bolster corporate profits as local authorities work with a fragmented set of development and aid agencies to stabilize urban centres (Vlassopolous, p. 22).

The clear argument for local adaptive measures is that most climate refugees will not cross border lines – it is estimated that only 5 million climate refugees will flow into other areas, with most overwhelming urban centres’ capacities (Biermann & Boas, pp. 72, 74). Climate refugees also do not necessarily want to flee. Prime Minster of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, noted in climate discussions with Pacific nations that “they want to defend their homes and they want to defend their culture and their place, and that means pushing back on the conversation around having to abandon their homes and instead say: the world can do something about climate change, and it should” (Lynch, 2019). Problematic, however, is the “grossly uneven distribution of capabilities” created by the market system: regional disparities, lack of resources, unplanned urbanisation, expanding slums, and wide variances in governance and stability will create highly fragmented and uneven distribution of both public and private goods and services to those in most need of them. Rather than put full-force into mitigation and adaptation, the approach of international bodies like the UN and IPCC has been to displace environmental policies with coping strategies (Vlassopolous, p. 22), while industrialized and emerging states “continue to build regional networks of security between themselves and the asylum seekers” despite urgent calls by the International Panel on Climate Change to take legislative action on their behalf (Murray, p. 90).

Are There Solutions? Possibilities and Conclusion

Decisive, international cooperation on climate refugees is unlikely given the current (neo)liberal order. Economic competition between powerful states and strong private interests, coupled with several influential states’ turns towards protectionist right-wing populism have significantly weakened the chance for international consensus. Three points of entry that would be feasible and offer some relief to climate refugees are: narrowed and restrictive conceptions of the term, bolstered support for the UNHCR, and serious efforts on refugee-friendly norm creation by individual states.

Term Refinement:

To appeal to as many states as possible, climate refugee must encompass clear and curtailed markers of which kinds of climate situations warrant legal protections. Sub-categorization offers some promise. C. A. Vlassopolous essentially suggests a tiered-and-fragmented method, where environmentally displaced persons suffering through natural disasters or slower-moving environmental degradation fall under the protection of either humanitarian or environmental agencies, but do not receive the legal protections of refugees. Only those who fall prey to “environmental persecution” (assumedly by war over resources) receive asylum status (Vlassopolous, p. 24). Further, Vlassopolous recommends that for each category – humanitarian, environmental, or persecuted – different actors are held responsible (Vlassopolous, p. 25).

Problematic with this solution is where various factors overlap (i.e., those who suffer from natural disasters but then find themselves “environmentally persecuted”), the decision process of when and who decides if the displaced can “progress” up the ladder towards asylum, and how best to ensure the various agencies responsible for the variety of displaced persons are coordinated and similarly funded. These complicated moving parts and coordination required for multiple agencies and categorization, like any highly-fractured system, will undoubtedly leave some environmentally displaced people either unprotected or in the incorrect category and leave various actors contesting who is responsible.

More practical is F. Biermann and I. Boas’ suggestion on restricting climate refugee definition to those suffering from undisputable and clearly-linked climate change displacement, namely sea-level rise, extreme and intensifying weather events, and drought/water scarcity (Biermann & Boas, p. 64). Excluded are marginally-linked climate change causes of migration (such as heat waves or the slow spread of tropical diseases), disruptive actions by government in response to climate change (such as dam-building), environmental accidents and natural disasters (pollution, chemicals, or volcanic activity), and indirectly-linked issues, such as conflict over resources (Biermann & Boas, pp. 63-64). Problematic is, of course, where some of these “non-recognized” categories overlap with legitimate claims, but absent is the complex interweaving of categories and agencies, which fits well with the next suggestion.

UNHCR Centralization & Support

The UNHCR has already established its invaluable and expert role amidst multiple international crises, and has successfully retained its moral and delegated authority. While it has received legitimate criticism for its recent shift to repatriation, restoration of its original role of facilitating legal protection and resettlement of refugees can be restored if states agree to commit sufficient funds and required resources. If states and international institutions are bypassing climate mitigation in preference of adaptation, and are preferring national, regional, and local climate solutions, the UNHCR – already caring for political refugees, stateless people, disaster victims, and internally displaced persons – is capable of expanding its mandate along these well-established lines. Biermann and Boas feel it is “unlikely that one single agency could be assigned the exclusive task of dealing with climate refugees” (Biermann & Boas, p. 79), however, multiple necessary agencies could be added under the umbrella of the UNHCR with sufficient support. This would keep movements of people and overlapping factors within the same system, thus avoiding care and legal gaps that would occur in a fractured approach.

Ensuring that groups affected by climate change in different ways are not divvied into the care of multiple institutions – say, as suggested Vlassopolous, putting those suffering slow environmental degradation under the care of the UNEP (Vlassopolous, p. 24) – and are kept under the UNHCR is vital for a couple reasons. First, overlapping environmental causes of displacement will occur, and trans-institutional efficiency is less than inter-institutional efficiency. Second, resource commitments to various institutions and their respective environmental migrants will undoubtedly vary, resulting not only in squabbling between institutions, but between workers and migrants on the ground who are in close proximity but fall under hierarchical resource allocation.

The international community’s decision to centralize environmental migrants’ issues under the UNHCR would once again align the UNHCR’s current role with the strategic and functional interests of states, providing it with a broader mandate – safety for environmentally displaced persons – within which to expand. Its sustainability would be ensured due to the inclusion of multiple sources of demand for such a structure: strategic interests concerning border security and state sovereignty, practical interests concerned with flows of people and related issues, and the human-rights based/normative interests of civil society, non-profits, and transnational NGOs (Betts, p. 216). Thus, in exchange for the international community’s prioritization of adequate funding, the UNHCR could vastly broaden its mandate to include all environmentally-displaced people and narrow its definition of climate refugee to reduce the number of people to whom states owe a legal obligation. It is a cold calculation, but under the current international order it is perhaps the best way to ensure that consensus and resulting policy can be reached to relieve some uncertainties for those affected.


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Sarah Perkonig

Sarah is a person who loves to find things that love the Earth and the creatures on it back - it is possible to have beautiful things that help us all.

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