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Environmental disasters are fuelling migration — here’s why international law must recognize climate refugees
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Environmental disasters are fuelling migration — here’s why international law must recognize climate refugees

A woman sits outside a small brick house in a chair with a toddler on her lap, while a man walks towards her carrying a bowl of corn, and another walks past her carrying tall stalks of corn.


Hurricanes Eta, and Iota, which roared into Central America in November 2020, flooded cities, caused devastating losses in agriculture, and contributed greatly to food insecurity. All told, 4.7 Million Hondurans were affectedTens of thousands of people voted to leave, forming migrant caravansIn a desperate effort to rebuild their lives in America.

Scientists eventually linked the record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season with climate change, making it clear climate change is already affecting migration.

My research is focused on the interplay between law, people and the natural environment. Refugee law states that people are allowed to flee their country of origin if they have a well-founded fear. Persecution is currently limited only to reasons of race and religion, nationality, or membership of a particular group or political opinion. That means when people move due to environmental degradation or disaster, they are not, in the legal sense of the word, “refugees.”

International refugee law and human rights law cannot be relegated to social and political persecution. It must be overhauled to consider climate change and include “deadly environments” as a form of persecution.

The concept of dangerous environments refers to the social, political, and ecological conditions that make it difficult for someone to move. It would be included in legal definitions to establish that the environment contributes to human rights deprivation or persecution.

In refugee law, there are no dangerous environments

The World Bank estimates that if we don’t make concerted and radical efforts to slow climate change, it will be too late. 216 millionPeople will be forced from their homes by 2050. With the scale of climate-induced migration, it’s InevitableMillions will seek refuge across borders even if they’re not allowed to. Invisible to Refugee Law.

Migration researchers agree it is often incorrect to connect migration choices to a single event. It has become more common to see climate change as a nexus of many factors. Conflict, violence, and disaster.

The unpredictable speed at which climate disruptions occur complicates matters. They can occur slowly, such as ongoing droughts that cause food shortages, or quickly, such as hurricanes and floods which destroy homes and crops.

A woman sits outside a small brick house in a chair with a toddler on her lap, while a man walks towards her carrying a bowl of corn, and another walks past her carrying tall stalks of corn.
Residents in drought-affected regions of China were relocated to new homes within the Ningxia Hui autonomy region in October 2015.
(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

How can we define those who have been affected by climate change? There is no accepted international definition of climate-impacted migration.

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers uses the term “Climate migrant,” whereas a report by the White House uses “Migration and climate change” as an umbrella term. Some people use the term Migrants from the environmentOthers may use People who have been forced to move from their homes because of environmental issues. Like other adamant outliers I use the phrase climate refugeesTo emphasize the agency of those seeking refuge.

The point of the debate about definitions is missed. As British geographer Calum T. M. Nicholson explains, “The main issue is not the movement itself but the rights violations of migrants..”

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human RightsClimate change is a threat to human rights to life and self-determination, development and food, water and sanitation as well as housing and cultural rights. Just think of the 400,000 livestock farmers in Southern EthiopiaPeople who were affected by climate-related droughts between 2015 and 2019. They still need assistance to get food, water, and shelter.

Border practices and deadly environments

It is clear that these deadly environments are not only caused by climate change but also by practices across borders.

The Transnational Institute, an international research and advocacy institute, reports that the world’s wealthiest countries They spend more on militarizing their borders that they do on responding the climate crisis. This includes building walls, developing surveillance technology and hiring armed border guards. According to the institute, rich countries are building a “global climate wall” to keep out people forced to migrate due to climate change with deadly consequences.

In her book The Death of Asylum – Hidden Geographies of the Enforcement ArchipelagoAlison Mountz is a geographer at Wilfrid Laurier University. She describes the steady development in asylum processing in areas far removed from physical borders such as Australia’s offshore processing campsIn Papua New Guinea. Mountz argues that the increase in offshore detention centres contributes both to the physical deaths and political deaths of asylum-seekers. As news of drowned migrants becomes more commonplace and routineized, Mountz says.

A backlit photo of the border wall with the silhouettes of six people walking along a ridge with the river below.
A pair of Brazilian migrant families crosses a gap in Mexico’s border wall to cross into Yuma, Arizona, in June 2021.
(AP Photo/Eugene Garcia)

The UN International Organization for MigrationSince 2014, the IOM has documented nearly 46,000 deaths of migrants on their way to safety. An estimated 23,000 people have drowned at sea in the Mediterranean Sea.

Border crossings between the United States of America and Mexico are particularly dangerous, with 2,980 deaths since 2014. According to the IOM, the “main direct causes of death identified in this area are drowning … and deaths caused by harsh environmental conditions and lack of shelter, food and water.”

International refugee and international human rights law must be urgently updated to recognize persecution-prone environments.

A new protection system is needed

The United Nations Refugee Agency already found links between climate changes and persecution. It finds that when a state is unwilling to respond to humanitarian needs that are the result of climate change, there is a “Persecution at the risk of human right violations.”

Deathly environments, which can be transformed by climate change either suddenly or over long periods, should be considered a site of persecution. Their presence should cause the state to be bound to provide protection for those forced to flee from climate change.

This effort centers on establishing relationships between law, environment and humans. This is one way to recognize that people displaced due to climate change are actually refugees.


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