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  • Writer's pictureNyayshastram

Welcome another modern problem: Environmental Migration

Updated: Aug 8, 2020

Ayush Tanwar, Student, Maharaja Agrasen School of Law, IPU

Among the many issues that have been a matter of concern across the globe lies the age-old problem of migration. Even so, the more we move forward as nations, aiming to achieve rapid development, the more nuanced and cryptic these issues have turned out to be. The twenty-first century has seen an enormous increase in the influx of refugees. It has now boiled up to a point where various nations are refusing to take in more refugees. What started as a novel pledge – to help people with no shelter – is now a curse for these nations.

The 2018 Global Trends Report published by United Nations Human Rights Council tells us that persecution, conflict and violence has forced 68.5 million people from their homes, this figure includes 25.4 million refugees, 3.1 million asylum-seekers and 40 million internally displaced people. Turkey and Lebanon have exhibited behaviour that affirms the much talked about the ideology of a global village and have been on the forefront to take in refugees. Lebanon has the highest refugee density while Turkey has hosted more refugees than any other nation for the fourth straight year as of 2017.[1] All of this comes with hatred and phobia instilled in the hearts of the indigenous population and high economic and social costs.[2]

Further, there have been growing concerns over the efficiency of the United Nations and its related organs. There exists a chronic lack of financial capabilities and effective mechanism to support the persecuted, vis-à-vis, the actual number of people to be supported. Although the United Nations and various Regional Organisations have listed out various campaigns, deployed refugee teams, they still do not happen to curb the issue.

The world is now facing a new problem of migration. Amid this crisis, no one foresaw, how dangerous climate change was and how there was a persistent rise in sea levels, droughts, desertification and disruption of seasonal weather patterns. The attitude of nations towards these problems has been negligent, which has resulted in the worsening of the situation. This has led us and continues to lead us into a bleak future, where anomalous storms, cyclones and droughts are a commonplace.

When we look at various parts of the world, particularly the Middle East and Northern Africa, we realise how all of this causes large scale human migration. This migration has nothing to do with conflict or violence. Well, maybe a different kind of conflict! You see, in these parts of the world conflict has been a constant and amid all the conflict when these sudden natural calamities take place it causes a colossal amount of resource scarcity to the limited resources, and this results in an increase in the number of deaths and diseases. This causes people to flee from their country in the pursuit of normalcy and a more durable livelihood, making them climate migrants or environmental migrants.

If we look at the 2017 statistics, one-third of the 68.5 million displaced people were forced to leave due to weather events.[3] As per the World Bank, it is estimated that Latin America, sub- Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia alone will generate 143 million climate migrants by 2050.[4]

Who are Environmental Refugees?

There exists no universally accepted and applicable definition of Environmental Migrants. Several UN bodies have put forward working definitions[5] , but as of now, their definition is not applied in absolute terms. If we were to understand a climate migrant or an environmental migrant in layman’s terms, we could say that any person who flees from his or her country due to progressive or sudden changes in the environment is an environmental migrant.

However, if truth be told, the term environmental migrant or climate migrant has no legal basis in international law, and even the concerned agencies are avoiding their use. They claim that these terms are misleading and could undermine the international legal regime for the protection of refugees. They even claim that this terminology has been coined by the media. This is where the problem lies. At the moment, there exists a dire need to help the climate migrants and make special provisions for them, but the authorities are just indulging in whataboutery and questioning its very existence.

The Legal Landscape Many experts have suggested that we can use the already existing 1951 Refugee Convention for climate migrants as well. This critical legal document for refugees in its Article (1) defines refugees as: “Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”[6] The issue with this definition is that it describes a political refugee, and climate refugees are not political refugees. Their reason for persecution is not race or religion but sudden or progressive environmental changes.

Moreover, this convention only caters to those, whose displacement has caused them to flee from their country. However, if we sit down and understand climate migrants, we can say that several climate migrants are internally displaced, and the rest of them flee to other countries. Therefore, if we could use the 1951 Convention for all the climate migrants but then we would be sacrificing a more significant number of them at the altar. The 1951 Convention does not deal with internally displaced persons, as logic plays out, different conventions are protecting them under international.

This begs the question- If not the 1951 Refugee Convention, then what? Can we use those instruments of international law which deal with internally displaced people? The 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are thirty standards that give an outline to nations on the protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs).[7] These principles reiterate that domestic authorities have the supervisory

responsibility to ensure that IDPs' fundamental rights to food, water, shelter, dignity and safety are met in addition to facilitating their access to all other rights. They should accept the assistance of the international community where they cannot provide assistance and protection to IDPs. IDPs also have the right to seek asylum in another country. These guidelines can be very well used by nations to deal with internally displaced climate migrants. Though, nations are not legally bound by these Guiding Principles like the 1951 Convention but definitely can be used in good faith. However, this still does answer our question. We still cannot say that these Guiding Principles are enough on their own. The application of these guiding principles is also subject to the extent to which a nation has adopted these principles in their international law.

The way ahead No matter how much governments neglect, the climate migration process, it is still a problematic and arduous problem of today which has created a strange paradox for all of us. Firstly, the image that a climate refugee reverberates to all of us is the current image of people escaping conflicts and wars. It is high time that an authorised body forms a universally accepted definition of this term to prevent all confusions.

Even though climate migration is majorly internal, it is still possible that the future sees climate migrants fleeing from one nation to another, so we need to cover all eventualities. Therefore, no existing legal document can completely untangle the problems of climate migrates. Even though a new convention may face several political problems in its drafting process, it is needless to say that we still need one. We can even use various migration management policies if a new convention is not seen as a plausible option. Dialogue, Cooperation and Partnerships[8] should be given the maximum importance when it comes to forming migration management policies. Furthermore, till the time we form an internationally accepted legal tool for climate migrants, we must use the 1951 Convention and the 1998 Guiding Principles concurrently. There is enough evidence available for us to use both these legal tools customarily, and as far as the 1951 Convention is concerned, we have rarely seen its statutory application.

Further, the existing national immigration laws must have more humanitarian categories for immigration, like climate migrants. Countries should even grant special status to climate migrants. For example, the European Union has granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to climate migrants and has formed special rules for them in its Directive 2001/55/EC. Even the United States has been using its Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT) for granting TPS to Climate Migrants. Similarly, Pacific Access Category (PAC) has been formed by New Zealand, which allows a set quota of people to be granted residence every year from each of the threatened island nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu (and the 250 citizens of Tonga).

As we usher into a new year, with unprecedented and unparallel times, it is essential to give mother earth its due regard. What we see today is a reflection of our past. Similarly, this enormous increase in climate migrants is a result of our past.

With that reiterated, everyone needs to realise that human mobility will continue to be affected by the environment. As we move forward, all of this will amplify the existing complexities and vulnerabilities. History, and arguably, the present, paints a picture of climate migrants as an unwanted category in this world of migrants. However, whether we like it or not, we have to work forward for climate migrants for an inclusive world.



[1] [2] [3] The Nansen Initiative. “Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement.” December 2015. Page 6 [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

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