The principle of non-refoulement is part of the basic structure of international refugee law. It ensures that refugees cannot be returned to a nation where they are likely to be subject to torture, cruel treatment or punishment. Non-refoulment protects all refugees and migrants, regardless of their nationality, citizenship, statelessness or immigration status.
However, this protection is not always extended to individuals displaced due to climate change. In this piece, I advocate for the addition of a new protocol to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to recognize environmental migrants, displaced by the effects of climate change, as refugees.
Who is a climate refugee?
The term “refugee,” originally defined as crossing an international border for protection from violence, conflict, war or persecution, is culturally evolving due to climate change. The 951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, along with the additional 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, characterizes refugees as persons facing persecution due to race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, social membership or political opinions who are unable to return to their country of origin. As of May 2023, the the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 110 million registered refugees worldwide.
However, this figure does not include people uprooted by climate change, whose numbers are growing.
The 1991 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave a clear warning: Displacement would be the worst consequence of climate change. Today, millions flee due to rising sea levels, food shortages and severe weather such as heat waves, cyclones, droughts and floods, which can devastate whole towns and regions. An average of 23 million people are displaced from their homes annually. According to the UN , up to 1.2 billion people may be forcibly displaced by 2050. As climate change displacement increases, the discussion for protections for climate refugees becomes urgent.
These statistics cause us to rethink the current use of “refugee,” as well as governmental protections awarded under international law, humanitarian aid, global environmental crisis solutions, healthcare, job training and urban development. Although “refugee” is a heavily politicized term, it is reasonable to include those whom the repercussions of climate change affect. They, just as much as other refugees, are fleeing for their own safety.
The UN claims that, “environmental degradation and climate change disasters increasingly act together with the drivers of refugee movements,” in its 2018 Global Compact on Refugees. However, the document is worded to avoid attributing legal “refugee” status to those displaced due to climate change. The practice of the UNHCR it to attribute such status to environmental migrants only when the adverse effects of climate change interact with armed conflict and violence. Furthering the discussion in 2020 with a series of “Legal Considerations,” the UNHCR still does not endorse the term climate refugee. Instead, they refer to these individuals as “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.”
Many countries lack the infrastructure to manage significant influxes of displaced people, putting additional strain on government budgets. To successfully integrate environmental migrants into society without limiting funding for other programs, these states require help from the international community. To obtain this help, they need to classify environmental migrants as what they are: refugees.
The principle of non-refoulement
But it is not just a question how states or the international community “should” classify climate refugees. International law already requires states to protect these persons. Why? Simply put, under the principle of non-refoulment, it is illegal to return migrants to a place where they will be in danger.
Several international agreements establish the obligation of non-refoulment:
— The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984.
— The UN Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, (ICPPED), 2010.
— The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention of Torture, 1985.
— The American Convention on Human Rights, 1969.
— The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
To uphold the non-refoulement principle, states must address protecting climate refugees, including ensuring various human rights-based protection mechanisms are in place. Governments must understand their responsibility under international law to assist the UNHCR in protecting climate refugees and act swiftly to meet their needs urgently.
While non-refoulement requires states to protect people who are in danger, the status of climate refugees will not be assured until they are explicitly recognized under international law as refugees. Until then, states may take advantage of legal ambiguity to shirk their international and moral obligations.
What can we do to help refugees?
Humanitarian groups depend on your attention and assistance to supply water, food, shelter and medical treatment to refugees and internally displaced people. But we must take steps to build resilient, sustainable and adaptable mechanisms of support over the long run. The present uncoordinated, unprepared international framework is ill-equipped to offer climate refugees the protection they need. The system should develop solutions based on evidence from communities affected by the phenomenon.
We must standardize administrative and legislative frameworks to allow entry and accommodation for temporary, long-term or permanent climate refugees, allocating funds and resources appropriately and evaluating each migrant’s protection needs and asylum status.
International policymakers must work together in creating legal frameworks, offering financial support, distributing resources fairly and guaranteeing sustainable livelihoods for climate refugees. Lawmakers should also implement preventive measures such as allocating resources to effectively build infrastructure adaptive to changing weather patterns and ecological hazards.
By establishing both clear legal standards and clear practical procedures, the international community will be able to help those in need more effectively, something which will only be more direly necessary as time goes on. I hope the UNHCR will adopt an additional protocol to the UNCSR on climate refugees for the start of a new age in refugee protection.
[KeAmber Council edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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