The difficulty in protecting climate refugees

The Paris Climate Accord largely focused on the purely physical effects related to climate change but perhaps it fell short of giving proper consideration to another major consequence of global warming: the raise of climate refugees

23241680762_7f652b857d_bAccording to the latest figures released by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), almost 20 million people have been forced to leave their homes due to environmental disasters in 2014 and as the number and the proportion of these disruptive phenomena keep increasing, this trend is not likely to reverse anytime soon. In other words, as argued by the Director General of the International Organization for Migration, Ambassador William Lacy Swing, the effects of climate change are adding to a “perfect storm” of “unprecedented human mobility”, triggered by the massive increase in world population occurred throughout the last century as well as the breakout of several conflicts around the globe.

Yet, even though environmental pressures already compelled a great amount of people to flee their homes, there’s no clear consensus on how the international community should tackle this problem, so that “climate refugees” still lack a proper form of protection and legal recognition. The main difficulty in protecting this new class of migrants lies in the simple fact that it is really hard to unequivocally define who a climate refugee is, as there’s no reliable method able to analyze physical and economic factors and to determine whether or not climate change is the solely responsible for these large-scale displacements. This gap inevitably led to the condition of “legal limbo” in which climate refugees find themselves. As a matter of fact, on the ground of the 1951 UN Convention on the status of refugees, people seeking shelter from natural disasters are simply not entitled to this status, as refugees are defined as persons who left their home country and are unable to return on the basis of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”, not extreme weather events. That is climate change does not make one a refugee, as simple as that.

Unfortunately, the Paris Climate Accord proved unable to make steps forwards to fill this legislative void. The final approved text is certainly appreciable to the extent it acknowledges that environmental degradation affects migration patterns and it calls for “recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”. Yet, it does not contribute significantly to the recognition of climate change as a ground for asylum. That means that the 200 million environmental migrants that will relocate by 2050, according to the most widely cited estimate reported by the International Organization for Migration, probably will not be entitled to the same protection accorded to people escaping from conflicts and oppression.

Nevertheless, to recognize the right of these people to resettle somewhere else in order to escape the consequences of a very specific set of economic and political decisions in which they were not even involved, should be a primary concern for the international community. And if one may argue that there are more urgent issues to be addressed, then we should remember that many of these issues degenerated due to procrastination, not least the 2015 refugees crisis so poorly managed by Europe.

Giovanna Maletta

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