The Climate ‘Refugee’

By Gwendolyn Tan, GLOBUS Correspondent

Climate change is an issue that’s gaining attention all over the world, with a particular focus on responsibility here, in the Global North. However, issues like extreme weather events are not as felt or experienced here, contributing to sceptics’ perceptions towards climate change. This is different for the people who live in low-lying countries, or face climate change-induced water scarcity – or a hundred other threats – as they feel the effects of climate change the most. It’s not about having shorter winters and hotter-than-normal summers, it’s not just about losing their jobs, and it’s not just about the price of food rising as there’s a smaller harvest: it’s about losing their land, their history, their way of life, their citizenship, and their dignity.

The issue of climate refugees covers two arenas: firstly, that of international security, and secondly under international law.

The impact of climate refugees is not just felt by ‘sinking’ countries and their residents, and can pose a security threat to other countries. Firstly, in our current era of nationalism and protectionism, host countries could have more backlash towards these climate refugees. The election of Trump and the Brexit referendum are already proof of how our world is changing to become more xenophobic and nationalistic, and adding climate refugees to the mix would only exacerbate the current situation, further dividing our world into states rather than promoting cooperation between them. Secondly, the power balance in the world will be shifted by climate change. Assuming a rise in temperatures of 3°C, Shanghai would be completely submerged. In fact, most of Asia would be affected, and to add insult to injury, impacts would be disproportionate when compared to the rest of the world: it is projected that 80% of affected individuals globally are Asian.[1] This could spell a shift of power to other parts of the world, but it could also be an erosion of Asian culture and tradition. Although there could be a rise in diasporas in other countries, these diasporas are never able to recreate Asia as it is now, so not only would these climate refugees be unable to reconstruct their lives, there will also be a quicker erosion of some cultures than others. There is also the question of whether a diaspora can exist if the country where these people migrated from no longer does. Ultimately, this loss of diversity in the world could thus cement a more hegemonic presence of certain cultures and political powers globally.

The second issue lies with the definition of a refugee, specifically in international law. Thus far, this article has utilised the term refugee loosely, when actually the correct term would probably have been asylum-seeker. The official and internationally recognised definition of refugee is narrower and more nuanced. According to the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is someone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”[2]

The problem for climate refugees is that international relations, and thus international law, tend to be approached from a rather state-centric perspective. Security threats are considered to be a result of external state actors, as is the creation of refugees. Refugee law was really only developed in 1951, although it was expanded to include more refugees geographically in the 1967 Protocol, and as such, the definition does not include climate change: no one had yet fathomed that serious security threats could come from a non-state actor. Assuming the worst-case future scenario where there exists no home government as it has been physically or socially wiped out by the effects of climate change, then the individual climate refugee is left effectively stateless, as there would be no home country of whose protection they could avail themselves. Although there have been minor amendments of the eligibility criteria, particularly with regards to Palestinian refugees by the UNRWA[3], there has not been much change in the definition of ‘a refugee’ between the 1951 Geneva Convention and now.

It is disappointing that there has been not much of a push to amend the definition of a refugee. The Syrian Civil War, which has culminated in 5.6 million refugees[4], has been argued to be a result of climate change, which has been dubbed a “threat multiplier”.[5] This is because man-made climate change contributed to the drought facing Syria prior to the civil war that pushed many to migrate, thus compounding the underlying socio-economic reasons for the civil war.[6] While the mass movement of a whole country, particularly due to a submersion of their land, has yet to really materialise, it is undeniable that climate change has already exacerbated perceived security threats. Changing the definition of a refugee is a mitigatory measure, but it is necessary to do so soon rather than later when (or rather, hopefully, if) the deluge of asylum-seekers flood in.

It’s scary how soon this could be. There already exists sunken land masses, although these tend to be small islands without any inhabitants. However, there are countries at particular risk of being submerged. The Marshall Islands are at risk of being uninhabitable by 2050 due to increased flooding that irreversibly contaminates their freshwater supplies.[7] 85% of Vietnam has an elevation of less than 1km above sea level[8], and the Mekong Delta, where 50% of national food production happens, and where 22% of their population lives[9], is less than 2m above sea level[10]. Vietnam is thus considered one of the most vulnerable to climate change, but just like the Marshall Islands, their stories are not isolated – there are other low-lying areas that are at risk, particularly in Asia. To put this into perspective, more than 140 million people (that’s nearly half the population of USA) could have to move from their homes by 2050 due to rising sea levels, water scarcity and increased extreme weather events like storm surges.[11]

If we can’t tackle the impacts of climate change, then the next step to take is to mitigate them, of which climate refugees is probably one of the biggest and most urgent. The predominant state-centric view of international security is standing in the way of redefining the refugee, but the problem of climate refugees is not just the responsibility of states. Companies damaging the environment and contributing to this crisis should also help these climate refugees. Since companies do not have territory or rule of law like countries, the least they could do is alleviate the strain of refugees on national resources by providing some form of economic reparations: the issue of climate change is not merely for governments to handle, it also rests firmly on the shoulders of consumers and producers.

The climate refugee is not some far-off possibility. It’s something that is likely to happen in our lifetime, unless real and effective change is made to our actions and their environmental impacts.

Header Image: The US Border Wall (Rey Perezoso via flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)



[2] Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees by the UN










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