Refugees or Migrants? A critical Distinction

Climate change = more climate refugees. #Melbourne Climate Strike IMG_5187 Source: John Englart, via flickr

On January 7th a milestone decision was delivered by the UN Human Rights Committee asserting that world governments cannot deport individuals whose human rights are at risk of being violated due to the climate crisis, effectively granting them the right to seek asylum.

The ruling was made in relation to a case brought forward by Ioane Teitiota, a national of the Republic of Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean. His request for refuge on the grounds of the difficulties he faced accessing drinking water and mitigating land disputes as a result of rising sea levels was denied, as Kiribati was determined to become uninhabitable only within the next 10 to 15 years, effectively providing ample opportunity for measures to be taken by the nation to stall the threats presented by rapid climate change.

Although some
news outlets were quick to brand Teitiota as a ‘climate refugee’, to make that claim in the context of the United Nations would be to grossly overlook the legal framework set out by the 1951 Refugee Convention. The document defines a ‘refugee’ as ‘someone who is unable 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’.

The desire to use the term ‘refugee’ in relation to climate migrants often comes from the immediate imagery and connotations that arise when faced with the idea of a large number of persons needing safe haven when fleeing from danger. However, a close look at the official definition used by the UN reveals a number of crucial differences between refugees and climate migrants.

Much of the climate migration movement is expected to take place within the migrants’ country of origin.

Current discussion about the effects of climate change hinges on the anticipation of large-scale internal migration, however, this does not conform with the definition adopted by the UN. While cross-border migration induced by climate change is not entirely unlikely, it is expected to represent a smaller proportion of the climate migration movement. Consequently, the tools necessary to approach it are going to be inevitably different from those currently used to address the refugee movement.

Climate migrants are often not in immediate danger.

In contrast with political refugees whose lives and human rights are threatened by persecution, the projected threats and disturbances to climate migrants’ lives are in some cases decades away. The migration often is not ‘forced’ and there is still time for the affected nations to introduce measures that would stall the effects of climate change. This should not be taken as a pretext to neglect the problem, instead, it highlights a key difference between political refugees and climate migrants.

Climate migrants often do not want to be called ‘refugees’.

Some Pacific Islanders, whose way of life on low-lying islands is threatened by rising sea levels have already expressed their dissatisfaction with the term ‘refugee’. They have specifically expressed their dislike of the connotations of ‘victimhood’ that comes with the status, reiterating their wish to ‘migrate with decency’. We should be listening to the voices of those whose lives are affected by climate change and be attentive to the challenges that they face instead of trying to apply old solutions to new problems.

With the UN forecasts estimating the number of climate migrants between 25 million and 1 billion by 2050, it is indisputable that there needs to be a clear legal framework for those affected by climate induced migration. However, to unite climate migrants with refugees under the same name and incorporate them into the definition of a ‘refugee’ used by the United Nations would be to not only dilute discussions about the individual difficulties and challenges faced by both groups, but also to grossly ignore the wishes of the migrants themselves. It would confuse the established regulation and force solutions that may not be applicable to either of the groups, stressing the necessity for a separate legal framework within which the difficulties faced by climate migrants can be tackled.

The issue of climate change is one that is relatively new for the international community and it requires a new solution. Just as the UN had to come up with a new system for the refugees following the end of World War II, we will have to introduce new structures and processes to tackle this new type of migration.

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