Climate Refugees: A Looming Threat

It is imperative that there should be a context-specific approach to the looming threat and uncertainty created by the legal lacuna regarding climate refugees.

Despite the nonsensical denials of the Trump presidency, climate change is a factual consequence of  industrialization and technological advancement. Apart from Trump, denials on this issue that prevail among some states, especially the ones who are most responsible for releasing greenhouse gases (GHGs). Millions of people are displaced from their homes as a consequence. Rising temperatures, droughts, floods, desertification, tropical cyclones, glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) and other natural disasters have disrupted the livelihood of many communities. Such events testify to the effects of changing climate. The climate displacement projected by World Bank (143 million by 2050) and other institutions varies in numbers but it is significant. The non-applicability of the Refugee Convention 1951 to climate refugees (or environmental refugees) has kept these persons outside the scope of the assistance provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and other relevant organizations; and it has placed them at higher risk when faced with such disasters.

What is more worrying is that, some countries facing this problem have not even developed a migration policy. The Refugee Convention 1951 was drafted after the Second World War and only covers refugees fleeing persecution on the basis of the five convention reasons, i.e. race, religion, nationality, membership of a political ground and/or political opinion. Overall a threat is looming on the international plane and the situation presents a threat to existing order and it has a complicated history. Climate refugees (also called ‘environmental migrants’) mostly migrate inside the country and travel at short distances from their areas seeking a chance of rehabilitation. However, their decision to migrate depends on the scale and nature of the disaster.

Slow-onset disasters like droughts, floods, sea-level rise, and desertification are not responsible for displacing people in the first place, as it includes other socio-economic and political drivers, and at times it can be their voluntary decision to leave the place, while sudden extreme events such as hurricanes, floods, GLOF are the push factors which give no time to inhabitants for decision-making or to develop resilience against the disasters, but to move from their places; and they are likely to return to their original places, when the effects of disaster diminish or disappear.

As millions have been forced to migrate from their places, with direct or indirect reference to the climate change, the developing countries are paying the price to worsening climate patterns despite their least role in releasing GHGs in the atmosphere.The United States alone has 19.34 metric tons of carbon emissions per person when compared with Bangladesh’s 0.3; and as per the projections of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with one-meter rise in sea-level Bangladesh’s 17 per cent of the coastal land, which is exposed to sea-intrusion and sea-level rise will be flooded by 2050 and will create massive displacement upcountry. Also, the regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, small Pacific Island nations and other parts of Asia would be engulfed by this threat of climate displacement. Even if the rise of temperature is delimited to 1.5 degree Celsius, as per the goals set in ‘Paris agreement’ within United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the displacement would be inevitable in some areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change. 

Despite being discussed, filmed, analyzed in papers, books, relevant institutions, and among the world leaders, the term ‘climate refugees’ remains controversial in its meaning and scope. Although there is a disconnect between the terms displacement and migration offering disparate interpretations that involve voluntary and involuntary actions of individuals, but issue still lacks a legal framework which can tackle victims of each category accordingly.

It creates a passive scenario when the concerned states and relevant organizations striving to hold the rapidly changing deteriorating climate and rising temperature to a ‘new normal’ and foresee a safer place for humanity, when in practice, they ignore massive displacement of people in the same process. To this end, ‘climate change’ and ‘climate refugees’ should be dealt separately. However, the futurology of both factors, in terms of their convergence and their impact on each other may largely depend on the actions involved.

Instead of approaching the developing countries, which are already short of resources and fighting climate war of not their own, the developed countries, have further pressed them hard on immigration policies. Even though, New Zealand has taken stand-alone initiative that grants humanitarian visa to climate refugees of Pacific Island nations, Kiribati and Tuvalu, facing sea-level rise, this approach cannot be considered as a breakthrough in the legality of climate refugees as a whole for its standing as region-specific and humanitarian-based with limitations attached to it that only welcomes 100 refugees per year.

Even though most of the climate-induced migration is internal, the developed countries have shown ‘fear’ of getting overburdened with the flow of climate refugees which according to the estimates of The International Federation of Red Cross Institute are more than political refugees. As Italy located in the Mediterranean basin is concerned about the waves of climate migrants coming all the way from Sub-Saharan Africa. However, in such cases, it is hard to identify them as climate refugees because the inter-country or inter-continental migration mostly occurs after an individual had already migrated to a safer place within its home country; and the subsequent move by an individual would rather be categorized as ‘labor migration.’

Climate migration has also an added impact of intensifying the conflict in such destination areas where resources and infrastructure hardly cater to the needs of the existing population, and the major obstacle for climate-induced migrants is how and where to move and sometimes their inability to move. For instance, the Syrian farmers who fled to the conflict-ridden cities after crop failure had resulted in political unrest. Moreover, the Darfur Conflict in Sudan also holds a strong link with climate change where desertification and decreased rainfall by up to 30% became reason for tensions among communities and between famers and herders.

In many instances, people remain unable to move from their places during sudden extreme events or even in slow-onset climate change. Sometimes, they lack required resources to move from their places or inability to find a safer place. And they are called as ‘trapped populations.’

Not linking climate refugees with those fleeing political persecution often seem unjustifiable as people migrating from the rural areas due to climate change remain exposed to the discrimination by their race, religion, culture or political thought. The categorization of climate and political refugees became narrow when ‘Cyclone Mora’ hit the region around Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong, which also badly damaged the camps of political Rohingya refugees living at the border. Here, political refugees can be juxtaposed with climate refugees. The impediment in recognizing climate refugees – whether in the existing regime of refugee convention or by creating an additional protocol – will create unease in handling such a vast displacement which is inevitable so far.

Reiterating developed countries as responsible for climate change, they are also not immune to climate change and displacement. The recent California wildfire that destroyed around 14,000 residences; the declining sea-ice from the Arctic; desertification in Mexico forcing 80,000 people to move every year; and major towns in UK, Glasgow, Wrexham, Aberdeen and Chester being flood-prone are few of the prime examples climate change has set in the face of developed countries’ primacy in the world. Nevertheless, there would be a difference between climate refugees of developed countries and those of developing ones in terms of their suffering and adaptive capacity against natural hazards.

Given the numbers and magnitude of climate-induced migration, it is imperative that there should be a context-specific approach to the looming threat and uncertainty created by the legal lacuna regarding climate refugees. Early warning systems can help reduce the risk, and awareness about ‘adaptation strategies’ among vulnerable people would count as a step forward because the future displacement will largely depend on the level of investment in adaptation capacity. The threat is globally diverse and the ways to cope with it should be domestic and international together with bilateral and multilateral approach.

In my view, it is high-time to acknowledge and address this challenge on the state, as well as global level. The world simply cannot wait and sit around on the issues surrounding the climate refugee problem and the threat that dislocation of this nature presents for future times.

The author Asif Ali is a research assistant at the PIIA. 

Key Words: Climate Change, Migration, International Law, Conflict.


Dan Morrison, Come Hell With High Water, The New York Times, 20 January 2012.

Tom White, Climate change ‘will push European cities towards breaking point,’ The Guardian, 21 Feburary 2018.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr., The deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California’s history has finally been contained, The Washington Post, 26 November 2018.


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Filed under Climate Change, Discussion, Economy, Ethnic cleansing, Immigration, Pakistan Horizon, Politics, Refugees, Rohingya

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