Protecting refugees

Cristina-ioana Dragomir
Tuesday, Mar 05, 2024

Legally defining “climate refugees” has been fiercely debated globally on many accounts. Critics often argue that attributing migration solely to climate change oversimplifies a complex web of influences on human mobility. They claim that these terms diminish the role of institutional and human responses, and social conditions in transforming environmental stressors into crises.

Thus, this complexity makes it impossible to distinguish between climate refugees and economic migrants. Ironically, this argument actually persists alongside predictions that estimate a possible 1.2 billion people (PDF) might be displaced by 2050 due to climate-change-related hazards.

After COP28, this recurring chorus echoed in my mind: “No legal changes are needed; we have it covered with UN initiatives like the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration”, which commits (PDF) parties to creating “conducive political, economic, social and environmental conditions for people to lead peaceful, productive and sustainable lives in their own country and to fulfil their personal aspiration”.

Under its second objective, the compact emphasises the need for cohesive approaches in handling migration challenges amid both sudden and gradual natural disasters, urging the integration of displacement concerns into disaster preparedness strategies. Let us pause for a moment. While these policies project preparedness, they fall remarkably short in offering robust legal recognition and protections to those facing climate crises and the need to move – including the groups and individuals in the examples I shared earlier.

This absence of a specific legally defined framework poses hurdles for individuals seeking migration status due to climate change impacts.

Calls to establish international legal frameworks tailored to address migration needs arising from environmental factors have been equated with opening Pandora’s box. Some suggest this could challenge the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines the term “refugee” strictly along the lines of “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

They worry an unravelling that would add climate and environmental movement protection might destabilise our already fragile global commitments to upholding all refugee rights. They warn that this opening might overshadow the plight of those fleeing persecution and conflicts.

My sympathy for this concern runs deep. I agree that this critique deserves careful consideration. But here is the crux: The urgency to address climate-induced humanitarian crises shouldn’t be paralysed by the complexities of diplomacy or the fear of potential aftershocks.

Let us be clear: The pains of any form of persecution, and seeking refuge from conflicts demand immediate action. But we should not allow these complexities to shroud the urgency of rethinking international agreements.

International agreements are reviewed all the time, so doing so regarding climate change realities would be no different. Think about the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – the first legally binding treaty signed by 154 countries committing to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

Excerpted: ‘Protecting climate refugees requires a legal definition’. Courtesy: