• Flore van Vlokhoven

‘Climate Refugees’? The Denial of an Unfortunate Reality

Picture taken by the award-winning documentary photographer Vlad Sokhin: https://culturesofresistance.org/news/photography-as-resistance-by-our-friend-vlad-sokhin/

Humanity has been gradually waking up to the detrimental impact that climate change has on our planet. Ranging from loss of biodiversity to sea level rise, the negative consequences of climate change are manifold. However, while we are repeatedly reminded of the threatening reality of climate change through images of melting glaciers, hurricanes and floods, there continues to be a lack of international action aimed at protecting the human rights of those disproportionally affected by the global climate crisis.

It is now widely recognised that climate change has a disproportionate effect on certain regions and, hence, populations around the world. Small island developing states (SIDS), such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru, are among those most adversely impacted by the multiple effects of climate change. Due to their geographical location, their very existence is threatened by climate change-induced sea level rise and the occurrence of extreme weather events. Intense flooding causing knee-deep land submergence, the inability to grow food, and a lack of access to potable water leading to severe diseases are merely some examples demonstrating the detrimental impact of climate change on the daily lives of SIDS inhabitants.

Paradoxically, SIDS are among those least responsible for climate change. Statistics indicate that the biggest portion of the global greenhouse gas emissions is emitted by a small number of countries, including China, the United States, and those countries making up the European Union. Nevertheless, SIDS carry an unequal burden of the climate crisis and are dependent on the action and willingness of those most responsible to mitigate the effects of climate change on both the environment and the human rights of their inhabitants.

Albeit being a hot and widely discussed topic, the human rights dimension of climate change is often treated as an undesirable yet distant phenomenon, especially in the Western part of the world. However, climate change is no longer a hypothetical future scenario. Its impact on the human rights of both individuals and entire communities - most visibly those living in SIDS and other low-lying coastal areas - are ongoing. In fact, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, the climate crisis is the “greatest ever threat to human rights”.

Indeed, the multiple effects of climate change continue to impinge upon a wide range of human rights, including the rights to food, safe drinking water, housing, sanitation, an adequate standard of living, and the right to life. These are all rights that are set out in international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the ratifying states have committed themselves to respect, protect, promote, and fulfil.

Despite the fact that the nexus between climate change and human rights has been recognised by scholars, as well as governmental and non-governmental institutions, the fact that people have and will continue to be forced to leave their country of origin as a result of the effects of climate change is still inconceivable for many of us. In the past years, people forced to leave their country of origin due to climate change have come to be known as ‘climate refugees’, a term featuring prominently in the news media these days. However, the term ‘climate refugees’ remains contested and is criticised for being legally unsound, as it does not have a basis in international law. The controversy is caused by the fact that the term ‘refugees’ only applies to those who meet the requirements contained in Article 1(A)(2) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and its 1967 Protocol. The latter requires proof of the existence of a well-founded fear of being persecuted on grounds related to “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”, and the inability or, owing to the fear of persecution, unwillingness to seek protection from the respective country of origin.

‘Climate refugees’ do not, as such, flee on the basis of one of the exhaustively listed grounds of persecution: they flee because the environmental condition existing in their countries do no longer allow for the fulfilment of their most basic human rights. Consequently, people displaced due to climate change do not fall under the scope of the Refugee Convention. This is particularly problematic, as it means that they are unable to benefit from the protection granted thereunder. As of now, there are no legally binding instruments in place which recognise and provide specific protection to persons displaced due to climate change. Yet, regardless of the absence of instruments which formally recognise the category of ‘climate refugees’, the term continues to capture the reality many people have and will continue to face as a result of climate change: they are forced to leave their country of origin and seek refuge elsewhere to ensure their long-term security or even survival.

“Climate refugees account for more than a half of all migrants but enjoy little protection” (Picture retrieved from: http://thegoodplanet.org/2020/03/23/climate-change-and-the-disappearing-island-of-kiribati)

How does the future of SIDS inhabitants, as well as other vulnerable communities in low-lying coastal areas look like? Currently, the outlook seems grim. There is an urgent need to acknowledge that climate change is not just a purely environmental crisis. Besides the environmental, political, and economic implications, it is a human rights crisis which disproportionally affects the world’s most vulnerable groups and communities. While concepts such a ‘climate refugees’ still seem alien to many of us, forced displacement due to climate change is real, despite the unresolved debates regarding the appropriate terminology to be used to describe the legal status of such people.

Let us not lose sight of the human rights violations that continue to occur abroad, as a result of both our and our governments’ inaction. Immediate action is indispensable to uphold the numerous human rights that are currently being undermined by the effects of climate change. This requires commitment, sensitivity, and input from all of us. Not in the near future, but now.