Chapter 8: “Too Hot to Handle” – Human Migration on a Rapidly Warming Planet

Environmental and Climate Refugees

As discussed above, our planet’s climate is rapidly warming, and this warming is having a widespread impact on global migration patterns. Consequently, increasing international attention has been paid to the plight of individuals forcibly displaced by rising sea levels, desertification, larger and more powerful storms, water and food scarcity, and environmental pollution (Brown, 2011).

I. Defining Environmental and Climate Refugees

At this point, it is useful to turn this discussion towards a more concrete definition of an environmental or climate refugee. El-Hinnawi (1985) defines environmental refugees as “those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their lives (p. 4). In addition, Myers (2002) refers to environmental refugees as individuals who do not have the opportunity to provide for themselves and/or their families because of drought, soil erosion, desertification,  deforestation, or other factors combined with pollution pressures and the extreme poverty found in their homelands. As a result of the poverty caused by environmental degradation, these people have no alternative but to attempt to seek sanctuary elsewhere (Myers, 1993, p. 752).

Burkett  (2012) further refines this definition and conceives of an environmental or climate refugee as an individual displaced because of sudden or slow-onset climate-related events. Sudden-onset events are extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes that cause an immediate threat to human life, whereas slow-onset events occur over a much longer period of time and include climate events such as sea level rise and desertification. However, given the complex ways in which climate change can manifest itself, with slow-onset phenomena resulting in an increase in catastrophic sudden-onset phenomena, and given the pre-existing social and economic conditions in societies that are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, it has been difficult to establish a direct link between changing climate and the circumstances surrounding individual claims for asylum (Kraler, Cereni & Noack, 2011).

To sum up, despite disagreements on the best terminology to use, and as discussed here, a broad consensus has emerged around the world that acknowledges how anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change is a major factor in current and future migration trends. As such, existing dominant theoretical and empirical understandings of human migration are not particularly transferable to envisaging how migration would unfold under the conditions of non-linear climatic change.

II. The Legalities of Recognizing Environmental and Climate Refugees

Further complicating this discussion is the existing legal discourse around the protection of refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees were both proclaimed at a point in time when the effects of climate change were not felt as acutely as they are today.

In addition, those critical of referring to individuals displaced by climate change as climate refugees are worried that this will “[blur] the boundaries between the definition of refugees according to the 1951 Refugee Convention—’Convention refugees’—and popular concepts regarding refugees” (Apap, 2019, p. 5) and make it difficult to distinguish climate refugees from others affected by forced displacement (Apap, 2019, p. 5). Although it could be generally agreed upon that the effects of forced human displacement because of climate change could be similar to those experienced by “Convention refugees,” a key distinction is that the right to non-refoulement (see the discussion above) implies that active persecution occurs. This is an important distinction—Convention refugees are granted legal protections under international law because they cannot rely on supports from the governments of the countries they are fleeing, whereas if they are fleeing as a result of climate change, their ability to rely on state resources in their countries of origin is still a possibility (Kälin & Schrepfer, 2012, p. 32).

However, a recent ruling by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has opened the door to re-examining this legal distinction. On January 21, 2020, the UNHRC issued a landmark ruling indicating that individuals seeking asylum in another country should not be deported to countries experiencing climate conditions that are incompatible with the right to life (OHCHR, 2020). This ruling was the culmination of a years-long struggle for refugee status launched by Ioane Teitiota, who originally migrated to New Zealand from Kiribati (Weiss, 2015).

Though Teitiota and his wife were simply seeking extensions to their visas, the arguments put forth in their defence—that deportation to Kiribati would place the family in imminent harm through their repatriation to a country widely believed to be the most at risk to permanently disappear under the seas of a rapidly-warming planet—were the first to suggest that existing global protocols governing the status of refugees could include migrants forced to relocate due to human-induced climate change (Iberdrola, 2022).

Unfortunately, it is important to note that the United Nations ruling only represented a partial victory for Teitiota. Although the ruling did provide nominal recognition for the existence of climate refugees, the UN also indicated that Teitiota’s case did not meet the threshold for “imminent” risk for Convention refugees given that the full impact of rising sea levels might not be felt for at least a decade or more, and as a result, he was not granted official refugee status (Su, 2020).

Ultimately, the outcome of this case should encourage policymakers, researchers, and settlement service providers to think more carefully about how climate change might upend conventional understanding of human migration. Keyes (2019) further argues that there is a duty for states to address a global harm principle and support individuals and groups affected by their actions. Similarly, Hush (2017) notes that other countries in the world have already moved to provide legal protections for persons forcibly displaced by environmental catastrophe. Specifically, asylum law in Scandinavian countries provides subsidiary protections to individuals who are not able to return to their countries of origin as a result of armed conflict or environmental degradation (Hush, 2017. For more information, please refer to the text of the Aliens Act in Finland.

The above discussion has illustrated the complexities surrounding the recognition and protection of environmental and climate refugees. Given the enormous political, legal, and logistical challenges of formally recognizing these refugees on an international level, it may be easier for individual nations to play a leading role in supporting those who are negatively impacted (and forcibly displaced) by climate change (Keyes, 2019, p. 25). In other words, nations could respond by creating new rules and regulations that complement and expand human rights and humanitarian protections for environmental and climate refugees within their own territories. In doing so, nations that take such action could inspire others to do the same.

Learning Activity 3: What should Canada’s obligations to refugees be?

INSTRUCTOR NOTE (1): This activity would be optimal as a small-group activity in a synchronous learning environment but could also work as an individual reflective exercise for different modalities.

INSTRUCTOR NOTE (2): This activity is designed to deconstruct an unfortunate and persistent myth in Canada—one about how the Government of Canada gives more financial help to refugees than it does to “Canadians” who retire here.

Watch the CBC News video How much do refugees and immigrants get in social assistance?  and read the Government of Canada’s response to persistent myths regarding the support offered to refugees in Canada. Take notes on key points made in these resources, and reflect on what you think Canada’s obligations should be and why. In your reflection, take particular note of the international protocols that the Government of Canada has already signed. Should these obligations be extended to environmental and climate refugees? Why or why not?

Learning Activity 4: Climate-Based Displacement

INSTRUCTOR NOTE (1): This activity would be optimal as a small-group activity in a synchronous learning environment but could also work as an individual reflective exercise for different modalities.

Watch the video Environmental migrants: The neglected refugees and take notes on how the content of this video relates to past and present discussions on international protocols pertaining to the status of refugees. What are some of the similarities between our current understanding of refugees and the “environmental migrants” discussed in the video? What are some differences? What is the relevance of this discussion for settlement workers?


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