Human Displacement and Climate Change

Briefing paper

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Date produced: 19/07/2010

Each year over 32 million people are forced to leave their homes to seek permanent or temporary residence in other parts of their own countries or in new countries in response to political, social, economic and environmental forces. Some of these people will meet criteria agreed to by the international community and will be given refugee status. Others will receive humanitarian assistance from organizations such as the United Nations (UN) or complementary protection from other States. Many will go through formal, legal channels to achieve temporary or permanent migrant status and some will arrive in a new country seeking asylum. International law has developed to respond to these different circumstances. International law has not, however, fully developed to respond to some of the new triggers that are driving displacement, such as environmental degradation and climate change-related events.

The United Nations University claims that, by 2010, as many as 50 million people will be seeking to escape the effects of environmental degradation. Norman Myers and major environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth, note that climate change, in particular the likelihood of increased extreme weather events and sea level rise, is likely to lead to significant increases in the number of environmentally displaced people, or so called ‘environmental or climate change refugees’, citing figures in the hundreds of millions of people. Whilst these figures must be treated with caution, bearing in mind that the links between environmental degradation and  unregulated population movements are not well-established, they nevertheless highlight the fact that many people, and in some instances whole communities, may be displaced as a result of environmental change.

There is no well-established legal basis upon which States are obliged to assist people displaced by climate change under international law. By exploring the application of traditional refugee and migration laws, a number of legal and non-legal scholars have demonstrated that these areas of law are not well suited to respond to the particular circumstances of global warming. Despite calls from some developing countries, Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have also shied away from considering human displacement under their mandate.

This paper explores the international legal frameworks that touch upon the rights and obligations of countries and citizens affected by climate change-induced displacement and migration and considers (i) whether the concept of an ‘environmental or climate refugee’ is appropriate; (ii) whether new legal regimes to afford protection to those persons should be developed under international law; and (iii) if so, what is the most appropriate forum to develop such regimes.