Environmental Refugeeship as a Legal and Ethical Challenge

By Farida Abdelmeguied

What are climate migrants/refugees?

        As ice caps melt, sea levels rise, and other manifestations of human-induced climate change occur, small island states face the threat of being completely eliminated from the map. Populations living in deltas and coastal areas also face imminent threats, like the threat of flooding, desertification, droughts, and other extreme climatic events caused by anthropogenic climate change. As this occurs, populations will have to move to other countries in attempts to stay alive. Millions of people will be displaced as their communities become uninhabitable due to climate change. The adverse effects of climate change have and will continue to create a new category of migration: climate-induced migration, which in some cases becomes climate refugeeship.The existence of climate migrants poses unique legal and ethical challenges, and the representation of these migrants will play a direct role in their wellbeing. For the purposes of this discussion, a climate migrant is one whose need to relocate permanently is directly due to climate change.

Environmental Refugeeship: An Ethical and Legal Challenge

        Climate migrants face an entirely new set of legal challenges and pose ethical questions that do not pertain to other kinds of migrants or refugees. Under international refugee law, namely the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees (Convention 1951) and its 1967 Protocol, climate migrants do not qualify for the term “refugee.” This is evidently problematic, and an international framework to handle climate-induced migration is necessary. This framework, likely in the form of a United Nations General Assembly resolution, would grant climate migrants rights and accordingly appropriate treatment by creating a new category of legally recognized migration. It would also create an organization that facilitates and supervises global negotiations on resettling these displaced peoples. Proposing an entirely new framework rather than an amendment to the existing legal frameworks is more constructive because adding climate refugees as an additional group would overwhelm the already overworked UNHCR and can undermine the efforts to protect refugees currently included in the legislation.

In terms of ethics, climate migrants differ than other categories of refugee for several reasons, and there are multiple justifications that support the establishment of a legal framework for their protection. The first is humanitarian. Climate migrants flee their countries for survival, not for any less urgent or pressing reason. Climate migrants’ displacement is always forced – they are not leaving their countries for leisure. International solidarity should support a moral, if not legal, obligation of the Global North to intervene in a situation that if left alone, will be deadly for many. If this issue is approached through the perception of human rights and the fundamental right of people to safety, developed states might contribute to mitigating the issue. Further, a responsibility to protect has arisen in the face of other tragic occurrences such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity. Climate change is another example of a series of events that threatens the wellbeing, life, and rights of vulnerable populations.

Second, a fairness argument based on the polluter-pays principle is relevant. Developed nations have emitted the most greenhouse gases historically, are largely responsible for anthropogenic climate change, and are the most prepared to deal with it. The populations most affected by climate change are those who have benefited the least from industrial development/emitting greenhouse gases and are the least capable of handling it. The fundamental injustice of the human aspect of climate change is evident. Whether the solution for this is more open borders or nations in the Global North more actively working to reduce the environmental detriments caused by climate change in the Global South is another discussion, but the fairness principle stands.

The Role of Representation and Framing

        These migrants’ safety is dependent on their portrayal in the nations they are trying to move to. If politicians frame these migrants as dangerous outsiders who will usurp resources and jobs that they aren’t entitled to, they are much less likely to be safe, and legal tools to protect climate migrants are much less likely to be developed. If they are instead depicted as people in need of help in the face of disasters beyond their immediate control, their chances of safety are higher. The increasingly relevant emphasis on borders, policing, anti-immigration stances, and general resistance to change by many politicians and world leaders suggests that the first approach aforementioned has influenced rhetoric and policy on current and potential migration. For example, the fence that covers over 70% of the border between India and Bangladesh, designed by India to keep Bangladeshi migrants out is indicative of this. President Trump’s promise to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico to hinder illegal immigration is another clear indicator that understandings of borders are becoming more rigid and hostile to those who attempt to cross them, which is indicative of what is to come.

Evidently, climate-induced migration, a growing concern, raises legal and ethical questions that must be resolved to ensure the safety of millions. The way climate-induced migration will be approached depends partially on the framing and representation of the issue. Climate-induced migration is but one geopolitical change of many stemming from climate change, and this indicated how pressing and far-reaching of an issue this is and how action on climate change must be decisive and expansive.

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