The difficulty in protecting climate refugees starts at the practical level: It’s very hard to figure out who a climate refugee is.
Take a family living in a small fishing community along the eastern bank of Bhola Island in Southern Bangladesh. If a cyclone sends a storm surge that erodes the land this family is living on, they’ll have to move somewhere. Even a slight nudge from climate change can tip the delicate balance, says Kathinka Evertsen, who researched migration from this region for her master’s thesis at Sciences Po in Paris.
“These people are so on the edge of everything that, even if there are very small changes in the weather they are dependent on, that really destroys their livelihood,” she says.
But here’s where it starts to get tricky. While scientists agree that climate change is raising sea levels in the Bay of Bengal and contributing to stronger and more destructive cyclones, a multitude of other physical causes are at work there, too. Cyclones have battered the Bay of Bengal for years, and erosion from the sheer force of the delta’s rivers is a fact of life. Economics also come into play: If the family can purchase land inland, they won’t have to flee their homeland. Or if they can find a new job after the loss of farmland, they might be able to stay. In any case, there’s no scientifically sound method for examining all these factors and determining that climate change was most responsible for the need to leave.
Then there’s the legal problem. The guiding document of international refugee law, the 1951 UN Convention on the status of refugees, defines them as people who have left their home country and can’t return because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Rising sea levels, droughts, and severe superstorms don’t fit into that definition.
There’s also the requirement of government persecution, but in most cases it’s not the government that’s persecuting people, it’s the climate. A court case in New Zealand tried to extend these protections to a family from the small island nation of Kiribati, arguing the danger from climate change back home amounted to persecution. The courts repeatedly rejected that argument, though, and the family was deported in September.
The gap in the international framework might not cause chaos now, while the effects of climate change are still ramping up. But climate-induced migration is only going to increase in the years to come. The International Organization for Migration says the most common estimate is 200 million environmental migrants by 2050.
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A declaration of rights for climate refugees is not on the table at the COP21 in Paris. That’s not a huge problem for Walter Kaelin, the envoy of the chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative. The Geneva-based group is trying to rally international action to protect climate-induced migrants, but Kaelin points out that climate negotiators aren’t really specialists in refugee issues; their job is to rein in the carbon emissions that will do the displacing in years to come.