“Climate change will stir ‘unimaginable’ refugee crisis, says military” 
 This one of the headliners of the Guardian on the 1st of December of 2016. It seems to be a rather dramatic statement, although we get to know more and more about the potential effects of climate change. Most people know about the rising sea level and the changing weather, but what kind of effect these changes exactly will have is still unknown. What we do know, is that climate change will affect a lot of people and it is already affecting people today. Some of them are forced to move to saver places. These people are called climate refugees. This blogpost is about climate refugees. In particular about climate refugees of today, what kind of support they get, how big the group of climate refugees is going to be in the future and how the international regime could handle the problems that will come.

What is a climate refugee?

Although there is a lot of discussion about the exact definition of a climate refugee, I will describe a climate refugee as someone who flees from his city or country due to the effects of climate change. The effects of climate change come in several forms. Long periods of drought or very long periods of rain are seen as the effects of climate change. These periods can destroy a farmer’s harvest and lead to a migration of the farmer. Also desertification of the land is an effect of climate change. It forces farmers to seek their luck somewhere else, as it destroys the agricultural fields of the farmer. The rise of the sea level makes people migrate to other places as well. The water can put a whole island underwater, making it uninhabitable. In this case, the inhabitants of the islands have to migrate. Also the increasing frequency and intensity of storms are seen as effects of climate change. Storms obviously destroy villages and forces people to leave the area.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), an average of 26.4 million people per year have been displaced due to disasters of the natural kind, such as earthquakes and floods, in the period of 2008–2014. The IDMC acknowledges that climate change plays a significant role in these disasters, as the climate changes the normal weather patterns and make hazards “more severe and frequent.” Their report also says that climate change “magnifies the trend of increasing displacement”.
The rather complicated image below shows that climate change increases weather-related hazards and vulnerability of persons and eventually increases displacement.

How climate change, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation can influence displacement, IDMC report 2015

The UNHCR confirms the estimates of the IDMC and even gives concrete numbers of displaced persons due to the effects of climate change. According to the UNHCR in 2009, 36 million people had to migrate due to natural disasters. Of these 36 million migrants, 20 million were forced to leave their home due to effects of climate change.

A disaster overview of 2014 by the IDMC
A disaster overview of the last few years, by the Nansen Initiave

Climate refugees or not a new group of migrants. For instance, in 1995, a flood put the half of the Bhola Island in Bangladesh underwater. The result was 500,000 homeless persons that had to seek a new place to live.

More recent cases are the long periods of drought in Somalia in 2011 and 2012, the floods in Pakistan between 2010 and 2012 and the floods at the Maldives. The Maldives are perhaps the most threatened country in the world by the sea level rise. At its highest point, the Maldives are only 2.4 meters above sea level and do not have enough money for dikes or other protection against the sea water. The rise of the sea level is already causing problems, such as floods, putting whole islands underwater. The result is that some parts of the Maldives are becoming uninhabitable and that a part of their economy, which is for 25 percent supported by tourism, collapses in the future.

Most climate refugees choose for internal migration. This means that they decide to live somewhere else in the country where they already lived. Though, for some countries, in the future this would probably not be possible or desirable anymore. This will be explained a bit later. Most climate refugees are then forced to migrate to a country abroad, something that is already happening right now.

Support for climate refugees: is there any?

In terms of support that is received, you can divide climate refugees in two groups: I call them the internal and the external climate refugee. The internal climate refugee moves to another place, but within the same country that he or she already was. The external climate refugee moves to another country.

The internal climate refugees seem to get a lot more support, than the external climate refugees. For instance, the UNHCR has developed a ‘planned relocation guidance’ for internal climate refugees. This means that the UN helps people evacuating from the area that is in danger, to another (safe) place within the same country. This happens under state authority. The guidance is developed in 2015, so this project is still very young.

Victims of floods in Rahkine and Kachin (Myanmar) are assisted by the UNHCR, august 2015

There are also non-profit organisations that help internal climate refugees. An example of this is the EJF, the Environmental Justice Foundation. Their goal is to protect the environment and human rights. They train people in the threatened areas to ‘”combat the threats against the wild life and the people living there”. They also make documentaries to raise awareness about several topics, which climate refugees is one of.
The external climate refugees cannot count on a lot of support. Normally, refugees have certain rights on asylum when fleeing their own country. These rights are stated in the Refugee Convention of 1951. But climate refugees do not have these rights, because they do not fulfil the requirements of being a refugee as stated in Article 1A of the Refugee Convention.
The requirements for being a refugee are mainly focused on having a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
Displacement due to the effects of climate change does not fall within the scope of this article. Because climate refugees lack the requirements of being a refugee and so cannot obtain special asylum rights, there are often described as climate migrants. They are not seen as refugees, but just as normal migrants. Because of this fact, states can just refuse entry to climate refugees, while they may need the support just as much as other kinds of refugees.

A good example of this happening in practice, is the case of Teitiota vs New-Zealand. This man came from Kiribati to New-Zealand in 2007 and got a residence permit until 2010. He stayed after the expiration of his permit, because his home country is threatened by the sea level rise. In 2015, he was arrested and remained in custody, because he stayed after his permit was expired. His family and himself claimed to be climate refugees and wanted to stay in New Zealand based on this claim. Nonetheless, the New-Zealand court ruled that he should return to Kiribati. 
To find out how bad the situation is in Kiribati, you could read the following article: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35024046

In the Maldives Draft Protocol, there was a proposal to change the definition of a refugee to a definition where climate refugees are also able to obtain special asylum rights. Anwarhul Chowdhury, a former UN High Commissioner, also advocated for a change of the requirements of being a refugee. Many states were against this idea, as it would influence the protection for other refugees in a bad way or it could bring tension between different groups of refugees. And so, the requirements were not changed. 
But there is some help coming for external climate refugees after all. Since December 2011 there is something called the Nansen Initiative. This Initiative is founded by Norway and Switzerland and now has nine member states. The goal of the Nansen Initiative is to create agreement between the UN states about a protection agenda for displaced people due to the effects of climate change. To do this, they have made a lot of recommendations on how to make such a protection agenda. The UNHCR has responded to this by the creation of the Platform on Disaster Displacement, which focuses on implementing the recommendations of the Nansen Initiative, by “building partnerships between policymakers”.
There are even some countries that recognize climate refugees as actual refugees. Sweden and Finland both have an Alien Act that ensures help for people fleeing their country due to the effects of climate change. Although this is a start, both countries fail to apply the Act in practice.

High volumes of external climate refugees: coming sooner than you wish

After reading the previous parts, you could say the external climate refugees do not receive a lot of support yet. Luckily, at this moment the group of climate refugees that seeks their luck abroad is not big in comparison with other refugee groups. But in the future the group of external climate refugees will probably grow (rapidly). The effects of climate change will have several consequences for the people living in vulnerable areas around the globe. In 2050, hundreds of millions of people will be displaced due to the effects of climate change and the melting ice sheets alone can destroy the homes of 5% of the human population on earth. The most threatened places are coastal zones, small island states, Africa and Asia. Coastal zones and small island states are of course threatened by the sea level rise. I already mentioned the Maldives, but other states such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, are also threatened by the sea. The inhabitants of these states are forced to go to other countries, because their home country simply vanishes in the future. There are even concrete numbers of people at risk due to sea level rise. In Bangladesh, 26 million people are at risk, add 12 million Egyptians, 20 million Indians and 31 million inhabitants of island states and in total (an estimated) 162 million people are at risk due to sea level rise around 2050.
 The rise of the sea level is of course not the only threat. Droughts threaten (an estimated) 50 million people in 2050.The droughts will destroy the agricultural potential of areas where farmers live and work, which forces them to move to other places. For instance, the Gobi Desert in China expands 3600 square kilometres a year, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya lose 1000 square kilometre of ‘productive land’ every year to desertification.

A big part of the estimated persons in danger will probably have to move. Right now, the most climate refugees choose for internal migration, but in the future climate change-induced migration will happen more cross-border. 
There are two reasons for this: some countries will disappear (such as the island states) and in other countries some safe areas will become overcrowded, due to internal migration. In Kiribati, this overcrowding is happening right now. According to a UN report, 72% of the population of Kiribati will live in Tarawa, the capital of the country, if the floods keep happening in the future. But at this time already, the inhabitants of Tarawa have a shortage of clean drink water, due to a dry spell.
If many more people have to migrate to the city, the clean water shortage will become bigger and things like unemployment rates will rise. In this case, external migration will become more desirable, than moving to an already overcrowded area.

The water in Tarawa is so dirty, that you could dip a stick in it and set it on fire

So, if we look at the estimates for the future, there will be a lot more climate refugees. A significant part of them will be forced to migrate to another country. Within the existing regime of the UN and other (inter)national organisations, the external climate refugees will not get the support they need, as we already read. In order to protect those external climate refugees and their human rights, some things have to change. In the next part, I will make recommendations about how to make the situation for the (external) climate refugees better and so ‘fill’ the gap between the need for support and the actual support that is received.

How to fill the gap

To ‘fill’ the (legislative) gap between the need for support and the actual support external climate refugees receive, multiple ideas were developed by experts and organisations. For this blogpost I choose the most important or effective ideas in my opinion. Another thing I did is testing the public opinion of people in Eemnes, a small village in the Netherlands and my hometown. The most interesting opinions of the people will be used in my evaluation of the ideas that the experts and organisations have.

The first action that must be taken is change the status of climate refugees. As described before, at this moment they do not have any special asylum rights like other groups of refugees have. This can be changed in several ways. One way is to change the definition of a refugee. This would mean that Article 1A of the Refugee Convention should be changed in a way that climate refugees are also falling under the scope of the article or that there must be an article added to the Refugee Convention. Another way is to “codify the right to a safe and stable environment in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR)”, as proposed by the Environmental Justice Foundation. 
This would empower the position of climate refugees in the EU, because rejecting a climate refugee as a member state of the ECHR would then be violating the right to a safe and stable environment. Another option is to make a complete new Refugee Convention and implement articles to give climate refugees the rights to asylum. All the different ways of changing the status of a climate refugee will probably be facing resistance. Like already written, different states think that changing the status of a climate refugee will have too many negative impacts. Also, changing a part of the Refugee Convention or adding something to the ECHR will probably lead to a lot of negotiations, let alone making a complete new Refugee Convention.

Out of the three ways, I would choose for changing Article 1A of the Refugee Convention/adding an article to the Refugee Convention. Although this was already proposed back in 2007 in the Maldives Draft Protocol (and denied), I would try to change it again. It is easier than making a complete new Refugee Convention, as there would be way less material to negotiate about. Also, the impact of changing the requirements for being a refugee, is bigger, than adding an article to the ECHR. The Refugee Convention applies to countries worldwide, while the ECHR only applies to European countries. 
Also, since 2007 more states seem to behave more responsible if it comes to climate change. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, is “the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal.”
 It seems that (in particular) Western countries come to realize that they are responsible for the climate change. One of the reasons that changing Article 1A was denied last time, was because of the lack of responsibility by Western countries over climate change and climate refugees.
The Western countries seem to behave more responsible if it comes to climate change, what could mean that the idea of changing the status of a climate refugee gets less resistance now.

Using more planned and managed migration would also be a solution for external climate refugees. The Maldives and Tuvalu already use this kind of migration. Both countries have deals with the countries around them. Those deals guarantee that their inhabitants can migrate to a safe country, such as Australia and New-Zealand, when their own country is uninhabitable. This form of migration could be used a lot more.

The migration of Tuvalu, Kiribati and Naura inhabitants

I would recommend that the UN takes part in the process of creating more planned migration. The UN could be the coordinator of the project and a mediator between parties that (possibly) need to evacuate in the future and parties that are able and willing to help these countries and their inhabitants. The UN is perfect for these roles, because it can bring a lot of countries in contact with each other. This form of migration is desirable, because the countries in need can get guarantees for safety. The helping countries can take measures a long time before the actual migration flow has to start. This makes the implementation of the measures easier, because there is some time for orderly and organized implementation. The problem of this form of migration is that you need to find states that are able and willing to take external climate refugees into their country and support the country in need. Although states as New-Zealand show that there is some interest in supporting external climate refugees, finding enough states will still be a challenge. Burden sharing will be important to find enough states that want to help, because asking too much support from one state, will probably discourage potential support.

Another way to solve the problem of external climate refugees is to create a whole new international regime. Biermann & Boas and Docherty & Gianne wrote papers about the development of a new international regime that helps relocating external climate refugees. Both the papers argue that the Refugee Convention should stay untouched and that a new regime is the solution to the problems of climate refugees. Although the papers have some subtle differences, they both design a regime which looks like planned migration. There are some differences in comparison with the already described planned migration, as they would use more mandatory manners. Although this idea seems the solution to give all external climate refugees a safe place in the future, the execution of it is very hard.

Both papers describe a lot of financial problems and moral problems, that comes with developing a new international regime. An example of a moral problem is the dilemma of helping a country that violates human rights. Because of the feasibility issues of this plan, I would rather choose for ‘normal’ planned migration, where the UN plays the roles of coordinator and mediator, states voluntary give support and a completely new international regime is not needed.


The results of the survey gave insight on relevant topics regarding the solutions. In particular, two questions gave relevant results. On the statement: “Climate refugees should have just as much rights as persons fleeing from war”
 75% reacted agree or totally agree. This means that a big part of the participants agree with the EJF or the Maldives Draft Protocol in giving the climate refugees more rights.

Another question that delivered interesting results was: “If you had to migrate, due to a breakthrough of the dikes, where do you want to live?

The results showed that 58,33% of the people wanted to live in a country nearby, even if there was some risk of another flood in the future on the new location. The most interesting thing was that 1 out of 3 people would stay in the Netherlands, even if there was a chance of a flood in the nearby future on the new location. This shows that people prefer to continue their lives in their own country or a known country nearby, even it could be more dangerous, than moving to a far country. In this trade-off, moving to a nearby, known place wins over safety or sustainability of the location. The UN could use this information in their potential role of coordinator and mediator in the process of mass planned migration, by focusing on connecting ‘safe’ countries in the future to threatened countries nearby.


To conclude this blogpost, we could say that external climate refugees are in trouble if the current legislation and actions of the international regime do not change. We have seen that in the future there will be more climate refugees and especially more external climate refugees. The current Refugee Convention does not even recognize external climate refugees as refugees and so many countries can just refuse to grant them asylum. Some countries have made some important first steps towards support for external climate refugees, such as Tuvalu and New-Zealand using planned migration. Though, in practice, external climate refugees still not get the support that they need now and in the future. The most interesting solutions that I found in papers of experts were changing the status of climate refugees, use a lot more planned migration and creating a whole new international regime. Due to feasibility problems of creating a whole new international regime, I would recommend to use mass planned migration and change the status of a climate refugee. To use a lot more planned migration, the UN could function as a coordinator of the project and a mediator between the (future) states in need and the supporting states. The survey gave the insight that people prefer living in a known or nearby location over safety or sustainability of the location. Based on this, the UN could try to connect countries that are geographically the closest to each other.

Rick de Wit — 2558066