International Law and ‘Climate migrants’: Are we prepared for an unavoidable, forthcoming crisis?

Written by Rasmika Ghosh, EuH Symbiosis

Image Credit: Alessandro Grassani, 2015, Haiti, Port au Prince, Citè Soleil, Village des Rapatriès.

A few weeks before COP26 began in Glasglow, the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented a report assessing the future of our planet. The contents of the report are alarming, to say the least. The report unequivocally and indisputably states that human actions have contributed towards the increasing temperatures, which in turn has grave, unavoidable consequences. Apart from relying on scientific and statistical data to affirm the gravity of the current climate crisis referring to the rise in sea levels and record high temperatures; the report ominously states that in terms of certain consequences of global warming, we are past the point of no return. There is no denying that this report is indeed a ‘code red’ for humanity.

This article will explore one of the major consequences of climate change; climate crisis-induced migration and displacement. With gradually worsening climate patterns and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, large-scale migration and displacement of communities is inevitable. However, under the current legal framework, these communities cannot rely on sufficient legal protection. The current system of international law does not accommodate the needs and exigencies of ‘climate migrants’.

The consequences of climate change include frequent floods, droughts, extreme weather events, rise in sea levels causing the coastal regions to sink, and salinization of freshwater sources among others. All of these events threaten access to food, health, and shelter — the three fundamental needs of human beings. This causes people to migrate and seek better living conditions. As of now, there is no international consensus on the status of people displaced due to climate change.

A ‘refugee’ is defined as a person who has crossed an international border ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’, according to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. When it comes to people displaced as a result of climate change, typically cross-border displacement follows internal displacement, wherein, people are forced to relocate within their own country. Even if the present legal definition of ‘refugee’ were to include people displaced by climate change, it would hardly be sufficient in accounting for the nuances that come into play with regard to climate-induced displacement. For instance, under the present understanding of the term ‘refugee’, it is implicit that once the conflict in the host country subsides, the refugees can return home, however, in case of climate change-induced displacement, quite simply put, there remains no home to return to.

In a recent ruling concerning a Kiribatian farmer, Ieane Teitiota, the UN Human Rights Committee recognized that it is henceforth unlawful for governments to return people immediately threatened by the climate crisis, to the country which they are fleeing. The case revolved around Ioane Teitota, from the Pacific nation of Kiribati who applied for protection from New Zealand, claiming that his and his family’s life were at risk due to a rise in sea levels, increase in levels of water salinity, and lack of arable land. Even though the committee ruled against Teitota, since his life was not proven to be at ‘imminent risk’, the UN ruling has brought the issue of climate migration to the forefront of the climate discourse. Teitiota claimed that his family was a victim of ‘passive persecution’ as a result of climate change. The ruling is not legally binding for states, however, it shows governments all around the world that in the near future, climate change will affect the legal obligations they have under international laws.

Upon further analysis of the ruling in the Teitiota case, one may question the interpretation of the term ‘imminent risk’. In this case, it was held that Mr. Teitiota could not prove that his life was at ‘imminent risk’. This begs the question, what constitutes ‘imminent risk’ and how is the international community expected to strike a balance between waiting until a community faces imminent risk and ensuring it is not too late either.

The Teitiota ruling is a landmark one, but at the same time, it needs to be followed up with a comprehensive legal framework, specifically addressing climate migration. Such a framework would not only have to accommodate cross-border migration, but also internal displacement along with measures to build resilience and adaptability of vulnerable communities.

Climate crisis-induced migration is an almost inevitable forthcoming crisis, yet the global community must do everything in its power to avoid the threat of displacement, wherever possible. Vulnerable communities such as coastal communities and people living in regions prone to extreme weather events must be provided with adequate economic and infrastructural support to combat extreme weather events. For instance, strengthening embankments in areas prone to floods to avoid the salinization of fields and the flooding of settlements.

It must be noted that climate-induced displacement of populations holds the potential to cause a range of other problems such as hindrances to economic growth and development, uncertainty of access to healthcare, food, and education. Overpopulation of urban areas as a result of the migration of coastal communities will eventually impact the food security, health security, and other basic needs of people at large. Large-scale displacement of populations will force previously distant ethnic groups to live closer to each other and compete for limited resources, which could lead to violent confrontations. For instance, in Bangladesh, communities have been forced to migrate from the rural, coastal regions to the hill tracts of Chittagong, due to droughts, desertification, erosion, and floods. This has led to an ethnopolitical conflict, fuelled by existing ethnic tensions between two groups due to their involuntary proximity. In the current political landscape where nationalist, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic tendencies are prevalent, a constructive discourse on climate migrants seems unlikely.

In order to avoid such consequences of involuntary migration as much as possible, states must realize the need to act against global warming as well as to adapt to the possibility of population displacement and its consequences. States must invest in research to determine how to improve migratory processes, to ensure that communities who need to migrate due to the climate crisis are assisted in terms of requisite economic, legal, and social resources, to ensure that the process is efficient and secure. The global response to this crisis will define, or even redefine international relations in this 21st century.

Rasmika Ghosh is a member of the European Horizons Chapter at Symbiosis International University, India.

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