The Security Benefits of Defining and Establishing a Protected Status for Climate Migrants

Stimson Spotlight

The Security Benefits of Defining and Establishing a Protected Status for Climate Migrants

By Sarah Griffin

In 2009, a citizen of the Pacific island state of Kiribati applied to an Australian tribunal for refugee status. The grounds of his claim: Kiribati was slowly sinking due to the rising sea level, and life on the island was gradually becoming untenable. In fleeing to Australia, he hoped “to find a shelter, a home that can give me peace of mind and good health.” 

This is not an isolated incident. Since 2000, there have been 17 cases in Australia and New Zealand where individuals from small Pacific island states have sought to claim “environmental refugee” status. Each has resulted in a similar ruling — rejection of the application. Although environmental migrants are sometimes referred to as “climate refugees” in popular discourse, the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951 does not include environmental threats in its refugee definition. While the courts have acknowledged the validity of claims of hardship due to climate change, they have refused to recognize people impacted by climate change as a distinct social group and have rejected the submission that government ambivalence to climate change rose to the level of motivated, intentional, and discriminatory persecution.

To protect vulnerable populations, the international community ought to establish a legal definition for climate migrants and an accompanying framework for supporting them. The international community can then prepare to mobilize resources to better assist climate migrants and mitigate related security risks, like conflict over resources. Some experts remain divided on what role a new protected status might play in ameliorating the challenges of climate migration. While not a silver bullet, a solid legal definition of climate migrants presents a starting point from which to devise further policy regarding climate event related displacement.

Policymakers increasingly view climate change as a security issue. The U.S. Department of Defense has acknowledged that climate change can be a threat multiplier. Often, the effects of climate change compound societal factors, like conflict, to drive displacement. For example, the shrinking of Lake Chad displaced farmers and fishermen, heightened resource competition and, in a region with poor state control and conflict management, opened opportunities for Boko Haram to gain a foothold and create further instability.

A legal definition would provide the basis for creating appropriate protections to fill existing gaps in international law when it comes to climate-related displacement. While states already have obligations to certain displaced persons and individuals impacted by disasters, the challenge remains that these existing definitions are often linked to specific resources which might be depleted if the definitions were broadened unilaterally by jurists. The rationale for expanding international legal frameworks to respond to climate event-induced migration has been increasingly discussed in academic circles. A remaining barrier however is the political feasibility of establishing new support mechanisms for climate migrants, evident in Australia’s opposition to establishing a climate change displacement coordination program in the Paris Agreement. This is part of a trend of developed countries turning their backs on migrants and refugees at a time of critical need for humanitarian support, for both political and economic reasons. There are also concerns in Australia and elsewhere about capacity to receive a large influx of migrants and fears that welfare systems are unprepared to support them.

How then can the international community remedy deficiencies in the current international response to climate-related displacement? One admittedly controversial option is for the international community to expand the definition of who is considered a refugee. There is some precedent for expansion; the 1967 Refugee Protocol removed the 1951 Convention’s limitation that the status applied only to European refugees post-World War II. However, this scenario is likely unworkable due to concerns about the overextension of already-limited resources for refugees.

Alternatively, a distinct protected status for climate migrants would provide the basis for a framework of legal protections, could be linked to resources, and may entail a right for migrants to remain and work in a host country. One possibility is establishing multiple definitions or subcategories based on type of displacement, and creating a distinction between forced and voluntary migration. This distinction is necessary to establish limits on who is eligible for protected status; voluntary economic migrants impacted to a lesser extent by environmental challenges do not have as acute a level of need as do forcibly displaced climate migrants.

The pressing security implications of climate change require immediate action, including a more precise definition of climate migration plus a concerted effort to mobilize resources. Such actions would help mitigate the expensive security implications associated with mass, uncoordinated migration. A protected legal status for climate migrants would help governments mitigate the poverty and desperation which might leave migrants with few options but to join criminal networks, or render them vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist and insurgent groups.

Long-term climate disasters are not only the concern of Pacific island states like Kiribati; in northern Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen, prolonged drought and environmental degradation have exacerbated socioeconomic and political instability, resulting in both internal and cross-border displacement. Poor regional governance and ineffective international intervention has left a vacuum for non-state armed groups, such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, to gain power through provision of food aid and recruitment of new members. These are just a few areas of instability where the lack of a framework for dealing with climate driven displacement is already hindering international response to crises. Without action, it is conceivable that we will see an increase in similar threats in the years to come.

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Sarah Griffin is an intern with the Environmental Security program at the Stimson Center.

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center