Climate change refugee

Table of contents


Climate change impacts have been the subject of increasing attention both in the academia and media. A number of scholars have pointed to the increase in climate change induced migration. Despite the popularity of the climate change refugee concept, scholars have in the recent years been highly critical of its use. Most of the criticisms have been based on the fact that climate change victims are not covered under international refugee law. Existing legal frameworks such the 1951 refugee covenant and UNHCR Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement do not provide this group of people with sufficient protection.

In this regard, this paper critically debates on this highly contentious issue, while making reference to Bangladesh as the case study. Whilst the paper argues for the recognition of such persons under international law, it raises concerns that possible extension of the 1951 ‘refugee’ definition could result in reduced support for refugees. Nonetheless, the paper argues for the need to develop new legal recognition of climate change victims which should resonate with a sense of global responsibility and accountability


Climate change has become a subject of public debate in recent years, both in academia and in the media. It has also become an issue of great concern for the international community (Piguet 2008). Over the past few years, there has been an increasing attention on climate induced migration, both from policy-makers and the media. The climate change – migration nexus has received considerable interest especially given that almost every year, millions of people across the globe flee from their ancestral homes due to natural hazards and extreme weather situations (Durkova et al. 2012)

Research further indicates that anthropogenic climate change is likely to result in large-scale population displacements over the coming years (McLeman 2011). Myers (2002) study indicated that by mid-century, climate change disasters will displace another 200 million people. Other estimates have suggested large-scale population displacements of up to 1 billion people. However, these estimates are not based on statistical and empirical evidence and it is arguable whether the current displacements that are taking place are attributable to climate change (McLeman 2011)

Whilst the climate change – migration nexus has received considerable interest over the past few years, more recently researchers have been highly critical of the term ‘climate change refugee’. Most of the criticisms have been based on the fact that climate change victims are not covered under international law. There is no legally binding mechanism that protects climate change victims (Naser 2012). With regards to this, the following paper critically debates this highly contentious issue, while making reference to Bangladesh as the case study.

Climate change – environmental vulnerability nexus

The climate change – environmental vulnerability nexus is well established with impacts ranging from drought, to rising sea levels to extreme weather patterns (Pinto-Dobernig 2008). Many people are adversely affected by extreme weather patterns, which often result in their displacement. Scholars have used a range of terminologies to refer to such persons displaced by natural disasters that are climate related. In most of the terminologies used, either ‘climate change’ or ‘environmental’ have been used as a prefix. ‘Environmental refugee’ has in the past been very popular and has been used to describe the plight of victims displaced as a result of environmental change (Piguet 2011).

However, with the growing concerns over the impact of anthropogenic climate change on people, a more precise term would be ‘climate change refugee’. This term has recently gained increasing attention with academics, scholars, policy makers and world leaders using it to refer to people displaced by climatic factors such as glacier melt, rising sea level, cyclones, floods and drought (Naser 2012). Today, 9 of every 10 natural disasters witnessed result from anthropogenic climate change. In fact, the number of recorded climate change disasters has doubled over the last two decades from 200 to over 400 per annum (Ammer 2009). It is also predicted that by the end of the 21st century, there is likely to be an increase in hydro-meteorological disasters such as floods and hurricanes, and slow-onset disasters such as droughts.

Whilst Myers (2002), points out that the term ‘environmental refugees’ encompasses climate refugees, authors such as Biermann & Boas (2008) and Docherty & Giannini (2009) have stressed the need to address climate change refugees in particular. These authors argue that the term ‘environmental refugee’ fails to specify climate related migration.

In light of the current debate about the use of the term ‘climate change refugee’, estimates have shown that a large number of population have been adversely affected by climate change disasters. According to estimates by the UNHCR, climate change induced displacement in 2009 amounted to 36 million people (Durkova et al. 2012). Future estimates also point to the possibility of having a further increase in the number of climate change victims. Estimates by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) indicate that by 2060, Africa alone would have over 50 million people displaced by climate change disasters.

In fact, the number of people displaced by climate change disasters has been found to be far greater than those displaced by war atrocities. As pointed out by the International Federation of Red Cross, climate change – induced displacement far exceeds displacement induced by war, persecution and other atrocities (Durkova et al. 2012). These estimates of future climate migration indicate a terrifying figure and calls for an urgent need to address these concerns.

Case study of Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a prime example of a country that has had a vast majority of its population migrated following climate change disasters. Since the 1950s, between 12 and 17 million climate change victims in Bangladesh have been migrated to Assam and Tripura in India (Shamsuddoha & Chowdhury 2009). Estimates further indicate that more people are yet to be displaced due to Bangladesh’s vulnerability to climate change. However, available data on the prospective number of Bangladeshi expected to be displaced in future differ considerably.

Meyers (1994) estimated that up to 15 million Bangladeshi may be displaced by the end of 2050. That is, if nothing is done to slow global warming. A recent study by Brown (2004) showed that more than 40 million Bangladeshi would be displaced if there is a rise in sea level by 1 metre. Another study by Akter (2009) which examined the historical trends and future occurrences of climate change disaster such as floods, droughts, cyclones and riverbank erosion showed future displacement of 49 million, 63 million and 78 million Bangladeshi in 2010, 2015 and 2020 respectively.

Despite the inconsistency in available data on climate induced displacements in Bangladeshi, it is clear that the situation is worsening and that there is need for urgent action. However, a key challenge in the international community has been the contention surrounding the term ‘climate change refugee’.

Critical analysis of the concept “climate change refugee”

Criticism over the use of this term extends as far back to the work of early critics. In the early 1990s, Bilsborrow (1992), McGregor (1992) and Suhrke (1994) raised their oppositions to the use of the term. Bilsborrow (1992) argued that the term ‘environmental refugee’ or rather ‘climate change refugee’ afforded primacy to changes in physical environment whilst overlooking other factors that might be playing an important role. Further, McGregor (1992) argued that the term denied the migrant ability to endure changes. In a similar vein, Suhrke (1994) criticized this term for the manner in which it characterized all forms of movement as refugee-like. Suhrke (1994) argued that it undermined the legal terminology ‘refugee’ as defined in the United Nations Refugee Convention.

Whilst these criticisms have continued to influence debates to date, it is important to note these authors were not able to prove outright irrelevance of environmental refugee hypothesis, (currently known as ‘climate change refugee’). Of major concern to these authors was the assumed relationship between the changing environment and the patterns of mobility. With regards to this concern, it can be argued that these authors were opposed to its application and not its existence (Morrissey 2012). In fact, Bilsborrow (1992) offers a suggestion that the term be used discerningly to describe only climate induced migrants as opposed to being scrapped entirely.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) strongly argues against its use on the basis that it is not recognized under international refugee law (Shamsuddoha & Chowdhury 2009). According to the definition put forth by the 1951 UN refugee convention, a refugee is any person who:

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country (UNHCR 1992, p.25).”

The key word here is ‘persecution’ based on membership of a certain group, race, nationality, or political group. However, we may argue that the environment can act as a tool for harming people, and hence can be considered as ‘persecution’ and thereby fall under the refugee convention. That is, forcing someone to live in areas struck by climate change disasters is a form of persecution (Williams 2008).

Whilst the above point does certainly have some academic relevance, it remains highly speculative. Even if we are to adapt the most liberal approach in interpreting the convention, it may not be possible to find a space for ‘climate change refugees’ especially given its narrow definition and applicability (Morrissey 2012).

A further criticism is that majority of climate induced migration takes place within the country. That is, most of the involuntary migrants will be internally displaced persons. Yet, this group of persons is not covered under the refugee convention. In this regard, Cooper (1998) argues for an expanded definition that includes any person who is forced to flee owing to degraded environmental conditions that is life threatening and is outside of the boundaries of his country. Cooper (1998) also provides another way through which the expansion of the conventional refugee definition can be achieved. That is, by means of regional agreements. Two prime examples of such definitional expansion are:

The Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (Cooper 1998: p.496).
And, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees (Cooper 1998: p.496).

Both of these agreements addressed the plight of people forced to move by events that are ‘seriously disturbing the public order’. As Cooper (1998) points out, it is precisely this definition of “a situation of seriously disturbed public order” that could change the status quo and allow those vulnerable to anthropogenic climate change to be included in international legal framework. Although these two treaties did not address issues of climate change disasters, it clearly showed the insufficiency of the convention in addressing reasons of forced displacement.

The emergence of the ‘climate change refugee’ phenomena and the increase in displaced victims challenges the definition of refugee status laid out in the existing international legal framework. Given the changing world and the dangers of climate change displacement, the definition laid out by UNHCR in 1951 may need to change in order to accommodate the new situation and adequately address the emerging crisis.

Further, if we are to assume that victims of climate change are not refugees, then the burden of forced environmental migrants would fall unfairly on the poor economies. As such, there is need for amend the convention in order to guarantee victims of climate change disasters the necessary international protection and support (Williams 2008). However, there are concerns that an expansion on the definition of ‘refugee’ could further weaken convention and lead to a decline in protection afforded to refugees (Durkova et al. 2012). There is a concern that possible extension of the definition could result in reduced support for refugees. Nonetheless, we argue for a need for a new legal recognition for climate change victims.

The existing international legal framework seems to have no place for such persons. First, there is still no internationally accepted term for describing such persons. And second, there is no legally binding mechanism for protecting and providing such persons with support. Despite becoming a growing global concern, this group of persons is still not recognized in the international legal framework (Naser 2012).

It is sad to note that the UNHCR sacrifices the lives of victims of climate change for the sake of a conventional refugee. For this group of persons to receive the necessary legal support and protection under international law, either the 1951 UN refugee convention is amended or a new international protective status developed.

UN and EU approaches to ‘climate change refugee’

In the recent years, however, there has been a progress towards addressing the issue of ‘climate change refugees’. For example, in December 2010, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) created an Agreement on Long-Term Cooperative Action (Durkova 2012). This agreement would see the inclusion of climate-related displacement into national plans and international cooperation in order to arrive at a global solution.

With the Lisbon Treaty, the EU has also had to revise its Common Policy on Asylum and Immigration (Durkova 2012). Further, in 2010, the union submitted a Stockholm Programme which dealt with issues of climate change and population displacement. However, there seems to be no coherent policy approach to addressing this issue at the EU level. Despite the lack of a common EU instrument, this group of persons may receive protection within EU’s legal framework. In particular, the Temporary Protection Directive may provide such persons with temporary protection.

However, a particular problem with the directive is that it fails to take account of slow onset environmental changes. Moreover, only four member states recognize the need for protection of asylum seekers affected by climate change disasters (Durkova 2012). This shows that there are still no harmnonized protection statuses at the EU level.

Whilst there is a consensus to seek for a solution for climate induced displacement at the international level, the response is still far from adequate. The main problem has been the normative gap in legal framework and institutional gap. Whilst the UN has tried to respond to burning issues, there has been difficulty reaching a solution due to different approaches by members (Durkova 2012). At the EU level, there is no coherent and harmonized legislation that addresses this concern.

Nonetheless, the EU could play a proactive role in addressing this issue. Whilst the UN has no plans of revising the 1951 Refugee Convention, it seeks to find integrated approaches to addressing this issue. The EU could help with this by forging a cohesive regional response to climate change displacement.


It is clear that the contention surrounding the term “climate change refugee” remain unresolved. Existing legal frameworks such the 1951 refugee covenant and UNHCR Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement do not provide this group of people with sufficient protection. Linking these persons to IDPs seems more politically motivated and is a way of avoiding the obligations and responsibilities under UNFCCC.

On the other hand, such persons cannot be termed as refugees in the legal sense that there ought to have been evidence of persecution and fleeing from ancestral homelands on grounds of race, nationality, religion war or membership to particular social and political groups. In this regard, victims of climate change disasters are in need of new legal recognition. There is need to put in place a new international protective status in order to accord persons displaced by climate change disasters with the necessary legal support and protection.


Ammer, M., 2009. Climate change and human rights: the status of climate refugees in Europe. Ludwig Austria: Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights (BIM)

Bates, D.C., 2002. ‘Environmental refugeesClassifying human migrations caused by environmental change’. Population and Environment, vol.23 (5), pp. 465 – 475

Bilsborrow, R. 1992. Rural poverty, migration, and the environment in developing countries: three case studies. Background paper for World Development Report. Washington: The World Bank.

Biermann, F. and Boas, I., 2008. Protecting climate refugees: the case for a global protocol. Environment Science and Policy for Sustainable Development

Boano, C. and Zetter, R., 2008. Environmentally displaced people: understanding the linkages between environmental change, livelihoods and forced migration. University of Oxford, Refugees Studies Centre

Cooper, J.B., 1998. ‘Environmental Refugees: Meeting the Requirements of the Refugee Convention’, Environmental Law Journal, Vol.6, No.2, pp. 480 – 529.

Docherty, B. and Giannini, T., 2009. ‘Confronting a rising tide: a proposal for a convention on climate change refugees’. Harvard Environmental Law Review, vol.33

Durkova, P., Gromilova, A., Kiss, B., Plaku, M., 2012. Climate refugees in the 21st century. United Nations.

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Flautre, H., Lambert, J., keller, S. and Lochbihler, B., 2013. Climate change, refugees and migration. The Greens

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McGregor, J. 1994. ‘Climate change and involuntary migration: Implications for food security’. Food Policy 19 (2): 120-132.

McLeman, R., 2011. Climate change, migration and critical international security considerations. Switzerland: International Organization for Migration.

Morrissey, J., 2012. ‘Rethinking the ‘debate on environmental refugees’: from ‘maximilists and minimalists’ to ‘proponents and critics’’, Journal of Political Ecology, vol.19.

Myers, N. 2005. Environmental refugees an emergent security issue. 13th Economic Forum, Prague.

Naser, M.M., 2011. Global governance to climate change migration: in search of recognition in international law.

Naser, M.M., 2012. ‘Climate change-induced displacement: definitional issues and concerns’. Journal of Environmental and Energy Law, vol.2 (1)

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Williams, A., 2008. ‘Turning the tide: recognizing climate change refugees in international law’. Law & Policy, vol.30 (4), pp.503-525

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