Climate refugees: a non-existent concept

Climate refugees: a non-existent concept

Climate change is affecting the lives of people around the world. In countries most affected by climate change food insecurity and extreme drought has become an instigator for people to leave their homes. Contrary to what people might think, these people are not seen as refugees.“I always say the law is a living instrument, it should be moving together with social change,” says Ashley Terlouw professor in law sociology and migration law at Radboud University.

The Institute for Economics and Peace predicts that by the year 2050 there could be 1.2 billion climate refugees, yet the concept of a climate refugee doesn’t exist in international legislation. “This is because in 1951 at the refugee convention a treaty was concluded. In that treaty it is defined when you are a refugee, and climate related issues such as drought, floods or forest fires are not in that definition,” explains Terlouw.

The current political constellation in Europe is becoming more right winged, therefore Terlouw is not optimistic about climate refugees getting recognized by law. “Countries and people in Europe are becoming more anti refugees. There already is an ongoing struggle to uphold the obligations stated in the treaty of 1951. I don’t think there will be a new treaty formed for the climate refugees anytime soon. As this would mean that we don’t know how many people would apply for asylum on the grounds of climate change,” says Terlouw.

During Conference of the Parties in 2010 the potential impact of climate on refugees was first recognized, but since then no law binding action has been taken. Sophie Schriever, researching climate change and migration for the University of Amsterdam says: “There hasn’t been a political will to push this issue further, mostly research and raising awareness is what has been done. The next step to actually do anything or move towards a clear definition of this group of people is still absent.”

According to the UN refugee agency every year an average of more than 20 million people leave their homes and move to a different part of their country due to climate change. “Historically we’ve been nomadic rather than settled. What’s new now is that we’re causing the most rapid climate change that we’ve ever witnessed. This is displacing people unequally between the global north and the global south and now we actually know who is to blame,” says Schriever. The UN secretary general is proposing a plan to urge the rich countries to tax the profit of energy company’s and redirect this money to countries suffering loss and damages of the climate crisis. “When talking about migration due to climate I think this is key. This way we can establish a casual link between each countries CO2 their contribution to climate change which leads to migration. Let’s say for example a country contributed 15% of the global emissions, they should pay 15% of the spending needed to help countries in need,” says Schriever.

About The Author