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Climate Change

Climate change: Climate change displacement is happening now

Why people displaced by climate change don’t have refugee status — and how we can use existing legal frameworks to ensure their protection

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

The global conversation about forcible displacement tends to focus on those fleeing war and persecution. Yet 40 million of the 68.5 million people displaced around the world remain within their countries’ borders, and the bulk of internally displaced persons are driven from their homes by natural disasters. In 2017, disasters accounted for 61 percent of internal displacement, while conflict accounted for 39 percent. Climate change threatens to increase global displacement levels, already the highest on record. While projections vary widely, the World Bank predicts that more than 140 million people could be internally displaced by the effects of climate change by 2050.

Kicking off a series of episodes on climate change and displacement, Displaced hosts Ravi and Grant sit down with Jane McAdam to discuss how to best protect those forced from their homes by natural disasters. McAdam is Scientia Professor of Law and Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales. She assesses the scale of climate change-related displacement, the challenges of separating environmental factors from other drivers of migration, and the potential of existing legal frameworks to address the problem.

While we lack data on the number of people displaced across borders by natural disasters, an estimated 26 million people a year were internally displaced by disasters and hazards between 2008 and 2015. Climate change will exacerbate the effects of natural disasters, increasing both internal and cross-border displacement. “Effectively what we start to get is disasters on steroids,” McAdam explains. “As things like cyclones become more intense or other events become more frequent…so too the ramifications such as displacement are likely to increase as well.”

Jane McAdam

Data collection on climate change-related migration is particularly challenging in light of the multi-causal nature of displacement. Slow-onset climate change processes, like rising sea levels, interact with a number of pre-existing stressors that encourage migration, including rapid-onset natural disasters, overpopulation, and resource scarcity. “When you add climate change or disasters into the mix,” McAdam says, “it becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and it’s very difficult, indeed it’s impossible to disentangle those effects.”

Should climate migrants be granted refugee status? McAdam argues that international refugee law is not well suited to protecting those displaced by natural disasters and climate change for at least two reasons. First, the majority of climate change-related displacement is likely to be internal, rather than cross-border. Second, the 1951 Refugee Convention is designed to protect people who have a well-founded fear of persecution; although McAdam notes that there may be some instances in which this protection could apply to climate-displaced populations, in general it is unlikely to provide appropriate protection.

“Often people think about climate change-related displacement as something we need to maybe be thinking about at some point in the future, whereas we need to be addressing it now—to be thinking about it, understanding it, and putting in place sensible policies so that we can avert some displacement where possible but also manage it where it does occur.”

Instead of negotiating a new international agreement to protect those affected by climate change specifically, McAdam advocates for the recognition of climate change-related displacement as fundamentally a human rights issue. Human rights law, which prevents countries from returning people to places where they face inhuman or degrading treatment, may apply in cases where a lack of fresh drinking water, repeated natural disasters, and other environmental conditions cumulatively amount to such treatment. The international community must take steps to enhance risk reduction and climate adaptation, explore options for  humanitarian visas and temporary protection status, and, when necessary, facilitate safe and planned migration and relocation. “For me,” McAdam says, “the overriding principles need to be respect for human rights and international cooperation.”

Related Resources

Rights for People Forced Out By Climate Change — Jane McAdam and Walter Kälin, The Interpreter

Seven Reasons the UN Refugee Convention Should Not Include ‘Climate Refugees’— Jane McAdam, The Sydney Morning Herald

How a Warming Planet Drives Human Migration — Jessica Benko, New York Times

Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration — World Bank

Why Climate Migrants Do Not Have Refugee Status — The Economist

The effects of climate change will force millions to migrate. Here’s what this means for human security — Kelly M. McFarland and Vanessa Lide, Washington Post

The humanitarian impacts of climate change — IRIN News

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.