ISSN 2330-717X

The Protection Of Climate Refugees Under International Refugee Law: Problem And Prospect – OpEd


Climate change has triggered and aggravated human displacement resulting in 50 million refugees globally. The current appraisals are bound to be proliferated in years ahead as famines, water scarcities and natural disasters are made gradually more brutal by global warming.

Many experts have stated that there will be around 200 million climate change-induced displaced people by 2050. Ethically, all the stakeholders, governments and UN agencies have admitted the issue of climate change-made forced migration (CMFM) but, unfortunately, the issue does not figure in their major concerns.

Nevertheless, EU government observe CMFM as a humanitarian concern, but encapsulated with national security repercussions. Consequently, CMFM has created a new class of climate change-made displaced people called climate refugees. But they have also been labeled as environmentally displaced people, environmental refugees, climate migrants etc. However, global governance has failed to address the plight of the fight of the new refugees.

The international law, unfortunately, has failed to protect the climate refugees’ particularly an international refugee protection framework and its acquiescence apparatus. While environmental factors are profoundly interwoven with political factors, therefore, climate change cannot be the only cause of forced migration. Therefore, the term “climate refugee” has become contentious and convoluted. Even modern development models have also exacted hazards and harms of life-threatening magnitudes on earth destroying its natural protection shield. Hence, the awareness of the international community to identify refugee protection and solution for refugees commenced only with League of Nations and Dr. Fridtjof Nansen’s election as the first High Commissioner for Russian refugees in 1921, who issued the Nansen Passport as a substitute of passport for migrants and stateless persons that was agreed upon in an Inter-governmental Conference in 1922 in Geneva. Subsequently, other refugees from Armenia in 1924 and from Assyria, Assyro-Chaldea and Turkey in 1928 were also put under the Nansen Mandate.

The League of Nations and UNO had established and dissolved many organizations until 1950, including the IRO created especially for European refugees that was replaced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that has adopted the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (UNCSR) also known as international refugee law (IRL) for a preliminary period of three years. But soon it was realized that refugee problem was not limited to Europe , therefore, a new Additional Protocol was adopted in 1967 to remove the geo-political limitations in applying the UNCSR to all refugees of the world. Subsequently, the UN adopted two more conventions on Statelessness and Reduction of Statelessness in 1954 and 1961, respectively but, unfortunately, the protection of climate refugees was not covered by them.

The UNCSR in Article 1(A) defines refugees only on five grounds such as : “any person owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race (1), religion (2), nationality (3), membership of a particular social group (4) or political opinion (5), is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” It is clear from this definition that it does not cover climate refugees. However, a legal framework called the Principles on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) takes into account the needs of CMFM people within the national borders and excludes the climate refugees crossing international boundaries.

Though, a process of Global Consultations was started in 2001 on the 50th Anniversary of the UNCSR. But these High Consultations discussed the unanimity on approaches to protection choices, to standard-determination, to the development of pragmatic actions to solve the refugee problem. But the question of CMFM did not appear in their priorities. Even UN Framework Convention on Climate Change does not address their problems. Therefore, the issue of climate change is confronted with two controversial archetypes of right to development and right not to be displaced in IRL and human rights discourse. Therefore, the time has come to reform the existing IRL by adopting an Additional Protocol on Climate Refugees to IRL that must address their rights within the normative framework of common humanity deviant to international power politics

*Nafees Ahmad, LL.M, Ph. D, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University-New Delhi-India, [email protected]

*Stellina Jolly, L.M, Ph. D, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University-New Delhi-India, [email protected]

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