The Climate Change Refugee: Feared and Unprotected

Written by Zoheb Mashiur

A simple Google News search for the term ‘climate refugee’ shows no shortage of activity. Publications and news outlets are concerned, and so they should be. A 2009 joint report by the IOM, UNHCR and United Nations University (UNU) suggests that between 50 and 200 million people are expected to be displaced by climate change by the mid-century. These figure are in keeping with the lower bounds of projected temperature rise – should global average temperatures rise above the two degrees Celsius hoped for in the Paris Agreement, we can expect far greater impacts.

To put this in perspective, 200 million people would be thrice the as of now 68.5 million estimated by the UNHCR as forcibly displaced. Given how much of a hot button issue migration is at the very moment – significant enough to swing elections and cause political shifts such as Brexit and the restructuring of Schengen – is it a surprise that there is growing concern in international media?

The media discourse is alarming, and has the tone of bells ringing in alarm before it is too late. This one leaps out from the first page of Google News results: ‘The Coming Calamity’, where climate change refugees are described as a ‘horror’. Terms such as ‘staggering’ and ‘massive’ are used to describe the great numbers from climate-affected regions – invariably in the Global South – that are on the way to the Western world. Articles such as this one for Political Insights are not uncommon, with its description of the security challenges posed by climate refugees who are coming to knock at ‘Europe’s door’. Malthusian resource competition, armed conflict and the recruitment of refugees into militia are mentioned. The recently controversial migrant caravan has sounded the climate change refugee alarm in the US – after all, they bring with them ‘poverty and violence’.

A 2012 article by Giovanni Bettini of Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies calls into question these ‘apocalyptic narratives’. The fear of climate change, and the fear of the de-individualized ‘climate barbarians at the gates’, rather than producing positive humanitarian action is, in his view, more likely to result in hasty, panicked and undemocratic measures that will treat the entry of climate migrants as a security as opposed to humanitarian subject. The climate refugee becomes someone to be governed and managed as opposed to aided. The current political climate of rising border security, populism and climate change denial certainly seems to suggest that Bettini was right.

While the fear and securitization of the climate refugee increases, not enough people are writing about the simple fact that – for all intents and purposes – there is no such thing as a climate change refugee. The Refugee Convention is meant to extend people protection in other countries after escaping persecution – based on ‘race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’ Someone fleeing climate change’s effects cannot qualify under these criteria. Yes, climate change can cause a variety of societal shifts and emergencies (it has been identified as a driver of the Syrian Civil War) which can create the conditions under which someone can face dangers that the Refugee Convention recognizes. A briefing by the European Parliamentary Research Service this May outlined the protection gap this creates – the effects of climate change, projected to displace people at an unprecedented rate, simply escape the criteria of the most widely accepted agreement on the recognition and treatment of refugees. Is a Bangladeshi delta farmer displaced to India (across a notoriously arbitrary border) due to a scarcity of available land a climate change refugee… or the label now so reviled, a mere economic migrant? Without the refugee definition covering her, it is clear that she will not receive protective status and is fair game for expulsion. This brings us to the fundamental problem of definition – what is a climate change, or environmental, refugee? How can one prove that it is climate change forcing someone to flee? Islands and lakes and fields do not disappear dramatically.

The category of climate change refugee must either be strongly defined, so as to provide protections to this category – or measures must be taken to provide protection and dignity to all peoples in a world that should be far more mobile than it is. This seemingly radical shift was indeed the stated agenda of the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants in 2016 – attempting to create a new compact that would be more flexible and organic, thereby reducing the protection gaps left over from the Refugee Convention (over 60 years old now.) The shifts in international politics since 2016 put the future of these compacts in jeopardy, but they represent at least an attempt at moving forward.

Those displaced by climate change require thoughtful solutions to their problems, and alarmist, clickbait headlines that dwell instead of panic and fear help no one but companies that build fences. It is difficult to consider articles to be written in good faith when they perpetuate a narrative of people displaced by the actual land they live in becoming untenable – if not disappearing entirely – as the ones who will bring violence and poverty, visiting the responsibility and blame entirely on the most vulnerable instead of at the feet of countries denying their entry through increasingly pervasive security and surveillance regimes.

About the author:  Zoheb Mashiur is a writer and artist currently pursuing an MA in Migration Studies at the University of Kent. 

The author may be contacted at info@worldsolidarityforum.org

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