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UNHCR

Climate love

PROTECTING CLIMATE REFUGEES DEMANDS LEGAL DEFINITION.

During the UN Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai last year, the terms “climate migrants” and “climate refugees” echoed loudly across meeting rooms and panels. These labels were passionately used by high-ranking UN officials, external stakeholders, scholars and activists grappling with the consequences of climate change.




During a panel discussion, one of the officials emphasized that these terms hold no legal weight and inquired about the need for specific legal protections for those affected by climate-induced displacement. The question from the official was quickly shut down by the panel organizers, surprising attendees.
My thoughts ran quickly to the many people displaced by climate change I knew: the Ecuadoran refugees who arrived in New York, seeking sanctuary from environmental turmoil at home, the women in the Sundarban islands of West Bengal facing climate-driven disasters but unable to relocate, and many of my neighbours in Brooklyn, who have experienced recurrent home destruction due to heavy rainfall. All of them do not have any form of international legal protection that can guarantee them dignified life.
Shockingly, the dismissive response at COP28 reflects a larger pattern of denial. Legally defining “climate refugees” has been fiercely debated globally on many accounts. Critics often argue that attributing migration solely to climate change oversimplifies a complex web of influences on human mobility. They claim that these terms diminish the role of institutional and human responses, and social conditions in transforming environmental stressors into crises.
Thus, this complexity makes it impossible to distinguish between climate refugees and economic migrants. Ironically, this argument actually persists alongside predictions that estimate a possible 1.2 billion people.
After COP28, this recurring chorus echoed in my mind: “No legal changes are needed; we have it covered with UN initiatives like the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration”, which commits (PDF) parties to creating “conducive political, economic, social and environmental conditions for people to lead peaceful, productive and sustainable lives in their own country and to fulfil their personal aspiration”.
Under its second objective, the compact emphasizes the need for cohesive approaches in handling migration challenges amid both sudden and gradual natural disasters, urging the integration of displacement concerns into disaster preparedness strategies.
This absence of a specific legally defined framework poses hurdles for individuals seeking migration status due to climate change impacts.
Calls to establish international legal frameworks tailored to address migration needs arising from environmental factors have been equated with opening Pandora’s box. Some suggest this could challenge the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines the term “refugee” strictly along the lines of “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Do you agree?

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  • George Kariuki

    •

    5 w

    Time to stop denying the crisis! Let's fight for a future where everyone has a safe place to call home.

    • Rotich Kim

      •

      5 w

      This is great and significant move actually we need to have more definition

      2
      • Kevin

        •

        5 w

        Climate justice has always been among the terms dropped and used in these discussions.A legal framework is required

        4
        • Joseph Githinji

          •

          5 w

          @Kevin I agree, their rights must be well outlined.

        • Joseph Githinji

          •

          5 w

          This is a great step towards protecting the people displaced by climate change effects. These migrants must be protected by all means possible and their rights must be well outlined.

          5
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