Climate Refugees

According to the 1951 United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the associated United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a refugee is defined as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and, religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.”[1]

If you read that definition and wondered to yourself, what has that got to do with environmental law, you are not alone.

This is probably because the idea of climate refugees – people driven from their homes due to the effects of ever-increasing climate change, is relatively new. However, as the effects of climate change intensify, we will start to see more of an overlap between environmental law and immigration law – two areas that would otherwise rarely see the inside of the same courtroom.

Climate refugees are those people forced to flee their homes due to the negative effects of climate change. This could mean persistent drought that no longer sustains a family on their land, so it no longer makes sense to try and farm it or it could mean flooding that destroys entire neighbourhoods, driving people from their homes. In fact, the United Nations has statistics to show that this is already occurring: an average of more than 20 million people have been displaced by weather-related events each year since 2008.[2] The general consensus among those who work on both climate change and refugee policy is that this is only going to get worse.

In fact, even the Paris Agreement includes three sections that discuss displacement and human mobility issues:

  1. The Agreement’s Preamble recognizes that climate change is a common concern of humankind and includes a reference to migrants, asking Parties to respect, promote and consider their respective obligations towards migrants among others when taking actions to address climate change.
  2. The Paris Agreement contains many references to the protection of people, the resilience of communities and the importance of livelihoods. These are essential entry points for addressing environmentally-linked root causes of forced displacement such as access to water, food, energy, and the need for livelihood opportunities to enable people to remain where they live.
  3. Finally, the Paris Agreement requests the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) on Loss and Damage to establish a task force on displacement. This task force will “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.” This is also an acknowledgment of the dangers of displacement and a welcome recognition of climate change as a factor of displacement. [3] [emphasis added]

These are important concepts to recognize; however, classifying someone as a migrant does not afford them the same protections under international law as the designation of refugee. This is because international law and the UN’s Convention on Refugees work specifically to ensure that refugees are protected and that they are not immediately deported back to their country of origin.

Migrants, on the other hand, are subject to each individual country’s immigration laws – some of which may be more accommodating than others. Although the idea of human displacement due to climate change is relatively new, especially in comparison to the idea of forced displacement due to war, persecution, or other human forces, the underlying concept is the same – forced human relocation due to external factors.[4]

Currently, there is still significant opposition to the conflation of the two types of refugees (environmental and traditional) including the argument that environmental refugees may still be able to rely on their national government while for traditional refugees, their national government is the source of their persecution.[5] Unfortunately, the truth is that governments (provincial and/or state level or national level) are often complicit in encouraging industrial development and in implementing policies that have led to, or at least exacerbated, the negative effects of climate change. These types of policies could include encouraging people to build their homes on coasts threatened by rising sea levels, while also providing subsidies to fossil fuel companies as an example.

The concept of climate refugees is still new and currently nothing in international law has changed to accommodate those displaced from their homes by extreme climate events. However, with the ever-increasing rate of rising oceans, extreme weather and other effects of climate change (some of which you can read about in our case studies below) it is likely that the divide between environmental law and immigration/refugee law will lessen.

For a real-world example check out this story about New Zealand. This Pacific Island nation is considering giving refugee visas to island neighbours whose homes are threatened by rising sea levels. Click here to read more about it.

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[1] USA for UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency, “Refugee Facts – What is a Refugee?” online:

[2] United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, “Frequently asked questions on climate change and disaster displacement” (6 November 2016) online:

[3] United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, “Frequently asked questions on climate change and disaster displacement”.

[4] Angela Williams, “Turning the Tide: Recognizing Climate Change Refugees in International Law” (2008) 30 L & Pol’y 502 at 504.

[5] Angela Williams, “Turning the Tide: Recognizing Climate Change Refugees in International Law” at 509.