Policy File: Climate refugees – where to next?

New issues require new solutions

Patrick Cooney

Development, Economics and finance, Environment & energy, Government and governance, International relations, Law, National security, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, The Pacific, The World

18 June 2019

As sea levels rise across the Pacific, entire populations find themselves under increasing threat. That’s why, this World Refugee Day, we’ve decided to focus on ‘climate refugees’. Patrick Cooney sets the scene for the discussions to come, emphasising the need for a globally recognised definition for climate refugees amidst a brewing crisis.

In December 2018, 164 nations at the United Nations (UN) formally passed the UN Global Compact for Migration, which contained a section detailing the UN’s commitment to assisting those displaced by climate change-related issues. It was the first time a major migration policy referenced climate change, and the move was lauded by some as the first international step towards recognising climate refugees as an emerging global problem.

Defining climate refugees can be tough because without facing war, persecution, or violence, climate refugees do not currently fall under the UN definition of a refugee and are grouped with all other voluntary migrants. Despite this, climate refugees, as well as the issue of managing their displacement, have become the subject of important discussions across the region.

The numbers of refugees displaced by climate change in the last 10 years is now approaching 25 million people a year. This figure is expected to grow, especially in the world’s most vulnerable regions. The World Bank’s estimates place the potential displacement number at more than 140 million people by 2050.

Experts have identified South Asia, Latin America, and Sub Saharan Africa as most at risk of experiencing major climate migration events, and one study from Columbia University argues that temperature fluctuations are linked to asylum applications in the European Union. Most discussions so far have focused on migration within countries, or in response to small scale disasters. What will happen when entire countries become disaster zones remains an open question.

This is a question especially pertinent to the Asia-Pacific – which includes Australia, whose neighbours in the Pacific islands are likely to face significant hardship with rising sea levels.  A recent study by Lea Marone and Peter Tait, for instance, argues that under current frameworks, migrating safely away from disasters without family connections or high levels of education is very difficult or even impossible.

The countries most at threat have been canvassing a number of options, ranging from billions of dollars in seawalls to floating islands in the sea. These solutions, however productive, are unlikely to totally stem the flow of migrants leaving these countries.

Without a proper definition of climate refugees, useful international action will be difficult to execute. There is time, however, for significant work to be done in this space before the worst of the impact is felt across the region.

Should a workable definition be put in place, there would be no shortage of ideas from scholars about how the international community can respond to a crisis like this. There is no doubt that this emerging issue requires swift and decisive action from the nations at risk, potential host nations, and the international community at large, but whether that action is coming remains to be seen.

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