Environment & energy, Law | Asia, The World

25 January 2021

The impacts of climate change will set millions in search of refuge, and the international community needs a plan, Tarini Mehta and Armin Rosencranz write.

As the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change observes, climate change will have a great impact on human migration. Over the coming decades, millions of people will be displaced through desertification, increasing salinisation, changing rainfall patterns, floods, and extreme weather events.

As well as homes and cities being directly threatened, as agricultural land and productivity is impacted by the changing climate, livelihoods and food security will be put at risk. As many as 200 million people are predicted to be displaced by 2050 by rising sea levels alone.

While not all of these people will leave their country of origin, those who must will only be recognised as migrants, not refugees. While being forced to flee one’s homeland is what colloquially distinguishes a refugee from a migrant, legal recognition as a refugee is given to only a limited group of forcefully displaced persons.

More on this: Managing floods in a changing climate

Fear of persecution is the pivotal factor determining whether a person meets the definition of a refugee as per the United Nations Refugee Convention. This is inadequate, as there are diverse reasons for which a citizen may flee their state, including a variety of environmental factors.

Thereafter, they will face a precarious future because of the legal vacuum around their status and rights. To avert a humanitarian crisis, the international community needs a viable solution that protects the rights of environmental refugees.

The definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention does not include environmental refugees, and despite the seriousness of the scale and impacts of environmental migration, international interest in dealing with it has remained scant.

Speeches are made declaring elaborate commitments to address climate change, environmental degradation and refugee rights, but when it comes to action, geopolitical and national interests are given precedence and refugee rights take a backseat.

Concerted international cooperation is needed to protect environmental refugees and ensure that their basic human rights are protected. Fundamental principles of human rights and refugee law could provide a foundation for this, as their obligations are universal.

This should include expanding the principle of non-refoulement – that is, that genuine refugees should not be forced to return to the state from which they have fled. Other basic human rights need to be protected too, so that environmental refugees may live a life of dignity.

More on this: Policy File: Climate refugees – where to next?

South and East Asia are especially vulnerable to large-scale forced migration due to environmental factors. Rising sea levels rises have a disproportionate effect on large populations in the region living in low-lying coastal areas.

Six of 10 Asian megacities – Jakarta, Shanghai, Tokyo, Manila, Bangkok, and Mumbai – are located on a coast. Approximately 70 per cent of China’s megacities are located in coastal areas, containing 41 per cent of China’s population and 60 per cent of its wealth.

In Africa too, millions will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, especially in the Nile Delta and on the continent’s west coast.

Small island states are also highly vulnerable to rising sea levels. The majority of the land of many island states, such as The Bahamas, Kiribati, Maldives, and Marshall Islands, is only three to four metres above the present sea level.

A study conducted in 1999 estimates that, owing to climate change, the flood risk for people living in small island states will be 200 times greater by 2080. It seems only fair that the international community, especially major emitters, shoulder a greater share of the burden and support countries in the Global South that will be forced to deal with environmental refugees.

No country can shield itself from the impacts of climate change displacement, and the only way to deal with this impending crisis and avert a humanitarian disaster is through careful planning and international cooperation aimed at protecting environmental refugees.

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