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Who are eco-refugees and how do we protect them?

|Written By Peter Showler and Lucie Lamarche

The expression “environmental refugees” or even “eco-refugees” is often used to describe people who are involuntarily displaced because of an environmental disaster. 

The notion is usually linked to climate change and countries such as Vanuatu, an island nation that could disappear with a significant rise in ocean levels. However, the term is not so useful for a lawyer or an ethnographer. It is too vague and means different things to different people.

Certainly from a legal point of view, someone who is involuntarily displaced by environmental events will not normally meet the 1951 United Nations Convention definition of a refugee.

It may however be useful to peel away a few layers from the notion of an environmental refugee in order to think about the relationship between forced migration, climate change, and the potential kinds of protection that the world can offer to the environmentally displaced.

This brief article will discuss three ideas: the first is the great complexity of the relationship between forced migration and climate change; the second is that the current model of refugee protection is an unlikely solution to forced migration from environmental causes; and lastly we will suggest an alternative to refugee protection.

Who are ‘environmental refugees?’

There is no agreement about the definition or the number of environmental refugees because of the complexity of migratory motives and the causal complexity of large environmental events. Often there are mixed motives and multiple causes.

For the same reasons, there is uncertainty about the potential number of environmental refugees. The most commonly cited estimate is 200 million by the year 2050, which is the best guess of Professor Norman Myers of Oxford University. Even Myers concedes the estimate is based on a series of speculations and may be wildly inaccurate.

Although forced versus voluntary migration is a popular distinction in migration studies, it is not so easy to distinguish the two.

Migrants often have mixed motives for relocating; several historical, social, economic, and environmental factors may play a role in the migration decision. For example, environmentalists may predict that my island country is sinking and will no longer exist in 20 years. I want to relocate now before property values fall, while I am young enough to re-establish my career and for the futures of my children.

Migration may be inevitable but the timing is not. Has my migration decision been forced or voluntary? Would it be the same answer 15 years from now?

Although migration decisions may be forced by sudden events such as floods and hurricanes, many are prompted by slower environmental changes such as desertification or rising water levels.

The choices of location and duration of the migration are also variable. I may simply move to a nearby city or to another region in my country. I may move to a neighbouring country or further abroad. Most migration is internal within the home country and the duration of the relocation may be temporary, a matter of months or years, or may be permanent. In that regard, the migratory decision is similar to convention refugees, some hope to return home, some do not.

Despite the complexity of the migration process, for the purposes of this article, here is a working definition for an environmental refugee: “The forced displacement of a person whose home region has become uninhabitable due to severe environmental events resulting in long term displacement.”

Given that definition, most environmental refugees would not meet the 1951 UN Convention refugee definition that requires migrants be outside of their home country and that the harm feared (persecution) be causally linked to the refugee’s race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

There are nuances and exceptions to that generalization, migration related to conflict and persecution sometimes has underlying environmental causes and motives, as in Darfur. As well, environmental protections may be withheld on a discriminatory basis that might amount to persecution, but for most cases, the refugee definition would have to be expanded to include environmental disasters.

It is unlikely the definition will be expanded. The lynch pin of international refugee protection under the convention is the legal obligation for signatory countries to provide protection to refugees who claim it. Most countries have shirked or avoided that obligation to some degree. The world has not done a particularly good job of protecting the approximately 15 million refugees currently on the planet and will not be eager to expand the ambit of their protection obligations.

In addition, refugee protection solutions are reactive (after the harm occurs) and employ the legal tools and language of rights and obligations.

There is an alternative protection model to consider, a set of humanitarian principles similar to the “guiding principles on internal displacement” currently used for internally displaced migrants. The principles employ humanitarian frameworks rather than sets of rights and obligations. Participation is voluntary, future-oriented, and can be proactive rather than reactive. This allows for long-range planning since nations can engage in planning phases without triggering obligations, particularly where potential levels of obligatory contribution are unknown.

A fundamental set of humanitarian principles could serve as a framework for a complex network of solutions that could include global, multilateral, and bilateral agreements that could address the geographic and causal complexity of environmental change issues.

We do not suggest that guiding principles on environmental displacement will be a panacea. The world must confront a fundamental political challenge; sovereign nations will be asked to grant physical and political space to citizens of other countries. Given the massive numbers of environmental migrants, burden sharing and parsimony on the part of some nations will be inevitable, probably to the grievous cost of those most environmentally vulnerable.

However, the principles will be a starting point to provide nations with the conceptual and political frameworks necessary to deal with the unpredictable but inevitable consequences of climate change.

Lucie Lamarche is the Gordon F. Henderson Research Chair in Human Rights and director of research of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. This article was contributed with adjunct professor Peter Showler, who is the director of the Refugee Forum, a project funded by the Maytree Foundation and housed at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre.

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