Refugee lawyers suggest multi-pronged approach to climate migration problem

Legislation should have public policy class ensuring protection of climate migrants: association

Refugee lawyers suggest multi-pronged approach to climate migration problem

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, recognizing that climate change significantly contributes to forced migration, has argued that Canada should develop a thoughtful and proactive response to climate-induced displacement that respects its international obligations.

For decades, governments at the international level have known that environmental disaster and degradation will inevitably lead to large-scale displacement, said the association’s 2021 report addressing the issue of climate migration.

Most of the individuals displaced will likely relocate within their own countries, considering that it is more difficult or even impossible to cross international borders to seek safety, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said the report. However, the report added that many millions will still make the attempt, and not all will succeed.

The report noted that Canada has legal obligations arising from the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Canada has also signed international agreements on refugee responsibility-sharing and migration, which set out its international obligations to climate migrants, including the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The report said Canada should develop compassionate pathways and policies for climate migrants fleeing sudden-onset natural disasters and slow-onset degradation to attain objective 5 of this global compact.

The association said in the report that Canada’s ad hoc approach to humanitarian disasters is insufficient to deal with the rise in the number of climate migrants. It suggested that governments enact legislation defining a climate migrant as a person who:

  • is outside of their country of nationality or former habitual residence;
  • comes from a country of nationality or a former habitual residence that has been or will during its lifetime be affected by a short- or long-term environmental disaster or by environmental degradation; and
  • on account of that disaster or degradation, faces a risk to their life, liberty or security of the person if they are returned.

In this proposed definition, examples of short-term disasters would include typhoons, hurricanes, wildfires and tsunamis, while long-term environmental changes would consist of desertification, deforestation, rising temperatures and rising sea levels.

The association recommended that the Canadian government adopt a multi-pronged approach in line with emerging trends in other countries. This approach would consist of advocacy to carve out an exception to the “personalized risk” requirement for climate migrants under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act’s s. 97, which covers persons in need of protection, as well as advocacy for a proactive and broad policy response that can include the following:

  • adding a requirement for examining officers to consider the hardships caused by environmental disasters and degradation in the humanitarian and compassionate (H&C) guidelines;
  • creating a public policy class under s. 25(2) of the legislation, which covers humanitarian and compassionate considerations upon request of a foreign national, to ensure the protection of climate migrants;
  • issuing temporary resident permits to climate migrants;
  • issuing ministerial instructions to removals officers to address the risks caused by environmental disasters and degradation in the context of a s. 48(2) analysis relating to enforceable removal orders;
  • permitting resettlement in Canada, including through private sponsorship;
  • implementing the needed pilot programs for testing any of the aforementioned suggestions before undertaking legislative reform.

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, created in 2011, comprises over 350 lawyers, academics and law students from across the country. The association has a mandate to research, litigate and advocate for refugee rights and on forced migration.

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