Should Environmentally Displaced be Categorised as Refugees

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Climate change is no longer a hypothetical situation but the reality of world politics in the twenty-first century. Although extremely controversial, research suggests this predicament will deeply affect the lives of millions who will be forcibly displaced from their homes and required to seek refuge elsewhere. Since 2008, the UNHCR has stated that there has been an annual average of 21.5 million displaced people by climate-related disasters – more than those fleeing war or persecution. The current legal practices protecting refugees fleeing war or persecution have failed to incorporate environmentally displaced people leaving them helpless with little to no protection. In this essay, I will argue whether the environmentally displaced people (EDPs) should be categorised as refugees providing an argument for and against the question. It is time now to recognise the mass population shift that will continue to rise as a result of these environmental disasters and offer our help. Therefore, I will conclude that the environmentally displaced should now be categorised as refugees.

EDPs should be categorised as refugees because those forcibly displaced by an extreme weather event are not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore find themselves in a legal void. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention a refugee is recognised as someone who is “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” (Westra, 2009). This convention originally emerged in order to help those displaced during the Second World War focusing on specific individuals rather than large groups – the reality of what we are dealing with today. Environmental change is possibly one of the most significant generators of population displacement and therefore it is clear that the definition is outdated and incomplete making it ill-equipped to deal with today’s refugee crisis. ‘Environmental refugees’ as described by Essam El-Hinnawi are “those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitats, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardises their existences…” (El-Hinnawi, 1985, pg. 4). According to the Convention, to be qualified as a refugee you are required to cross an international border, however, most displaced by climate change move within their own countries or move for short periods with the intentions of returning home as soon as possible. Therefore, the environmentally displaced are not accepted as refugees but rather internally displaced peoples and consequently not qualified to accept refugee status. This produces a large protection gap between conventional refugees and this new class of refugees. The environmentally displaced find themselves disadvantaged for reasons they cannot help and have no protection beyond the basic human rights. This lack of protection creates a sense of hopelessness, and results in the question of what can we do for these people and what are their options? The Environmental Justice Foundation urges governments to “recognise climate refugees and support a new legal agreement to guarantee their rights and their fair claim to our shared world” (EJFoundation, 2017). War is becoming less common and therefore we need to start acknowledging this new global issue and agree to categorise the environmentally displaced as refugees.

Moreover, the environmentally displaced should be categorised as refugees as the extreme weather events they are experiencing are largely due to the increase in global climate change. No country is safe from the impacts of climate change; however, it is the poorest and most vulnerable communities that feel it more acutely, nonetheless contribute to only 1% of global emissions. These underdeveloped countries have seen 99% of the deaths from climate and weather-related disasters (EJFoundation, 2017). It is clear that they are at the mercy of polluting countries. Low-lying states, such as Tuvalu and others situated in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean are suffering immensely from rising sea levels which is caused by the increased use of greenhouse gases. These islands have called on the governments of Australia and The United States to put in place policies that will recognise those displaced by climate-related events as legitimate refugees. Currently, they are two of the largest contributors of greenhouse emission yet have shown a lack of leadership in mending their wrongdoings. Already “one-fifth of Tuvalu’s population has been forced to relocate” (Duckworth, 2017). This is just one of the many nations who is losing land every year. Although many EDPs are able to move within their territory and return following a disaster, it is becoming problematic for low-lying nations whose entire lands are disappearing. This makes relocation to other parts of the country impossible. It is suggested that in the next 20-50 years thousands will be forced from their homeland and may even cause a fight for survival by some who are unable to find refuge. Hence, it is essential to categorise the environmentally displaced as refugees to avoid such devastation. Additionally, if we delay supporting EDPs it will become economically untenable in the future. Relocation of refugees already poses immense problems, however what will happen when millions more require asylum? These less developed countries (LDCs) lack resources to adequately address this crisis themselves and rely on richer neighbouring countries who have the wealth to properly protect them. The effects of climate change are increasing, simultaneously so are the environmentally displaced. It is, therefore, crucial to categorise them as refugees.

In contrast, however, the environmentally displaced should not be categorised as refugees because doing so could prove to be more damaging than beneficial. Enabling the environmentally displaced to be categorised as refugees would require expanding the existing definition that defines what a refugee is and this may cause unfavourable consequences. Firstly, amending the 1951 Refugee Convention by widening its interpretation would require the international community to accept a revised definition. Creating ‘climate refugees’ could risk undermining existing refugees who are currently entitled to protection under international law. This may lead to reduced opportunities for all refugees to obtain recognition and protection which would be damaging as there are 25.4 million recognised refugees today, excluding those internally displaced (UNHCR, 2018). This new class of refugees may be judged as illegitimate by politicians and the public who may view them as taking advantage of refugee protection laws, thus increasing the existing negative stigma surrounding them. Secondly, some countries already regard the Convention as being too generous. Proposing to expand the definition of a refugee could result in countries wanting an increasingly narrower definition. This is because by expanding the Refugee Convention to include EDPs would increase the number of those eligible for protection under international law by the millions. An increased number of refugees implies supporting countries would need to contribute more money to the cause. Already “Industrialised nations spend astronomical amounts of money on processing and supporting asylum seekers. In total, this is estimated to be more than ten times the funds the UNHCR has to protect those…under its auspices.” (Birrell and Millbank, 2011). If the UNHCR decided to expand the definition of what qualifies as a refugee, it is unclear if the political appetite exists to provide the necessary funding. Burden sharing is already an issue among richer countries as they believe the issue isn’t there’s. While it is true that a state has a moral responsibility not to return refugees, to their home of origin, after entering their country, it does not state that they have a responsibility to allow them to settle. Finally, the risk in categorising EDPs as refugees could potentially result in more countries completely abandoning the Convention rather than accepting such a ‘burden’. Already, only 145 countries have signed the Convention as it imposes no obligations to assist. If supporting refugees no longer reflects a countries national interest, they are entitled to opt out made possible by Article 44(2) of the Refugee Convention which states that “any contracting state can denounce or withdraw, with one year’s notice” (UNHCR, 2015). This would have negative effects as the number of refugees left with no protection would be far greater. As a result, the environmentally displaced should not be categorised as refugees as it will reduce the practicality and utility of the term and potentially create a larger issue.

In conclusion, the number of displaced people by environmental change is already alarming and could potentially cause the largest refugee crisis in human history. The environmentally displaced should be categorised as refugees to eliminate the protection gap. It is also the poorest countries that are suffering at the feet of those responsible for causing climate-related issues, yet they fail to offer any protection. With climate change expected to intensify, it is necessary to bring about change otherwise, we face extraordinary repercussions in the near future. The Refugee Convention is impractical as the number of climate refugees is far greater than conventional refugees. To ensure the protection of EDPs an entirely new legal classification that is tailored specifically for the needs of the environmentally displaced is essential. This separates the environmentally displaced from conventional refugees and allows them to be recognised as refugees under new international law.  

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Should environmentally displaced be categorised as refugees. (2019, Jul 01). Retrieved September 30, 2023 , from

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