Tracing the Discourse of Climate Refugees and their Existence under International Approaches

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The orthodox conceptualization and assimilation of the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘protection’ may both need to correct to accommodate with recent global climate change situations. A rudimentary apprehension is that while refugees from persecution and war are protected by international law, it is unclear what conventions and policies protect people dislocated by extreme weather events. This section of my thesis seeks to reveal the discourse of the term ‘climate refugee’ and conceptualize reasons for which there is an absence of international protection for climate refugees.

We proceed in four steps. First, we find out the etymology of the term ‘climate refugee’. Second, we address the existing definitions of ‘refugee’ and ‘climate refugee’. Third, we try to explain why there is no multilateral policy to protect the rights and needs of ‘climate refugee’. Lastly, we try to find out particular rationales and establish a definition for ‘climate refugee’ by which the existing international framework can integrate ‘climate refugee’ in mainstream.

Discourses of ‘Climate Refugees’: A Genealogy

The most classic work on ecologically displaced poor would reappear in William Vogt’s non-fiction Road to Survival (1949). In it, Vogt (1949)

argued that ‘climate refugees’ were forced out of necessity to neglect the capabilities and ‘carrying capacity’ of the land that they depended on. Vogt (1949) constructed ‘climate refugees’ as the ‘perpetrators’ of environmental disruption and degradation, albeit in order to survive, which resulted in their own displacement. Further, not only were ‘climate refugees’ constructed as the ‘perpetrators’ of environmental degradation, but also seen as those responsible for local acts of degradation that would impact on the global community.

The 1970s pledges a suitable choice for beginning the detailed analysis of ‘climate refugees’ genealogy, as it coexisted with the first wave of contemporary mainstream environmentalism (Young, 1991).

During the 1970s for global ecological crisis we observed an expanded consciousness from environmental groups (Beder, 1996).

This emerging environmental perturbation provoked the first United Nations International Conference on the Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972. The conference resulted in an action plan consisting of 109 recommendations, as well as the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (Aplin et al, 1995).

The Worldwatch Institute was founded by Lester Brown in 1974 that continues to investigate the interactions between environmental, social and economic issues. With Brown as the Institute’s President and Erick Eckholm as Senior Researcher, UNEP sponsored one of the Worldwatch Institute’s initial projects in 1975. The key argument in these Worldwatch Institute publications was that during the early 1970s the agricultural industry could not support the growth in population nor sustain the subsequent growth in the labour force. These arguments were based around Malthusian concerns that the labour force would not keep apace of population growth, largely due to unequal systems of land tenure and human-induced environmental degradation. The consequence was large-scale migration occurring into urban areas, rainforests, hillsides, rangelands, areas at risk of ‘natural’ disasters. Despite the links made in these publications between environmental degradation and population displacements, only in one case was terminology similar to ‘climate refugees’ actually used:

“As human and livestock populations retreat before the expanding desert, these ecological refugees create even greater pressure on new fringe areas, exacerbate the processes of land degradation, and trigger a self-reinforcing negative cycle of overcrowding and overgrazing in successive areas (Brown et al, 1976: 39).”

In 1985 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) appointed Egyptian Professor Essam El-Hinnawi and published a report on ‘environmental refugees’. Here El-Hinnawi (1985) created three categories of ‘environmental refugees’ according to their triggers. The first category was of those ‘temporarily displaced because of an environmental stress’ by ‘natural’ events such as floods, tropical cyclones, riverbank erosion, drought and earthquakes named ‘climate refugees’ (El-Hinnawi, 1985: 4).

El-Hinnawi asserted that it was poorer countries with severe processes of land degradation such as ‘deforestation, erosion, over cultivation, and overgrazing tend to be hardest hit by natural disasters’. El-Hinnawi explained that:

“People can alter their environment to make it more prone to certain disaster triggers, such as flood and drought. People can make land flood-prone by removing the trees and other vegetation which absorb the water. They can also make land more drought-prone by removing the vegetation and soil systems which absorb and store water in ways that are beneficial to humans (1985: 10).”

From 1985 to 1994, Jodi Jacobson worked as a Senior Researcher with the Worldwatch Institute. Time spent with the Worldwatch Institute saw Jacobson produce various research articles including ‘Environmental Refugees: A Yardstick of Habitability’, which was financially supported by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). This article, published by the Worldwatch Institute in 1988, developed three categories of ‘environmental refugees’ again based on interpretations of causes and triggers for environmental change. The first category of ‘environmental refugees’ was known as ‘climate refugees’ of ‘those displaced temporarily because of a local disruption (Jacobson, 1988: 37).

While this type of acute elemental disruptions, responsible for temporarily displacing people, was acknowledged by Jacobson (1988: 16) as ‘natural’ disasters, upon ‘closer examination’, they exhibited a ‘strong human component’. Jacobson argued that:

“Human pressures on forests, soils, and land have rendered ecosystems less resilient, less able to cope with natural fluctuations. Ultimately, they collapse under otherwise normal stresses, creating and magnifying disasters such as landslides and floods… Human-induced changes in the environment can turn a normal event into a catastrophe (1988: 16-17).”

Jacobson (1988:16) coined the term ‘unnatural disasters’ in order to describe the severity of naturally occurring events exacerbated by human activities. This paralleled the way that El-Hinnawi (1985) constructed ‘climate refugees’ as the ‘victim’ of ‘natural’ environmental problems. Jacobson went as far to argue that despite land degradation being the largest and fastest growing cause of displacement during the 1980s, sea level rise would soon overtake it:

“Among the various environmental problems that cause the displacement of people from their habitats, none rivals the potential effects of sea level rise as a result of human-induced changes in the earth’s climate… Now it looks as if rising seas will supplant encroaching deserts and other forms of land degradation as the major threat to habitability in the not-too-distant future. Global warming, primarily the result of fossil fuel use in industrial countries, will hit developing nations the hardest (1988: 7).”

The root causes of environmental change producing ‘climate refugees’ as a ‘combination of man-made and natural processes (Trolldalen et al. 1992: 14).

Specifically, these causes were ‘natural’ disasters, degradation of land resources, infrastructural activities, chemical accidents, environmental warfare and climate change. Trolldalen et al. (1992) identified the first trigger as ‘natural’ disasters and argued that ‘nature’ was largely to blame for the temporary displacement of people; typecasting those displaced as the ‘victim’. However, Trolldalen et al. (1992) made a similar assertion to El-Hinnawi (1985) and Jacobson (1988) that ‘climate refugees’ from ‘natural’ disasters was as ‘temporary victims and aggravators’.

In 1992 The Population Institute published Desperate Departures: The Flight of Environmental Refugees. In their paper, the Population Institute (1992) used the same six categories of triggers for ‘environmental refugee’ flows as IOM and RPG (1992), but with an added discussion, albeit brief, of climate change as a trigger for population displacement.

The first category was geophysical stresses that have a rapid onset. As argued by El-Hinnawi (1985), Jacobson (1988) and Trolldalen et al. (1992), these ‘natural’ disasters are ‘intensified by human activities’ (Population Institute, 1992: 4),

which was the basis for the ensuing construct of ‘climate refugees’ as ‘temporary victims and aggravators’. The Population Institute argued that the number of these disasters and their destructiveness had increased, attributed to ‘an outgrowth of ecosystems made more vulnerable by human pressures on land, forests and soil’.

Myers (1995) identified acute-onset ‘natural’ disasters as a second major trigger for population displacement. Myers (1995) argued that while these disasters were ‘natural’ events, they also had a human component. These events were ‘often made worse by population pressures… or poverty’, which left many communities at risk and without the means to avoid disaster (Myers, 1995: 25)

In contrast to El-Hinnawi (1985), Jacobson (1988), Trolldalen et al. (1992) and the Population Institute (1992), Myers (1995) was sympathetic to those in such a predicament. Despite the human component of the otherwise ‘natural’ disaster, those affected were not constructed as the ‘aggravators’ or ‘contributors’ to such change. In contrast, Myers (1995) highlighted that these ‘climate refugees’ were ‘victims’ of ‘natural’ disasters, pervasive poverty and population pressures. As Myers (1995: 25) asserted, it is ‘often the poorest people who are most exposed to risk and they are the ones who, by virtue of their impoverished plight, can do least to safeguard themselves’, reasoning his case for the above identity construction of ‘climate refugees’.

During the 1990s, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had varying levels of association with the ‘environmental refugee’ issue. At many times, UNHCR have distanced themselves from involvement in discussions of ‘environmental refugees’, preferring to contribute to research that examined environmental degradation at refugee settlement camps (UNHCR, 1995a; 1995b; 1996)

. There have been a limited number of instances when UNHCR publicly acknowledged that there were refugees who fled homelands as a result of environmental change. The earliest acknowledgement traced was in 1991, in a report written by UNHCR’s Working Group on Solutions and Protection. Here, UNHCR (1991) first mentioned about ‘Climate Refugee’ and reported that ‘persons fleeing natural or ecological disaster normally have a need for relief assistance than protection’. While UNHCR (1991) acknowledged the existence of ‘climate refugees’ it steered clear of making a case that such refugees require international protection, and instead argued for short-term relief responses. Such statements have served to relinquish UNHCR of responsibility to provide protection for ‘climate refugees’.

“Millions of people have been forced to leave their homes because the land of which they live has become uninhabitable or is no longer able to support them. In some cases the cause is a natural disaster; in others, the catastrophe is caused by humans (UNHCR, 1993: 8).”

UNHCR (1993: 9) tated that people displaced by disaster or environmental degradation undoubtedly need assistance. UNHCR et al. (1996) described five major categories of ‘environmentally displaced persons’. Causes for the first category of acute onset situations were ‘natural’ disasters (1996: 16) and explored that ‘environmentally displaced persons’ dislocated temporarily from their homes from acute ‘natural’ disasters as ‘temporary victims and aggravators’ and considered as ‘climate refugees’.

Conceptualizing ‘Refugee’ and ‘Climate Refugee’


Governments have long recognized that forced migration and displaced persons pose a significant international challenge. The United Nations met in Geneva in 1951 to discuss and draft a convention relating to the legal status of refugees. As a result of this meeting, the United Nations adopted the milestone of the international refugee protection, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The United Nations recognized that the emergence of new refugee situations required changes in the Convention. In the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, these changes were codified. In these documents a ‘refugee’ is defined as someone who:

“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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (UNHCR 2007, 16).

The UNICEF defines a refugee as:

“Someone who has been forced to leave their country because they are unable to live in their home or they fear they will be harmed. This can be due to a number of reasons, including fighting or natural disasters, like earthquakes and floods”.

Similarly, some regional refugee instruments, such as the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, extend the definition to persons fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order. This supplement may equally apply to persons fleeing sudden-onset disasters.

Climate Refugee:

To define people displaced due to climate change Norman Myers (2005) in 2005 defined climate refugees as: “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty.”

Even the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has proposed the following definition to be able to categorize these people;

“Environmental migrants or climate migrants are persons or groups of persons, who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or chose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” (Brown, 2001).

Both environmental refugees and climate refugees are invoked to describe populations that have been displaced or are at risk of displacement associated with environmental changes. The term climate refugee specially has been mobilizing to describe as:

“Large numbers of people predicted to be permanently or temporarily displaced by climate change effects such as drought, desertification, deforestation, soil erosion, water shortages and rising sea level (Meyers, 1995)”.

Definitions of ‘climate refugee’ are shaped by an assumption that the term can apply to any of the diverse climate vulnerable population around the world. For example:

“People who have to leave their habitats, immediately or in the near future, because of sudden or gradual alternations in their natural environment related to at least one of the three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity (El-Hinnawi, E. 1985).”

Reasons for which there is an Absence of International Protection for Climate Refugees:

The UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees formed in 1951 is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee (UNHCR, 2009).

The key aspect of the accepted refugee definition, set out in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, is of a person with a well-founded fear of persecution. ‘Persecution’ means violations of human rights that are sufficiently serious, thus there are difficulties in characterizing ‘climate change’ as ‘persecution’. Storms, earthquakes and floods may be harmful, but they do not constitute ‘persecution’.

Today countries hide behind the restrictive definition of the UN Refugee Convention to refuse asylum to individuals who “had to flee the place they lived to escape danger” (Collectif Argos, 2010).

That is problematic for people who lose their native land due to climate change. Because if you then live and have to flee inside a third world country it is hard for the government to give you the protection and help you need. Due to the fact that one of the criteria’s of being a refugee according to the UN Refugee Convention is that you have to be outside the boundaries of your country of origin. The refugee definition only applies to people who have already crossed an international border, but many of those displaced by climate change are ‘internally displaced people’ (IDPs). Though the UNHCR is the lead agency for IDPs, it deals only with those forced to move as a result of a conflict.

In the year of 1984, as refugees increasingly came from developing countries, the definition of “refugee” had to be extended. Resulting in bringing international protection to people who “are forced to move for a complex range of reasons including persecution, widespread human right abuses, armed conflict and generalized violence” by the end of the 20th century (UNHCR, 2009).

Refugees are also mentioned in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates that “everyone is entitled to that in other countries seek an enjoy asylum from being persecuted”. Either the UN Refugee Convention its extended definition or the UN Declaration of Human Rights did not touch areas of refugees fleeing their homes due to the environment. Climate refugees therefore do not exist in regard to current international law. People who are forced to leave their home country due to environmental reasons are not granted any legal status.

Rationale to have the Right to get the Protection under Refugee Law for Climate Refugees:

Protection under the Convention definition is available for asylum-seekers in countries which are Parties to the Convention. For such protection, the three elements need to be satisfied are as follows:

  1. There must be persecution or a well-founded fear of it
  2. The persecution must be on one of the grounds mentioned in the Convention
  3. There must have been migration from the borders


To qualify as a refugee under the Refugee Convention, an asylum seeker must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution. The core meaning of ‘persecution’ includes the threat of deprivation of life or physical freedom. Conisbee and Simms argue that the environment can be used intentionally as an ‘instrument of harm’ if a set of policies is pursued in full knowledge of its damaging consequences. From this perspective, a dam building project can be seen as intentional harm. The same holds for contributing to climate change. These acts can force communities to leave their familiar surroundings. In the Geneva Convention, an individual is considered a refugee if he or she is fleeing because of grounded fear of persecution. Conisbee and Simms state that the two conditions are thus fulfilled: (i) there is persecution, or in other words, intentional harm and (ii) there is grounded fear. A well-founded fear of starvation or drowning is a compelling reason to escape. People who have to migrate because of climate change, for instance, are thus entitled to refugee status (Kibreab 1997, 20-21; Castles 2002, 10).

The role of the state in persecution

The "persecution" requirement usually demands "an act of government against individuals”. However, persecution may also result from circumstances where the authorities are unwilling or unable to offer effective protection. In cases of environmental degradation, authoritative decisions on the part of the government usually underlie environmental disasters, and the refugees created by such disasters suffer a form of governmental persecution. Decisions over a period of time which have not resulted in affording the requisite protection to the environment result in an amplified catastrophic effect on the victims of environmental disaster. Another way of looking at the role of the State in cases of global environmental change, if no single government can be said to be primarily at fault, is to visualize asylum seekers as fleeing the cumulative persecution of several states, and fall under the Convention definition.

The grounds of persecution: Membership of particular social group

In addition to the "persecution" requirement, it is required that a person be persecuted on one of the grounds mentioned in the Convention. The grounds specified are "reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Hence, "social group" acts as a residuary category, and was included as a basis of persecution in the Refugee Convention specifically to protect refugees persecuted on account of unforeseen reasons. “Social group" has been interpreted to mean a recognizable or cognizable group within society that shares some experience in common. In the context of environmental refugees, a common characteristic which binds an otherwise disparate set of people might be that every member of that group was politically disempowered to prevent the pursuit of policies detrimental to their environment.

Scope of a possible tweak in the refugee definition for those who are stateless

A stateless person by definition lacks the protection of his country (of residence). Therefore, unlike the case of a person having a nationality, an inability to avail of the protection of one’s country because of a fear of persecution on the grounds specified is not relevant to determine his refugee status. This is supported by a literal reading of Article 1A (2). For a stateless person it is merely his inability to return to his country of residence which is relevant. If a stateless person outside his or her country of former habitual residence for a reason even other than a Convention reason and is unable to return to it for that reason he would, as per the Convention definition, be a refugee. Although the language of article 1A (2) of the Refugee Convention may seem to indicate that a well-founded fear of persecution is required only in the context of persons having a nationality and not to stateless people, Goodwin Gill notes that the view prevailing now is that no substantial difference is intended between stateless and other refugees.

The advantage of regional instruments

The OAU Convention confers protection to refugees as it includes people compelled to leave their state due to events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, and it does not require persecution to be shown. This covers the unique case of environmental migrants who may have fled due to warfare arising out of a competition for natural resources amongst or within communities due to environmental catastrophes. The international institutions and United Nations can take it as a basis and integrate the ‘climate refugees’ in mainstream which ensure and strengthen the existence of ‘climate refugee’ under international approaches and laws.

Vogt, W. (1949). Road to Survival . London: Gollancz.

Young, J. (1991). Sustaining the Earth: The Past, Present and Future of the Green Revolution. Sydney: New South Wales University Press.

Beder, S. (1996). The Nature of Sustainable Development. Newham: Scribe.

Aplin, G., Mitchell, P., Cleugh, H., Pitnam, A., & Rich, D. (1995). Global Environmental Crises: An Australian Perspective. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Brown , L., McGrath, P., & Stokes, P. (1976). Twenty-two Dimentions of the Population Problem:Worldwatch Paper 5. Washington: Worldwatch Institute.

El-Hinnawi, E. (1985). Environmental Refugee. Nairobi: UNEP.

Ibid, page 10

Jacobson, J. L. (1988). Environmental Refugees: A Yardstick of Habitability. Washington: The Worldwatch Institute.

Ibid, page 16-17

Ibid, page 7

Trolldalen, J. M., Birkeland, N. M., Borgen, J., & Scott, P. T. (1992). Environmental Refugees- A discussion Paper. Oslo: World Foundation for Environment and Development.

Population Institute (1992). Desparate Depurtures: The Flight of Environmental Refugees. Washington: Population Institute.

Ibid, page 4

Myers, N. (1995). Environmental Exodus: An Emergent Crisis in the Global Arena. Washington : Climate Institute.

Ibid, page 25

UNHCR (1995a). State of the World Refugees 1995: In Search of Solution. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1995b). UNHCR's Executve Committee Report, Forty-sixth session. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1996). Environmental Guidelines. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1991). Report to the UNHCR Exicutive Committee Forty-second Session. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1993). State of the World's Refugees 1993: The Challenges of Protection . Geneva: UNHCR.

Ibid, page 9

UNHCR. (1996). Environmental Guidelines. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR. (2007). Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Geneva: UNHCR.

Marshall, L. W. (2011). 'Toward a New Definition of 'Refugee': Is the 1951 Convention out of date? EJTES, 37, 61-66.

Mayers, N. (2005). Environmental Refugees: An Emergent Security Issue. Prague: Oxford University Press.

Brown , O. (2001). Migration and Climate Change. Geneva: International Organization for Migration.

Myers, N. (1995). Environmental Exodus: An Emergent Crisis in the Global Arena. Washington : Climate Institute.

El-Hinnawi, E. (1985). Environmental Refugee. Nairobi: UNEP.

UNHCR. (2009). Protecting Refugees and the Role of UNHCR. Geneva: UNHCR.

Collectif, A., Reeves, H., & Jouzel, J. (2010). Climate Refugees. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Jane, M. (Winter 2008). 'Climate Change 'Refugees' and International Law'. The Journal of the NSW Bar Association, 27-31.

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Kibreab, G. (1997). Environmental Causes and Impact of Refugee Movement: A Critique of the Current Debate. Disasters, 21, 20-38.

Castels, S. (2002). Environmental Change and Forced Migration: Making Sense of the Debate. New Issues in Refugee Research, 70, 1-14.

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Tracing the Discourse of Climate Refugees and their Existence under International Approaches. (2019, Jul 26). Retrieved June 18, 2024 , from

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