Author: Kazi Mitul Mahmud

Area of Work: Migration And Resettlement

The exposé depicts the gaps in international laws and regulations in protecting people displaced due to hostile environmental factors resulting from climate change.

Climate refugees are people who are forced to leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming. Though natural climate change has happened numerous times over billions of years on Earth, it is the man-made causes that are hurting us more than ever. Global warming is the most recent form of climate change that is threatening our lives. Human activities, such as, relentlessly burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests exacerbate the effects of global warming. These actions release profuse amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases.

Increasing temperatures as a result of global warming are causing arctic glaciers and ice caps to melt at an alarmingly exponential rate. These changes in Earth’s ecology can cause flooding and sea levels rising. Escalating temperatures also lead to droughts and desertification that make it impossible for people in particular regions to support themselves by preserving their livelihood and habitat. Thus, people in affected regions are evicted from their own homes by the forces of nature and become climate refugees. This has given rise to one of the worst humanitarian crises in our times outside of wars and conflicts. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), during 2008 to 2014, around 22.5 million people were displaced by climate-related hazards per year. Scientists predict this number will rise to at least 50 million by 2050.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts that sea levels will rise a total of 0.18 to 0.6 meters (7 inches to 2 feet) between 1990 and 2100. Rising sea levels are already causing problems in low-lying coastal areas around the world.

One such gravely affected area would be Bangladesh, where nearly half the population lives ominously close to the sea – barely 5 meters (16.5 feet) above sea level. As early as 1995, rising sea level inundated parts of the southern island called Bhola and 500,000 people were displaced by the calamity. Scientists predict Bangladesh will lose 17 percent of its land by 2050 due to flooding caused by climate change. Such disasters can leave huge numbers of people distressed without shelter, clean water and basic supplies (National Geographic Society, 2016). While a country that is in the lower Middle-Income status, Bangladesh is identified by the Nansen Initiative as being among the countries that received or did not return refugees displaced by some disaster.

The black hole

When it comes to protecting these distressed, displaced people, there is hardly any international consensus. Within the international humanitarian community, the notion of the ‘climate refugee’ is complicated and controversial – complicated because it has no legal standing under existing international refugee and asylum laws, and controversial because there is little agreement as to what the responsibilities of international bodies are in times of such crisis.

Due to the contentious nature of the term, existing international laws do not officially recognize ‘climate refugee’ as a category of distressed individuals. Frameworks, standards, practices, and precise guidelines need to be formulated to provide protection and support for people losing their homes to the clenches of environment change. Notwithstanding a few existing international humanitarian laws that apply in limited cases of internal displacement, the existing rights guaranteed to political refugees do not apply to climate refugees; climate refugees are specifically deprived of the usual rights to humanitarian aid and the right of return. The UNHCR seeks to address the climate-related displacement within the Protection Agenda framework of Nansen Initiative (NI) for disaster displacement. The NI does not clearly distinguish between climate change and other disasters as drivers of displacement. Besides, NI does not seek to come up with any binding international convention to guide the process of addressing displacement. Yet, if parts of the world become uninhabitable due to climate-related hazards, the displaced people need to be adequately enfranchised in the places they get to relocate – rather than becoming permanent disenfranchised residents in ‘others’ territory’. Such an outcome can be achieved only through some form of binding international consensus.

Therefore, it is vital that in such a dire time of need, when millions of people are displaced and thrown off their own lands, an international agreement is achieved – one that would attempt to protect specific rights and safeguard climate or environmental refugees. Albeit it may be difficult to distinguish between natural disasters and climate disasters, it is the need of the hour to protect vulnerable communities.

What further alienates climate refugees from the realms of international law is the significant difference in how voluntary and involuntary migrants are treated. This factor is challenging to establish in cases of disasters that occur over a gradual period of time, such as, drought, desertification, or land infertility.

While it may be a tall order to aim at a global legal instrument for climate refugees right at this moment especially in view of the increasingly polarized politics over migration, it may help to provide a set of global guiding principles on climate refugees which could be operationalized – as suggested by Nansen Initiative – at regional levels through regional frameworks. An incremental approach may be helpful to gradually enlist the support of key stakeholders in ensuring a world that is prepared to face the challenge of climate related displacement.



María José Fernández, Refugees, climate change and international law, FMR 49, May 2015

The Nansen Initiative, Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change, Vol. I, December 2015, accessed on January 20, 2017, url:

Simran Dolla, International Legal Protection for Climate Refugees: Where Lies the Haven for the Maldivian People? (2015), 6 Journal of Sustainable Law and Policy 1, Afe Babalola University, Nigeria.

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