Climate Refugees: Are We Using The Right Terminology?

In recent years, the term ‘climate refugee’ has become the term of choice for describing those at risk of climate-induced displacement. The term has become widespread in popular discourse and news media circles, finding itself at the intersection of environmental and humanitarian concern. Despite the term’s appeal, academics, refugee organizations, and future ‘climate refugees’ themselves, have all cautioned against its use. Not only is the phrase ‘climate refugee’ not recognized in international law, it also poorly encapsulates complex migration processes, and  provides little agency to those most at risk from climate change.

The term refugee has historically been distinguished from the term migrant on the grounds of forced persecution. The UNHCR defines a refugee as someone with “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion and nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside his country of nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Climate induced migration, which is fueled by resource constraints, sea levels rising, or other reductions in habitable land, is difficult to categorize or equate as a violation of human rights within existing refugee conventions.  

Climate induced migration, which is fueled by resource constraints, sea levels rising, or other reductions in habitable land, is difficult to categorize or equate as a violation of human rights within existing refugee conventions.  

While perhaps it could be argued that those in perilous environmental situations are being persecuted by the perpetrators of climate change, how does one go about identifying these perpetrators? For inhabitants of the Pacific Islands, an area extremely vulnerable to sea level rise, persecution is not due to reasons pertaining to race, religion, or political opinion, but rather to location. As law professor Jane McAdam explains, “[the] impacts of climate change on the livelihoods of Pacific nations are indiscriminate.” Given that not all victims of climate change will belong to the same social, ethnic, or religious group, the term refugee is difficult to rationalize. Continued usage of the term ‘climate refugee’ propels policy discussion into the field of refugee protection, when perhaps this discussion should be held within a framework of human rights. 

If a new legal category for ‘climate refugees’ were to be created, and the 1951 Refugee Convention were to be amended, this would put at risk the protection of millions of existing refugees. Asylum rights, for example, would no longer be guaranteed for many refugees if the convention were to be reopened, as such rights would lack legal international backing. The UNHCR further cautions that the term refugee would be ill-suited for describing incidences of climate-induced migration, given that much of this displacement is predicted to remain internal in nature, while central to the definition of a refugee is forced displacement across international borders. 

If a new legal category for ‘climate refugees’ were to be created, and the 1951 Refugee Convention were to be amended, this would put at risk the protection of millions of existing refugees.

Legal jargon aside, the term ‘climate refugee’ was constructed largely in isolation from the very subjects that would end up becoming ‘climate refugees’. In 2004, a Pacific ambassador being interviewed at the UN criticized the term as a mechanism of diversion away from the core issue of combating climate change and fulfilling agreements outlined in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. A focus on refugee protection rather than climate protection, was seen as defeatist. This ambassador argued that Pacific Islanders were “being forced to take adaptation as a means of solving [their] problems,” and that this was unacceptable. To this day, being granted permission to cross a foreign border as a refugee is a band-aid solution and offers no solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Another ambassador at the conference further criticized the term for preemptively stripping away the sovereign identity of Pacific Islanders, demanding instead “that such an identity be replaced with an acknowledgement of them as citizens of a sovereign, independent nation, a homeland from which people did not wish to flee by becoming ‘climate refugees’.’’

For the leaders of low-lying island atoll states at the forefront of climate change devastation, the term ‘climate refugee’ seems to paint their communities as helpless victims, with little agency in confronting or adapting to climate induced hazards. Tuvalu and Kiribati, two atolls standing at an average height of 2 and 6.5 meters respectively, have continuously been placed at the center of climate refugee discourse. Little consideration, however, has been given to their own perspectives and planned methods of adaptation. Geography Professor Carol Farbotko has argued that Tuvalu has been ‘imagined as a laboratory and litmus test for the effects of climate change on the planet […] enrolled into international NGO and media narratives as subjects to represent climate damage.’ In the process, she argues, Tuvaluans have not been credited with any sort of potential agency in their own migration processes.

For the leaders of low-lying island atoll states at the forefront of climate change devastation, the term ‘climate refugee’ seems to paint their communities as helpless victims, with little agency in confronting or adapting to climate induced hazards.

In Tuvalu, migration is not a new phenomenon. Migratory processes have deep roots in every-day life and culture, and are commonly undertaken as a means to support family members or attain economic security. A case study by Collette Mortreux interviewing inhabitants of Tuvalu’s capital city, Funafuti, revealed that migration was seen by many as a part of everyday life, and that much of current emigration is not due to climate fear. Given that many communities in Tuvalu are familiar with migratory processes, it seems belittling to ascribe the label of ‘climate refugee’ to  people who have long been active agents in their migratory choices. Methods of adaptation have similarly been present in Kiribati. Former President Anote Tong spent time attempting to solidify migration pathways for citizens of Kiribati to New Zealand and Australia, hoping to create a safety net for when Kiribati will no longer be inhabitable. Tong hoped that such actions would help build a sense of Kiribati culture abroad, and provide social and economic networks for future migrants to draw on. 

Accounts from those living in Tuvalu and Kiribati seem to strongly contrast with the sensationalist illustrations of climate refugees circulating in the news. This is not to undervalue the severity of climate change and sea-levels rising, but rather to acknowledge the adaptive capacity of the communities that are most vulnerable to environmental degradation. The term ‘refugee’ does not strengthen or even acknowledge this adaptive capacity and is, therefore, perhaps ill-suited to describing the situation at hand. Not only would using a different term, such as ‘environmental migrant’ or ‘climate migrant,’ help invoke a greater sense of agency, it would also empower those at risk from climate crises to be included in discussions surrounding climate-induced migration.

Edited by Sruthi Sudhir.

Photo credits: “Climate change = more climate refugees.” by John Englart. Published 20th of February, 2019. This work was sourced under a Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made.

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