There are ever more refugees fleeing the effects of climate change, be it floods, hurricanes, rising sea levels or expanding deserts.
By the middle of this century, experts estimate that climate change is likely to displace between 150 and 300 million people, a population nearly as large as that of the United States.
Yet today, the global community has not universally acknowledged the existence of climate migrants, much less agreed on how to define them. According to international refugee law, climate migrants are not legally considered refugees. Therefore, they have none of the protections officially accorded to refugees, who are technically defined as people fleeing persecution.
No global agreements exist to help millions of people who are displaced by natural disasters every year. Refugees’ rights, and nations’ legal obligation to defend them, were first defined under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was expanded in 1967.
This work took place well before it was apparent that climate change would become a major force driving migrations and creating refugee crises.
Under the convention, a refugee is defined as someone “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.
The convention legally binds nations to provide access to courts, identity papers and travel documents, and to offer possible naturalisation.
It also bars discriminating against refugees, penalising them, expelling them or forcibly returning them to their countries of origin. Refugees are entitled to practise their religions, attain education and access public assistance.
In my view, governments and organisations such as the United Nations should consider modifying international law to provide legal status to environmental refugees and establish protections and rights for them.
Reforms could factor in the concept of “climate justice”, the notion that climate change is an ethical and social concern. After all, richer countries have contributed the most to cause warming, while poor countries will bear the most disastrous consequences.
Some observers have suggested that countries that bear major responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions should take in more refugees.
Alternatively, the world’s largest carbon polluters could contribute to a fund that would pay for refugee care and resettlement for those temporarily and permanently displaced.
The Paris climate agreement does not mention climate refugees. However, there have been some consultations and initiatives by various organisations and governments. They include efforts to create a climate change displacement coordination facility and a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Climate Change.
It is tough to define a climate refugee or migrant. This could be one of the biggest challenges in developing policies.
As history has shown, destination countries respond to waves of migration in various ways, ranging from welcoming immigrants to placing them in detention camps or denying them assistance.
Some countries may be selective in whom they allow in, favouring only the young and productive while leaving children, the elderly and infirm behind.
A guiding global policy could help prevent confusion and outline some minimum standards.
Negotiating international agreements on these issues could take many years. For now, major G20 powers such as the United States, the European Union, China, Russia, India, Canada, Australia and Brazil should consider intermediate steps.
The United States could offer temporary protected status to climate migrants who are already on its soil. Government aid programmes and nongovernment organisations should ramp up support to refugee relief organisations and ensure that aid reaches refugees from climate disasters.
In addition, all countries that have not signed the United Nations refugee conventions could consider joining them. This includes many developing countries in South Asia and the Middle East that are highly vulnerable to climate change and that already have large refugee populations.
Since most of the affected people in these countries will likely move to neighboring nations, it is crucial that all countries in these regions abide by a common set of policies for handling and assisting refugees. The scale of this challenge is unlike anything humanity has ever faced.
By mid-century, climate change is likely to uproot far more people than World War II, which displaced some 60 million across Europe, or the Partition of India, which affected approximately 15 million.
The migration crisis that has gripped Europe since 2015 has involved something over one million refugees and migrants. It is daunting to envision much larger flows of people, but that is why the global community should start doing so now. – GULREZ SHAH AZHAR/AP