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”.