Although the number of people fleeing lands because of climate change-related effects has increased, neither climate refugees nor environmental migrants and environmentally displaced people are considered legal persons under international law.
They are not legal persons as part of international law as they are not recognized in the 1951 Refugee Convention.
But the debate on the issue has become more visible among academics, human rights advocates and environmental organizations as the negative effects of climate change are becoming more frequent and intense amid concerns that it will force more and more people to leave their homes in the near future.
Sumudu Atapattu, executive director of Madison Human Rights Program at the University of Wisconsin (UW), who is an academic at UW Law School, told earlier Anadolu Agency that climate refugees or environmental migrants are “entitled to the minimum protection accorded under international human rights law.”
Referring to the undefined status of climate refugees in comparison with other migrants, she highlighted that there is no grounded terminology. “There is neither terminology nor legal framework to govern those who cross an international border due to consequences related to climate change,” she said.
And so, they are not mentioned when World Refugee Day is marked.
Designated by the UN in 2000 to honor refugees around the globe, World Refugee Day is celebrated annually June 20 to raising awareness of the situation of refugees.
International law on environmental migration
The Geneva Convention on Refugees is a legal framework that governs those who seek refuge in another country and since one has to establish persecution, it cannot apply to climate refugees.
Along with the Geneva Convention, the Task Force on Climate Displacement, established by the Paris Agreement, refers to migration and human mobility concerning climate change as well as recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change but no grounded terminology specifically regarding climate refugees.
Experts warn that when considering small island countries and poor countries, such as Bangladesh, where more than 200 million live less than one meter above sea level, defining climate migration or environmentally displaced people as part of international regulations on refugees is an urgent issue that requires decisive steps to be taken.
During a leaders’ summit, NATO discussed the fight against climate change for the first time. It made clear the current dangers of climate change to the world and especially in the near future.
“NATO will increase awareness by monitoring and tracking climate change much more closely, and invest in better research, data sharing, and analysis. It will accelerate its adapting to continue to operate in all conditions, including extreme heat and cold, rising sea levels, and natural disasters,” it noted in its 2030 agenda.
Mentioned in 2018 by a World Bank’s report was that unless urgent climate action is taken, the regions of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could be dealing with a combined total of more than 140 million internal climate migrants by 2050.
Another sobering report on the issue revealed by the UN in April warned of disasters linked to climate change effects on worsening poverty, hunger and access to natural resources, stoking instability and violence.
Following evaluations, a report by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, noted that extreme weather events-related causes have forced more or less an excess of 21 million people annually to move since 2010.
“Weather-related crises have triggered more than twice as much displacement as conflict and violence in the last decade,” said UNHCR.
Considering the statistics, warnings of experts and the ever-increasing effects of climate change, it would not be a surprise to see important legal changes made on climate refugees, environmental migrants and environmentally displaced people in the near future.
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