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  • Writer's pictureIRALR


This blog is authored by Simran Parmani, a first year student of BA-LLB in Nmims Navi Mumbai

Climate change in the recent years has posed a significant challenge to the planet and communities. Global warming is one of the most pressing issues faced by our planet today and the ineffectiveness of the developed and developing countries to address it has created a major public concern around it. Environmental issues have created an increase in climate migration and people are forced to leave their homes in search of protection from natural disasters. Many climate studies and hydrological models have suggested that the sea level on Earth will rise by a foot by 2050 and this will lead to many countries being swiped out.

Climate change refugees can be defined as people who were forced to relocate across national borders due to the crisis which was a result of global warming. The victims of climate change, unlike the people who have migrated due to political upheaval, cannot obtain financial and medical aid, food, and shelter from the state and international organizations because they are not recognized under any conventions. They have not been given any official status and acknowledgment which could make it easier for them to seek asylum. Along with the rising sea levels, the desertification of land will make them uninhabitable and millions of people will have to flee from their homes in the next century. They will have to relocate to safer grounds. There is a dire need that the global community accepts them as the developed countries have a huge role to play in environmental degradation.

The Need To Recognize The Plight Of Refugees

Human beings are trying to survive and adapt in the changing environment but in some cases, they are being forcibly displaced due to the wrath of climate change and disasters, and in some cases, they have to migrate to survive. Even though we consider climate change a result of the exploitation of nature and its resources, the Atlas of Environmental Migration shows how years ago climate change and crisis played a role in people being displaced. Statistics show that 16.1 million people had to migrate due to the climate change crisis in 2018 alone. People have to leave and get separated from their communities and the people who are faced to bear the brunt of climate change are vulnerable people who have contributed very little to climate degradation and the citizens of developed nations do not have to face the same issues because they have abundant resources to protect them. Organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) that fight such issues are troubled with the growing menace of humanitarian needs associated with climate change because there is a lack of proper funding for it. The term ‘climate change refugees’ have still not received recognition. Despite the gravity of the issue, the people who are displaced due to environmental degradation are not covered under the 1951 Refugee convention. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have committed that they will leave no one behind. So, it is high time the international organisations start recognising the problems associated with climate change and prepare a proper framework and tackle this issue at the earliest.

Climate Change Refugees Over The Years

This concept of environmental refugees was introduced by Lester Brown in the 1970s and it entered the common term list in the United Nations Environment Program Policy paper titled 'Environmental refugees' in 1985. There is absolutely no recognition for climate change refugees. The UNHCR refused the need to categorize climate change refugees as a distinct category. The need to research the effects on human migration and population relocation has never been greater as climate change and extreme weather events progressively threaten the conventional ecosystems and livelihoods of the whole population. Environmental changes have directly affected the patterns in human settlement and have led to destruction in agriculture farming and ecosystem leading to depletion of natural resources such as freshwater, affecting the lives of people. These conflicts over environmental and ecological change can infringe basic human rights and these violations are enhanced due to displacement. It was the first time in the history of climatic negotiations that displacement by climate was mentioned at COP21. There was a discussion on establishing a task force on climate displacement and approaches through which it can be minimized.

Approach Taken By United Nations And The European Union

The definition under the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees has not been extended to climate refugees. There is no legal protection or framework for them but there exist other compacts that can be used to protect them and their rights. The most prominent and reliable is the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals which over 193 countries have accepted. It has 169 targets out of which several address climate change.

Apart from this, non-refoulement laws are the best option available for climate change refugees which mandate that a country cannot expel a refugee and send him back to potential danger. Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention says that-

no Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

This has also been included in the human rights convention and it is now generally accepted as a principle of customary international law. But even if the non-refoulement protects them from being expelled, it does not provide permanent residency in any country which is their primary concern and without which they remain extremely vulnerable. So even though The United Nations 2030 agenda for sustainable development includes various migration-related policies and targets, the response by the organization related to this challenge is very limited and the protection provided remains inadequate.

The statistics published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre show that 26.4 million people around the world have been displaced due to floods, windstorms, earthquakes, or drought. While the European Union has not recognized climate change refugees under any policy or framework formerly, it has shown its concern regarding the need to support countries that were affected by the climate change leading to migration.

Several observations have led to the conclusion that climate change and migration will affect particular hotspots such as islands, coastal zones, etc. This will lead to increased internal as well as cross-border displacement.

Implications For India

There has been an extensive study on climate change implications on India; its implication on migration is still under study. It might result in two types of displacements and migration. In the first case, it will be within India due to the effects such as drought, desertification and increase in sea level. In the second case, a migration crisis may arise due to the inflow of migrants from neighbouring countries suffering from the effects of climate change. Climate change will increase the drought-like situation in semiarid parts of western India leading the marginal farmers landless and such conditions will force them to move to already densely populated cities. The increased cyclones and storms in coastal areas that are densely populated would also face a similar situation. In India, major Metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Kolkata are at risk too for being situated at low elevation points and with the increase in sea level.

Due to the lack of any international or national law, no institution is responsible for the protection of climate change refugees. organizations such as the UNHCR for refugees are already overstretched and pressured due to the political and war migrants’ crisis. Neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, which are so vulnerable to climate change, add additional pressure on the resources of India and also threaten the livelihood of people who are presently living here.


Climate change will expose millions of people around the world to environmental risk. There is a need for them to be recognized as climate or environmental refugees under international laws and their problems should be addressed immediately. There is still no consensus on the definition of these refugees as they don’t fit under the definition provided in the 1951 Geneva Convention. Some states still don’t recognize how climate change impacts migration and how it can be a root cause for migration. There is also an issue of internal migration that cannot be addressed by international law. There is a need for effective management of environmental migration and a policy needs to be formulated on the international front to ensure human rights security. More informed action is required in societies to facilitate human security and sustainable development at the same time.

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