No Country for Climate Migrants

There is much debate surrounding the definition of ‘climate migrants’, particularly because of the complexity of factors associated with migration and climate change. Further discourse, as elaborated further in the present article, has also emerged concerning the differences between climate migrants and climate refugees and whether the terms can be used interchangeably. Lauren Nishimura, for instance, defines climate change migrants as, “those whose movement is triggered, in part or exclusively, by the effects of climate change.” This is an inclusive definition which entails all kinds of movements, be it in the same country or to a separate country, that are caused wholly or partially by climate change. However, no legal definition has yet been devised for the term ‘climate migrants’ as no official convention or international instrument has recognised this issue yet. 

Migrants or Refugees?

Traditionally, international law has provided for a distinction between migrants and refugees. Article 1 of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees stipulates that refugees are persons who are outside their country of nationality owing to imminent persecution, circumstances of violence, disturbed public order, political beliefs, or membership of a social group. As a result of their endangered situation, refugees are granted international protection through international and regional conventions.

Migrants, on the other hand, have not been specifically defined under international law but certain sub-types of migrants have been defined by specialised organisations. However, in general terms various organisations have defined migrants as persons outside their country of origin to seek safer and better habitats. Thus, the main difference between migrants and refugees is that the latter are provided international protection due to the reason they left their country of origin while migrants are not necessarily granted any protection under international law that stems from the reason behind their migration. 

Thus we see that international law has laid down certain distinctions between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ (conferring concrete protection to individuals who fall within the former category), and even though humanitarian voices have called for the protection of climate migrants, international law still lacks the mechanism to accommodate climate migrants

Identifying the Legal Gaps in the Protective Framework

Under Article 1 of the Refugee Convention, ‘refugees’ have been defined as people who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their home country owing to an exhaustive list of reasons that doesn’t include climate change or environmental factors. Thus in the status quo of international law, climate migrants cannot be considered as refugees if climate change is the sole reason behind their displacement from home which is the biggest legal void in their protection.

Another issue is the absence of a legal definition of the term ‘climate migrants’. Although scholars have attempted to make a comprehensive definition for the term, the fact that no international document has yet defined climate migrants or inculcated an existing scholarly definition holds back a certain validation and accreditation to the impending problem. 

Thirdly, the current scholarly works on the issue of climate migration mostly concern themselves with migration occurring due to sudden and severe weather events like flooding and landslides, and do not acknowledge slow onset of climate change like rising sea levels. For instance, the island nations such as the Pacific Islands, the island of Kiribati, and the Federated States of Micronesia, have been facing the migration of natives due to increasing sea levels, which showcases the grave nature of the threat.

Lastly, climate migration has been further divided into cross-border migration and internal displacement of persons. Cross-border migration happens when people flee their countries while internal displacement happens when people have to leave from a certain region but they remain in the same country. This bifurcation of the issue leads to another potential problem in bringing climate migration under the purview of international law. Climate change induced internal displacement is usually dealt with local state laws and only the respective government comes to the aid of the people who have been displaced. Thus, differentiating between cross-border and internal migration seems to acquit the rest of the world for their actions which might be the contributor of climate change causing internal displacement in a country. 

The situations in Bangladesh and Vietnam are an accurate depiction of how internal displacement is being caused due to climate factors and disrupting the stability of countries. Every year, more than 1 million people are displaced annually in Bangladesh due to inundation of flood plains, erosion and the shifting courses of the country’s major river systems. Due to coastal erosion and salinity, more than 100,000 people have permanently shifted from coastal regions of Bangladesh to cities like Chittagong and Dhaka. In the last decade, over 1 million people have migrated out of the Vietnamese Mekong Delta region due to climate change. Increasing water salinity and frequent droughts in the area have resulted in very low crop yields which is forcing people to migrate from the area in large numbers.

UNFCCC and Recognition of Climate Migrants.

Currently, the most important document with respect to Climate Change i.e., UNFCCC does not acknowledge climate migration. However, in the Report of the Conference of the Parties on its sixteenth session, held in Cancun from 29 November to 10 December 2010, it has been mentioned that measures to enhance understanding and adapting to climate induced migration will be implemented. It is noteworthy that, although frail in legal value, this is the only recognition international law has given to the issue of climate migration. Further, it is also crucial to note that UNFCCC, despite not being legally binding, has been recognised in its significance concerning climate change and certain allied issues (see here and here).

The question which arises here is what can the UNFCCC do to officially recognise and define climate change induced migration. The primary point argued by scholars is that migration is a type of adaptation to climate change and Art. 4 of the UNFCCC authorises addressing adaptation issues. In view thereof, UNFCCC is linguistically capable of including climate migration, subject to the political will of countries of the world. To put it simply, if the international legal community was to agree with the views of scholars, and denominate migration as a way of adapting to climate change, climate migrants would be automatically eligible for protection under the UNFCCC. 


The adequate conclusion to the pressing issue of climate change induced migration can only be achieved by establishing an official glossary for climate migrants. Defining climate migrants is the key milestone which needs to be achieved for international law to be fully equipped with devising a system of protection for the people being affected by climate change and related phenomena. Although, legal scholarship and intensive research in the field has presented us with many suitable candidates for a definition of climate migrants. The variations among these happen due to dilemmas such as: (i) exclusivity of climate change as a cause that triggered migration or including those migrants who were facing multiple adversities in their place of origin and one of these adversities was climate change; (ii) the events and phenomena to be included under the term ‘climate change’; 

Climate change statistics perhaps then indicate that it is time to embrace the broader model of survival migration, such as one put forward by Alexander Betts and Esra Kaytaz. They have defined survival migration as:

“people who flee an existential threat to which they have no domestic remedy. Refugees represent one group of survival migrants but the category of survival migration is broader than the legal definition of a refugee. It also includes people who are forced to cross an international border to flee state failure, severe environmental distress, or widespread livelihood collapse.”

As proved by empirical data and international legal ratifications, climate change is real and is a pressing issue that demands consideration. The moral obligation to protect people displaced from their homes has always been on us as has been codified in the Refugee Convention. To argue that climate change migrants do not originally fall into the seemingly watertight definition of ‘refugees’ is a dehumanising and apathetic stance. In conclusion, the question of climate migration is an urgent one and thus needs to be addressed by the international community soon. The progressive steps from here on entail defining climate migrants, identifying the endangered people and framing a legal convention which creates an obligation on member states to shelter people who have been displaced due to climate change. 

Subodh Singh is a fourth year law student at ILS Law College, Pune and is keenly interested in research in the field of international law and international humanitarian law.

Image: NY Times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s