The human cost of climate change: the battle over the legal status of climate refugees

By: Heather Mooney


In 2007, Ioane Teitiota headed to New Zealand with his wife and three children, leaving behind his home country of Kiribati, a group of isles in the Central Pacific Ocean. Rising sea levels, disease, storm surges, water contamination, and other natural disasters, occurring as an effect of climate change, made living conditions near impossible. The family hoped to start a new life in a safer place, but that journey had a bumpy start. When the family's visas expired three years later, the New Zealand court rejected Teitiota’s claim for asylum. He tried to reverse the decision at New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court, but to no avail. Despite a lengthy legal battle, the family was deported in September of 2015.


Back in Kiribati, Teitiota feared the country would go completely underwater: the main island of Kiribati, Tarawa, was only 3 meters above sea level at its highest point. “Back here, there’s nothing,” Teitiota told BBC in November of 2015. “Especially with climate change, the country could disappear within thirty years. If there is no rain, we don’t know what to drink.”


By then, climate had not been the only concern: Teitiota feared that his children raised in New Zealand would have trouble reintegrating into the drastically new setting of this home island. Additionally, diarrhea, malnutrition, and dengue fever were common among the island's population, and children were especially susceptible to these health issues.

In February of 2016, Teitiota took his case to the Human Rights Commission. He claimed that New Zealand had violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by deporting him and his family. The Commission acknowledged that his right to life had been violated as a result of climate change, and Teitiota officially became the first-ever climate refugee granted residency in a new country. Many more, however, didn’t.


Each year, an estimated 21.5 million people are displaced as a result of weather and climate-related disasters, according to the data from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This figure doubles the number of the displaced as a result of conflict, persecution, abuse, and violence.


The 1951 Refugee Convention, signed by 145 countries, outlines refugees' rights and the legal responsibilities of nations to protect them. The document protects all people included in their definition of a refugee. According to the document, it is “a person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.”


However, this definition excludes several endangered groups such as those displaced internally or as a result of climate and environmental factors.


Professor Norman Myers, a British environmentalist specializing in biodiversity, was one of the advocates who first recognized the problem. Myer’s perspective was backed up by years of professional experience working for high-profile institutions. For instance, he was an environmental consultant for the White House, United Nations, World Bank, and European Commission. In his 1993 report Environmental Refugees in a Globally Warmed World, Myers warned about the scope of the problem. As the Guardian reported, he “predicted the explosion of environmental refugees, driven from their homes by the million by climate crisis, natural disaster, erosion, drought and other human changes to the planet.”


Later, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Myers pushed for updates to the 1951 Refugee Convention. He believed that it should include environmental refugees in the list of protected groups. The proposal, however, failed because it contradicted the definition of a refugee provided in section 1A of the convention: that section does not explicitly eliminate climate refugees but it does not incorporate them either.


Another attempt was made by professor Frank Bierman, a Research Professor of Global Sustainability Governance. He was supported by Ingrid Boas, an Associate Professor at the Environmental Policy Group at Wageningen University and a researcher in the fields of environmental change, mobilities, and governance. They advocated for the creation of a new “protocol for the recognition, protection, and resettlement of climate refugees” under the UN Framework Convention On Climate Change, hoping to relocate those affected by damaging environmental factors.


But their efforts were countered by a large pushback. This time, it was not only international organizations that continued to be proponents of the status quo - the chorus was also joined by fellow environmentalists. For instance, Environment Magazine disparaged the proposition to expand the list of protected groups. In particular, the outlet emphasized that the term “climate refugee” “is essentially underdetermined” and that “a concern regards the relationship between climate and society implied by the proposed operation of the protocol.”


There was additional criticism from Chiara Scissa, a researcher of environmental migration, who bluntly responded that Frank Bierman and Ingrid Boas “meant to distinguish strictly between climate change and environmental drivers of forced migration.” According to Scissa, separating the two from both legal and conceptual perspectives would eventually lead to “multiple backlashes.” She also highlighted that creating new groups of refugees will lead to “more categories and sub-categories of migrants'', which would make it more difficult to address their needs.


These deficiencies within the proposal were widely acknowledged and manifested through political backlash. UNHCR eventually rejected the proposal in 2008.


As of now, many people still believe incorporating climate refugees within the UN framework is not the solution. Dina Ionesco, the head of the migration, environment, and climate change division at the UN migration agency, argues that creating a status for climate refugees would not be elaborate enough to “address the complexity of human mobility and climate change.” Many people, Ionesco highlights, don’t wish to leave their country of origin but instead “want to be able to stay in their homes, or to move in dignity and through regular channels without abandoning everything behind.”


Her preferred solution is to establish a special legal status for climate migrants, not refugees. It is not only a matter of words: such a status would be “parallel to the existing refugees’ status” and presents an alternate solution to the problem.


However, this approach is very broad in comparison to a refugee convention or protocol. “Climate migrants'' is an umbrella category that includes not only refugees but asylum seekers and internally displaced people. It may prove difficult to categorize climate migrants when all these divisions are included. For instance, displaced peoples who remain within their country of origin are under national protection and several countries already have measures in place to protect these citizens. China, for example, has suffered from intense environmental degradation with a projected 10 million citizens displaced by 2050. Thus, in 2022 environment-related displacement and resettlement became the official policy of the Chinese government with a plan to resettle 1.5 million internally displaced people by 2010. International protection for climate migrants could overlap with and contradict these plans for national relocation in problematic ways.


Those against any additional categories of refugees, in turn, argue that these categories would be insufficient when applied to climate migrants as most are displaced internally and over a long period of time rather than “in the nature of refugee flight”” meaning international protection as a refugee would do very little. Additionally, climate is often not the only factor driving displacement but a myriad of underlying factors whose “causal complexity would be difficult to reflect in a treaty definition.”


Jane Mcadam, an Australian legal scholar, and expert in climate and related displacement, argues that the term ‘refugee’ does not apply to those in need of relocation as a result of environmental factors, along with various others opposing the movement for the inclusion of climate refugees. The Platform On Disaster Displacement suggests addressing the underlying issues separate from the environment that may activate or contribute to the need for relocation, “why [should] protection be extended to those affected by “climate change” or “disasters”, rather than for instance “abject poverty”, which may be equally attributable to global structural inequities. As experts have noted, focusing on a single cause can distort and oversimplify the context, and impede the identification of appropriate solutions.”

Nigeria is an illustration of a country that suffers from a myriad of climate disasters that go unacknowledged or misinterpreted especially in relation to refugees. Nigerians suffer significantly from various types of natural and man-made disasters including floods, sandstorms, coastal erosions, and tidal waves that have “claimed many lives in Nigeria and rendered many homeless.”


Nigerian journalist, Ohimai Amaize explained that Nigerian conflict often reflects the prominent environmental issues that can often go misinterpreted or unacknowledged. “In Nigeria, there is a clear connection between how climate change or shrinking land is causing conflict between two communities that have co-existed for a long time but you did not find them fighting and this has led to a humanitarian crisis that has displaced thousands from their homeland.”


However, many don’t acknowledge the environmental aspect of this conflict. “This crisis between Fulani herders and farmers has been interpreted purely as a political agenda and interestingly this claim is far more popular in Nigeria today than the scientifically proven reality of climate change forcing people to migrate down south,” continues Amaize. “Everybody focuses on the politics of the conflict but it is also very true of climate change that has created a situation where the land is not what it used to be 20 years ago 15 years ago and that has real implications for real-life and current circumstances that people are facing.”


According to the CIA World Factbook, natural resources, namely oil, is the main source of foreign exchange earnings and government revenue in Nigeria. But many ordinary people rely on agriculture to survive due to a lack of urbanization. As a result, this sector employs 80% of its workforce and uses 78% of the country’s land.


Political disputes in Nigeria have escalated without the acknowledgment of the environmental factors that initiated these conflicts including the deterioration of land essential to the nation's survival, and oil production contracting due to an “inconsistent regulatory environment.” Amaize suggests that this misinterpretation occurs due to a lack of education or misinformation: “The attitude of the Nigerian government to these disasters leaves a lot to be desired. Its approach suggests the real implications of this, they don't even understand the whole idea of climate change properly so there isn't so much strategy response to some of these disasters. I don't think that even the citizens themselves are well acquainted or educated and informed about the reality of climate change and how there is currently a crisis in Nigeria.”


But the indifference to environmental concern is not only present on a national level. “It is not in every situation that climate change would result in conflict,” continues Amaize. “That might be one of the reasons the United Nations doesn't always consider climate refugees as people who need that sort of priority attention but if you look at the case of a place like Nigeria there is a clear connection between how climate change or shrinking land is creating conflict between two communities.” This misinformation proves problematic for the country and for refugees seeking protection from environmental disasters. It becomes even more difficult as the crisis is being internationally dealt with from the wrong angle “it's very difficult to address the issue when people are viewing the issue in a totally incorrect way.”


The concern of climate refugees is being addressed in a myriad of fundamentally different ways. The bottom line, however, remains the same; these people whose livelihoods are being threatened on a daily basis require immediate unified protection on an international level so they cannot be disregarded and deprioritized. To quote Ioane Teitiota, “I'm the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it's the same as me."