IntroductionClimate change has become a major concern for theinternational community and it affects all regions around the world. FromEurope to Asia, from melting ice and rising sea levels to extreme weatherconditions, such as more frequent heat waves, droughts, forest fires or floodsand wetter winters –depending on the area-, the consequences of climate changeare huge and they are not hypothetical; they are current reality. Bothdeveloped and developing countries are affected, but the last ones have itworse, since people that live there depend heavily on their natural environmentfor their living, considering that most people work on sectors that rely a loton temperature levels, such as agriculture, forestry and tourism. Theconsequences are big in society and economy as well, since heavy costs areimposed due to damage on infrastructure, property and human health. There is also one more very serious and importantcorollary of climate change and that is migration. To start with, it is quitedifficult to define what a climate refugee actually is. This happens becausewhen a person decides to move, they will probably have based their decision inquite a few reasons, none of which will be exclusively connected to climatechange. Although it is very hard to acquire reliable statistics, consideringthat we don’t know exactly what it is that we are counting, it is estimatedthat between 2008 and 2016 there was a total of 227.
6 millions of people beingdisplaced because of weather-related hazards. No nation is excluded fromclimate change, but there is a higher risk of displacement for the mostpopulous and exposed to hazards countries. Asia is very high on the scale ofdisplaced persons, due to its big areas, high population and the very frequentnatural hazards that occur there. However, according to the International Panelon Climate Change and when considering the ratio of total population to thedisplaced people, most of the Pacific nations come first in the scale. Forexample, back in 2015, when Cyclone Pam occurred 25% of Tuvalu’s and 55% ofVanuatu’s population was displaced. Migration is not a new occurrence in the PacificNations.
Through the last centuries, too many Pacific islanders have chosen theroad to migration in response to changes both in the environmental and in thesocial picture. Nowadays, the excess of contemporary migration from Pacificisland nations has resulted in a big part of the area’s population beingpermanently resettled abroad. It is reported that today about half a millionPacific islanders live overseas, which means one-fourth of the total populationof Micronesia and Polynesia combined. In parts of Polynesia, actually, morepeople reside in foreign land than in the home islands. On the other hand, in Melanesia migrationremains mostly internal, which means people affected by the climate changechoose to move to safest parts of their countries, instead of crossinginternational borders. It is stated that all Pacific island nations are vulnerableto changes caused by the climate change. However, some communities will have toface immense challenges, such as rapid population growth, which will result inoverpopulation in areas with very limited resources, and limited prospects foreconomic improvement.
Those are the atoll communities and countries, which areconsidered to be the most exposed and weak of all and are expected to become abig source for migrants and refugees related to climate change. As it can easily be understood, climate change is nota situation that only affects the land and the nature. The lives of millions ofpeople residing in those areas heavily rely on the outcome of this situationand when talking about migration or displacement, there needs to be awell-respected international context and agreement that protects the peoplethat are affected, something that currently does not exist and needs to becreated. Causeand nature of movement Itis estimated that most of the movements caused by climate change andenvironmental degradation will take place within a country’s borders. However,international movement is also very likely to happen in some occurrences.
According to UNHCR’s official site and the Representative of theSecretary-General on the human rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), WalterKälin, there are five main and different climate-related scenarios that maycause human movement and displacement. To start with, the first scenario is the one, whosecause of movement is the “hydro-meteorological extreme hazard events” thatoccur. The hydro-meteorological disasters are caused by extreme meteorologicaland climate events, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones,tornados, landslides and mudslides. These occur in all parts of the world andaccount for a big fraction of natural disasters, although the frequency,intensity and vulnerability of certain hazards differ from region to region.
Fatalities and infrastructure damage can be caused by disasters, like floodsand droughts, severe storms and strong winds. Apart from causing injuries,deaths and material damage though, a tropical storm is also able to result inflooding and mudslides, that cause disorder in water purification and sewagedisposal systems, as well as in overflow of toxic wastes and increasereproduction of mosquito-borne diseases. As a result of those hazards, thepeople affected by this type of events will have to move from the damagedregions, either by a temporary forced displacement within or outside ofnational borders, or a temporary voluntary movement across internationalborders. The second scenario refers to “areas designated byauthorities as prohibited and unsuitable for habitation”. As a result of all thetypes of hydro-meteorological disasters mentioned above, such as floods,droughts, hurricanes etc, some states are very likely to practice theirsovereign obligation to protect their citizens by labeling some zones ashigh-risk ones, which means that because of their location –this for examplecould mean that they are prone to floods or landslides-, they are too dangerousfor humans to continue living there. Therefore, governments may have to proceedwith applying forced evacuation and displacement of people from their lands,not allowing them to return to them and at the same time relocating them tosafe areas within a country’s national borders.
To continue with, the third scenario is linked to”environmental degradation and slow onset extreme hazard events”. This could referto droughts and desertification, land and forest degradation, reduction ofwater availability, repetitive flooding, salinization and glacial retreat,which means deteriorating situations and hazards, whose impacts take frommonths to decades to manifest. Once again, in such situations, the processes ofmovements will likely be gradual beginning with voluntary movements (bothwithin and outside of national borders) and ending in forced displacement(again both within and outside of national borders). The fourth scenario is about “significant permanentlosses in state territory as a result of sea level rise” and it refers to thecases of small “sinking” island states. The phenomenon of sea level rising islikely to prompt relocation as well as migration abroad, but it is predictedthat at some point some island states of the Pacific Ocean will not be able tosustain human life anymore. That means that all citizens of a “sinking” islandwill have to move to a safe zone abroad and therefore a new problem isemerging, the one of statelessness, which will be analyzed in detail furtherdown.
Finally, the fifth and final scenario of humandisplacement caused by climate change is the one that may provoke “armedconflict over shrinking natural resources”. A decrease in vital and essentialresources, such as water, land and food, is very likely to trigger violencebetween people and/or states. In the case of such armed conflicts, forceddisplacement could result in people moving within their country’s nationalborders, rendering people as Internally Displaced Persons, or in internationaldisplacement, making them refugees and/or people seeking protection. TerminologyInorder to understand better how the people fleeing from the affected zones aretreated and the international conventions from which they are protected, thereneeds to be a better understanding of the terms used to describe them and thatare widely accepted by the international community.Internally displaced persons (IDPs) The currently accepted definition of IDPs are “persons or groups of persons whohave been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places ofhabitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid theeffects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations ofhuman rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed aninternationally recognized State border.”This definition also includes all the people that were forcibly displacedwithin the borders of their own country because of the effects of climatechange. (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, E/CN.
4/1998/53/Add.2.)RefugeeThe definition of a refugee has changed a lot during the last sixty years.According to international law, a refugee is a person who “owing towell-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality,membership of a particular social group or political opinions, is outside thecountry of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwillingto avail himself of the protection of that country, or who, not having anationality and being outside of the country of his former habitual residenceas a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling toreturn to it”. (1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Art. 1A(2),1951, as modified by the 1967 Protocol)In recent times, the terms of “environmental refugees” or “climate refugees”have become quite popular by media or organizations, when referring to peoplewho are forced to leave their homes as a result of slow onset or sudden andrapid natural disasters.
However, these terms have no basis in internationalrefugee law and a “climate refugee” does not meet the criteria of the 1951Refugee Convention. Stateless personA stateless person is defined as a “a person who isnot considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”.(1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, Article 1).Furthermore, stateless refugees are defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention,from which they are protected from, as persons “who, not having anationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as aresult of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to returnto it”.Applicable legal frameworkInregions that will be affected by all the climate-related hazard events anddisasters mentioned above, such as hydro-meteorological events, sea levelrising, armed conflicts due to shrinking natural resources etc, the ways ofmovement are not going to be conventional. People will tend to move in largenumbers and groups and will do so over longer periods of time and not at onceand probably in more diverse directions. A part of them will choose to move towardsmore hospitable areas within their home countries (IDPs), while others willseek a better life outside of their own country and therefore will travelabroad and enter other states (refugees). From the moment that new forms andpatterns of movements are emerging, the already existing concepts that aretraditionally used to categorize and analyze forms and cases of migration willneed to be updated.
A lot of things related to migration will have to be reconsideredand renegotiated, from new definitions of terms to new legal frameworks thatapply in such situations. In each one of the scenarios of movement, it is statedabove that people will be likely to move to safest parts within their owncountries or will be likely to cross international borders. While in most casesthe second type of movement will be less popular –however certainly notinevitable-, provisions should be made for both cases, as people findthemselves away from their homes and unable or unwilling to return there. When hydro-meteorological hazards and environmental degradationoccur, meaning in the first 3 scenarios, causing internal displacement, thenational and local authorities –from the government to local NGOs- have a vitalrole to play in directly responding to such cases and helping people who areaffected by the disasters. Internally Displaced Persons are protected byInternational Human Rights Law (IHRL), “the body of international law designedto promote human rights on social, regional and domestic levels”, both if theychoose to move voluntarily and forcibly. They are also protected by the 1998Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the 30 principles that “detail therights and guarantees relevant to the protection of IDPs from forceddisplacement to their protection and assistance during displacement up to theachievement of durable solutions”. Furthermore, in the last scenario, whenpeople are forcibly being displaced because of armed conflict and violence, thepeople affected are protected not only by the Guiding Principles on InternalDisplacement and International human rights law, but also the InternationalHumanitarian Law, “that branch of international law which seeks to limit theeffects of armed conflict by protecting persons who are not participating inhostilities, and by restricting and regulating the means and methods of warfareavailable to combatants”. Potentialgaps The legal framework when it comes to people crossinginternational borders, however, is a far more complicated situation and thereare some potential gaps created in the legal framework.
To start with, as stated above, there is a confusionwith the term of the refugee, since environmental degradation and climatechange are not officially recognized as reasons for someone to flee theircountry seeking asylum and protection from a foreign state. Therefore, ifpeople affected by such a disaster cross international borders, because theonly escape route leads them there, they would not officially qualify asrefugees who are entitled to international protection according to the alreadyexisting international refugee framework and at the same time they would notnecessarily be classified as migrants; their status remains unclear. This meansthat although they are protected by International Human Rights Law, they arenot automatically protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention and they are notentitled to admission and stay in another country as refugees. Depending on thesending and receiving countries, more analysis would be necessary to determineif some people affected are covered by already existing regional conventionsregardless of their formal status. Secondly, there is a lack of criteria in order todistinguish whether a person has been displaced voluntarily or forcibly duringhazard related disasters and events. However, it is more important to find outif people are in need of international protection and if so, how this can beachieved.
Last but not least, there is a potential gapespecially related to sea level rising and the “sinking” islands in the PacificOcean. If an island nation loses its entire territory, one of the keyconstituting elements of statehood among population, government, sovereigntyand international recognition, it is not clear whether this state would continueto exist as such and whether its statehood would continue to be recognized bythe international community. The same questions would apply in the case of aterritory being too dangerous and unsuitable for humans to continue livingthere, when the government and the entire nation’s population would be forciblyrelocated to other states. In that scenario, the populations of such nationswould be rendered stateless, unless they acquired the nationalities of thestates they would have relocated to. However, even if states continued to existin legal terms, in spite of not having official territory, and theirgovernments tried to be “transferred” and function from the territory of otherstates, it would be unclear if the hosting states would allow this to happenand if they would ensure the rights that flow from citizenship.
Statelessnessunder these specific circumstances, when a nation is slowly being lost, is asituation that has not yet happened, but it is a threat that we know will becometrue sooner or later. In order for people to be protected by statelessness, theinternational law principle of prevention of statelessness should be applied andtaken into action. A sending’s country point of viewKiribati For a country like Kiribati, that is made up of 33 atolls and the highest pointof the whole country is three meters (9.8 feet), adapting to climate changemight mean relocating entirely. The former president of the country, AnoteTong, proposed “migration with dignity”, a policy designed to give islandersthe opportunity to relocate legally and find work in countries such asAustralia and New Zealand. This policy is based on the perception that a slowand gradual relocation of Kiribati’s population within the following decades isvery much preferable than the alternative, moving tens of thousands of peopleat once as a result of a catastrophic hazard, like a flood or a hurricane.
Thatway, through planned migration, Kiribati citizens would move voluntarily,willingly and legally and they would not need to become “climate refugees”, orthe victims of climate change left stateless with questionable legal status andrights. Back in 2012, IoaneTeitiota, a Kiribati native applied for asylum in New Zealand while claimingthat he didn’t have the ability to grow his own food or find drinking waterback in his home country. Three years later, the court eventually rejected thecase and Teitiota and his family were deported back to Kiribati, stopping himfrom becoming the first official “climate refugee”, since his status met thesociological definition of a refugee but not the legal one. Finally, Kiribati isthe first country in the world to officially purchase land of an other country,as an alternative and possible refuge in order to deal with their own sinkingland. The president of the country proceeded in the purchase of 20 sq km onVanua Levu, one of Fiji’s islands, about 2000 km away from Kiribati’s islands.
A receiving country’s point of view Migrants who moveaway from their country for environmental reasons, usually base their decisionon many factors and not just climate change itself, such as the pursuit of abetter life in general, with brighter and more prosperous educational andprofessional chances in the future, family reunification etc. Internationalmigration is therefore beneficial not only to the migrants themselves, but alsoto the sending and the receiving countries. The majority of thePacific islanders that choose or are forced to migrate abroad end up seeking abetter life in big, developed countries, such as Australia and New Zealand.Both these countries have –of course- different policies when it comes toaccepting migrants and refugees and quite a few steps have been taken in therecent years in order to make it easier for people to enter and live in thecountry legally. Australia and New Zealand would benefit from greater andcontrolled Pacific labor mobility, since they both have deep interests in astable and prosperous Pacific.
Each year New Zealandoffers through its permanent migration “Pacific Category” visas, 1,750 placesfor permanent residence to citizens of Pacific island countries. This categoryonly requires from the applicants to be aged between 18 and 45 years old, tohave a job offer in New Zealand with wage bigger than that of the country’sminimum, to be able to speak English at a basic level and to be of a goodcharacter in general. Overall, outcomes show that this kind of visas have beenvery successful so far, since -unlike the visas granted for skilled workers-, abig percentage of Pacific islanders are eligible for it and they have enabled abig number of families to settle in New Zealand permanently. Back in 2006,Australia’s labor party proposed a similar strategy over the name “Our DrowningNeighbors”, claiming that Pacific islanders fleeing their homes because ofclimate change should be granted access in the country and be given visascreated especially for the citizens of the Pacific islands. However, the idea wasnot popular and was eventually rejected, claiming that this kind of visas woulddiscriminate against other nations’ populations facing environmental problemsas well and would not fall under the same category as the Pacific nations.Until today, no steps have been taken towards implementing a similar policy,but it is widely believed that introducing a scheme similar to the one of NewZealand would be beneficial both to Australia and the Pacific citizens. In anycase, it is preferable to start the procedures of some –at least- peoplerelocating abroad, before it actually turns into a big problem and needsemergency confrontation, for which these countries are not ready yet.ConclusionTo sum up with,climate change is being experienced and expressed very differently around theworld and across countries and its consequences are variable.
But it isimportant to remember that the aftermath in terms of human migration andmobility is going to be acute. The causes of movements differ a lot, fromrising temperatures to rising of the sea level, from floods to droughts.However, when it comes to migration the outcome is the same, since millions ofpeople will need to move from their homes and either be displaced within theircountries or be relocated abroad. The times change andclimate change becomes every day more and more noticeable. Therefore, thereneeds to be a legal and official term to refer to all the people affected byit, since ‘environmental refugee’ and ‘climate refugee’ are not recognized, leavingpeople without a legal status.
However, the solution to including people whohave been affected by natural disasters in the definition of a ‘refugee’ shouldnot be as easy as modifying and extending the 1951 Refugee Convention, becausethis would risk the renegotiation of the Convention. Furthermore, in thecurrent political environment, this act could result in a lowering ofprotection of standards for refugees and even undermine the internationalrefugee protection regime altogether. Apart from talkingabout words and definitions, though, the most important thing is that actionswill be taken. Climate change migration is neither a situation that is onlyaffecting a few and unfortunately nor a situation that can be solved and facedby some specific countries. It needs cooperation and hard work by the wholeinternational community, both in finding ways to prevent it from happening orat least to slowing it down, as well as in dealing with its consequences thatin some places turn out to be more harsh than in others. One of those placesare the Pacific island nations that apart from all the different problems thatthey have been facing for years, such as being away from metropoles or nothaving many natural resources to develop further, they are now expected to dealwith migration and destruction of their homes.