Introduction more very serious and important corollary


Climate change has become a major concern for the
international community and it affects all regions around the world. From
Europe to Asia, from melting ice and rising sea levels to extreme weather
conditions, such as more frequent heat waves, droughts, forest fires or floods
and wetter winters –depending on the area-, the consequences of climate change
are huge and they are not hypothetical; they are current reality. Both
developed and developing countries are affected, but the last ones have it
worse, since people that live there depend heavily on their natural environment
for their living, considering that most people work on sectors that rely a lot
on temperature levels, such as agriculture, forestry and tourism. The
consequences are big in society and economy as well, since heavy costs are
imposed due to damage on infrastructure, property and human health.

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There is also one more very serious and important
corollary of climate change and that is migration. To start with, it is quite
difficult to define what a climate refugee actually is. This happens because
when a person decides to move, they will probably have based their decision in
quite a few reasons, none of which will be exclusively connected to climate
change. Although it is very hard to acquire reliable statistics, considering
that we don’t know exactly what it is that we are counting, it is estimated
that between 2008 and 2016 there was a total of 227.6 millions of people being
displaced because of weather-related hazards. No nation is excluded from
climate change, but there is a higher risk of displacement for the most
populous and exposed to hazards countries. Asia is very high on the scale of
displaced persons, due to its big areas, high population and the very frequent
natural hazards that occur there. However, according to the International Panel
on Climate Change and when considering the ratio of total population to the
displaced people, most of the Pacific nations come first in the scale. For
example, back in 2015, when Cyclone Pam occurred 25% of Tuvalu’s and 55% of
Vanuatu’s population was displaced.

Migration is not a new occurrence in the Pacific
Nations. Through the last centuries, too many Pacific islanders have chosen the
road to migration in response to changes both in the environmental and in the
social picture. Nowadays, the excess of contemporary migration from Pacific
island nations has resulted in a big part of the area’s population being
permanently resettled abroad. It is reported that today about half a million
Pacific islanders live overseas, which means one-fourth of the total population
of Micronesia and Polynesia combined. In parts of Polynesia, actually, more
people reside in foreign land than in the home islands.  On the other hand, in Melanesia migration
remains mostly internal, which means people affected by the climate change
choose to move to safest parts of their countries, instead of crossing
international borders. It is stated that all Pacific island nations are vulnerable
to changes caused by the climate change. However, some communities will have to
face immense challenges, such as rapid population growth, which will result in
overpopulation in areas with very limited resources, and limited prospects for
economic improvement. Those are the atoll communities and countries, which are
considered to be the most exposed and weak of all and are expected to become a
big source for migrants and refugees related to climate change.

As it can easily be understood, climate change is not
a situation that only affects the land and the nature. The lives of millions of
people residing in those areas heavily rely on the outcome of this situation
and when talking about migration or displacement, there needs to be a
well-respected international context and agreement that protects the people
that are affected, something that currently does not exist and needs to be


and nature of movement

is estimated that most of the movements caused by climate change and
environmental 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 the
Secretary-General on the human rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), Walter
Kälin, there are five main and different climate-related scenarios that may
cause human movement and displacement.

To start with, the first scenario is the one, whose
cause of movement is the “hydro-meteorological extreme hazard events” that
occur. The hydro-meteorological disasters are caused by extreme meteorological
and climate events, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones,
tornados, landslides and mudslides. These occur in all parts of the world and
account 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 floods
and droughts, severe storms and strong winds. Apart from causing injuries,
deaths and material damage though, a tropical storm is also able to result in
flooding and mudslides, that cause disorder in water purification and sewage
disposal systems, as well as in overflow of toxic wastes and increase
reproduction of mosquito-borne diseases. As a result of those hazards, the
people affected by this type of events will have to move from the damaged
regions, either by a temporary forced displacement within or outside of
national borders, or a temporary voluntary movement across international

The second scenario refers to “areas designated by
authorities as prohibited and unsuitable for habitation”. As a result of all the
types of hydro-meteorological disasters mentioned above, such as floods,
droughts, hurricanes etc, some states are very likely to practice their
sovereign obligation to protect their citizens by labeling some zones as
high-risk ones, which means that because of their location –this for example
could mean that they are prone to floods or landslides-, they are too dangerous
for humans to continue living there. Therefore, governments may have to proceed
with applying forced evacuation and displacement of people from their lands,
not allowing them to return to them and at the same time relocating them to
safe 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 refer
to droughts and desertification, land and forest degradation, reduction of
water availability, repetitive flooding, salinization and glacial retreat,
which means deteriorating situations and hazards, whose impacts take from
months to decades to manifest. Once again, in such situations, the processes of
movements will likely be gradual beginning with voluntary movements (both
within and outside of national borders) and ending in forced displacement
(again both within and outside of national borders).

The fourth scenario is about “significant permanent
losses in state territory as a result of sea level rise” and it refers to the
cases of small “sinking” island states. The phenomenon of sea level rising is
likely to prompt relocation as well as migration abroad, but it is predicted
that at some point some island states of the Pacific Ocean will not be able to
sustain human life anymore. That means that all citizens of a “sinking” island
will have to move to a safe zone abroad and therefore a new problem is
emerging, the one of statelessness, which will be analyzed in detail further

Finally, the fifth and final scenario of human
displacement caused by climate change is the one that may provoke “armed
conflict over shrinking natural resources”. A decrease in vital and essential
resources, such as water, land and food, is very likely to trigger violence
between people and/or states. In the case of such armed conflicts, forced
displacement could result in people moving within their country’s national
borders, rendering people as Internally Displaced Persons, or in international
displacement, making them refugees and/or people seeking protection.



order to understand better how the people fleeing from the affected zones are
treated and the international conventions from which they are protected, there
needs to be a better understanding of the terms used to describe them and that
are widely accepted by the international community.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs)

The currently accepted definition of IDPs are “persons or groups of persons who
have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of
habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the
effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of
human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an
internationally recognized State border.”
This definition also includes all the people that were forcibly displaced
within the borders of their own country because of the effects of climate
change. (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2.)


The definition of a refugee has changed a lot during the last sixty years.
According to international law, a refugee is a person who “owing to
well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality,
membership of a particular social group or political opinions, is outside the
country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling
to avail himself of the protection of that country, or who, not having a
nationality and being outside of the country of his former habitual residence
as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to
return 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 people
who are forced to leave their homes as a result of slow onset or sudden and
rapid natural disasters. However, these terms have no basis in international
refugee law and a “climate refugee” does not meet the criteria of the 1951
Refugee Convention.

Stateless person

A stateless person is defined as a “a person who is
not 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 a
nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a
result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return
to it”.

Applicable legal framework

regions that will be affected by all the climate-related hazard events and
disasters mentioned above, such as hydro-meteorological events, sea level
rising, armed conflicts due to shrinking natural resources etc, the ways of
movement are not going to be conventional. People will tend to move in large
numbers and groups and will do so over longer periods of time and not at once
and probably in more diverse directions. A part of them will choose to move towards
more hospitable areas within their home countries (IDPs), while others will
seek a better life outside of their own country and therefore will travel
abroad and enter other states (refugees). From the moment that new forms and
patterns of movements are emerging, the already existing concepts that are
traditionally used to categorize and analyze forms and cases of migration will
need to be updated. A lot of things related to migration will have to be reconsidered
and renegotiated, from new definitions of terms to new legal frameworks that
apply in such situations.

In each one of the scenarios of movement, it is stated
above that people will be likely to move to safest parts within their own
countries or will be likely to cross international borders. While in most cases
the second type of movement will be less popular –however certainly not
inevitable-, provisions should be made for both cases, as people find
themselves away from their homes and unable or unwilling to return there.

When hydro-meteorological hazards and environmental degradation
occur, meaning in the first 3 scenarios, causing internal displacement, the
national and local authorities –from the government to local NGOs- have a vital
role to play in directly responding to such cases and helping people who are
affected by the disasters. Internally Displaced Persons are protected by
International Human Rights Law (IHRL), “the body of international law designed
to promote human rights on social, regional and domestic levels”, both if they
choose to move voluntarily and forcibly. They are also protected by the 1998
Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the 30 principles that “detail the
rights and guarantees relevant to the protection of IDPs from forced
displacement to their protection and assistance during displacement up to the
achievement of durable solutions”. Furthermore, in the last scenario, when
people are forcibly being displaced because of armed conflict and violence, the
people affected are protected not only by the Guiding Principles on Internal
Displacement and International human rights law, but also the International
Humanitarian Law, “that branch of international law which seeks to limit the
effects of armed conflict by protecting persons who are not participating in
hostilities, and by restricting and regulating the means and methods of warfare
available to combatants”.



The legal framework when it comes to people crossing
international borders, however, is a far more complicated situation and there
are some potential gaps created in the legal framework.

To start with, as stated above, there is a confusion
with the term of the refugee, since environmental degradation and climate
change are not officially recognized as reasons for someone to flee their
country seeking asylum and protection from a foreign state. Therefore, if
people affected by such a disaster cross international borders, because the
only escape route leads them there, they would not officially qualify as
refugees who are entitled to international protection according to the already
existing international refugee framework and at the same time they would not
necessarily be classified as migrants; their status remains unclear. This means
that although they are protected by International Human Rights Law, they are
not automatically protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention and they are not
entitled to admission and stay in another country as refugees. Depending on the
sending and receiving countries, more analysis would be necessary to determine
if some people affected are covered by already existing regional conventions
regardless of their formal status.

Secondly, there is a lack of criteria in order to
distinguish whether a person has been displaced voluntarily or forcibly during
hazard related disasters and events. However, it is more important to find out
if people are in need of international protection and if so, how this can be

Last but not least, there is a potential gap
especially related to sea level rising and the “sinking” islands in the Pacific
Ocean. If an island nation loses its entire territory, one of the key
constituting elements of statehood among population, government, sovereignty
and international recognition, it is not clear whether this state would continue
to exist as such and whether its statehood would continue to be recognized by
the international community. The same questions would apply in the case of a
territory being too dangerous and unsuitable for humans to continue living
there, when the government and the entire nation’s population would be forcibly
relocated to other states. In that scenario, the populations of such nations
would be rendered stateless, unless they acquired the nationalities of the
states they would have relocated to. However, even if states continued to exist
in legal terms, in spite of not having official territory, and their
governments tried to be “transferred” and function from the territory of other
states, it would be unclear if the hosting states would allow this to happen
and if they would ensure the rights that flow from citizenship. Statelessness
under these specific circumstances, when a nation is slowly being lost, is a
situation that has not yet happened, but it is a threat that we know will become
true sooner or later. In order for people to be protected by statelessness, the
international law principle of prevention of statelessness should be applied and
taken into action.


A sending’s country point of view

For a country like Kiribati, that is made up of 33 atolls and the highest point
of the whole country is three meters (9.8 feet), adapting to climate change
might mean relocating entirely. The former president of the country, Anote
Tong, proposed “migration with dignity”, a policy designed to give islanders
the opportunity to relocate legally and find work in countries such as
Australia and New Zealand. This policy is based on the perception that a slow
and gradual relocation of Kiribati’s population within the following decades is
very much preferable than the alternative, moving tens of thousands of people
at once as a result of a catastrophic hazard, like a flood or a hurricane. That
way, through planned migration, Kiribati citizens would move voluntarily,
willingly and legally and they would not need to become “climate refugees”, or
the victims of climate change left stateless with questionable legal status and

Back in 2012, Ioane
Teitiota, a Kiribati native applied for asylum in New Zealand while claiming
that he didn’t have the ability to grow his own food or find drinking water
back in his home country. Three years later, the court eventually rejected the
case and Teitiota and his family were deported back to Kiribati, stopping him
from becoming the first official “climate refugee”, since his status met the
sociological definition of a refugee but not the legal one.

Finally, Kiribati is
the 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 sinking
land. The president of the country proceeded in the purchase of 20 sq km on
Vanua Levu, one of Fiji’s islands, about 2000 km away from Kiribati’s islands.


A receiving country’s point of view

Migrants who move
away from their country for environmental reasons, usually base their decision
on many factors and not just climate change itself, such as the pursuit of a
better life in general, with brighter and more prosperous educational and
professional chances in the future, family reunification etc. International
migration is therefore beneficial not only to the migrants themselves, but also
to the sending and the receiving countries.

The majority of the
Pacific islanders that choose or are forced to migrate abroad end up seeking a
better life in big, developed countries, such as Australia and New Zealand.
Both these countries have –of course- different policies when it comes to
accepting migrants and refugees and quite a few steps have been taken in the
recent years in order to make it easier for people to enter and live in the
country legally. Australia and New Zealand would benefit from greater and
controlled Pacific labor mobility, since they both have deep interests in a
stable and prosperous Pacific.

Each year New Zealand
offers through its permanent migration “Pacific Category” visas, 1,750 places
for permanent residence to citizens of Pacific island countries. This category
only requires from the applicants to be aged between 18 and 45 years old, to
have a job offer in New Zealand with wage bigger than that of the country’s
minimum, to be able to speak English at a basic level and to be of a good
character in general. Overall, outcomes show that this kind of visas have been
very successful so far, since -unlike the visas granted for skilled workers-, a
big percentage of Pacific islanders are eligible for it and they have enabled a
big number of families to settle in New Zealand permanently.

Back in 2006,
Australia’s labor party proposed a similar strategy over the name “Our Drowning
Neighbors”, claiming that Pacific islanders fleeing their homes because of
climate change should be granted access in the country and be given visas
created especially for the citizens of the Pacific islands. However, the idea was
not popular and was eventually rejected, claiming that this kind of visas would
discriminate against other nations’ populations facing environmental problems
as 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 New
Zealand would be beneficial both to Australia and the Pacific citizens. In any
case, it is preferable to start the procedures of some –at least- people
relocating abroad, before it actually turns into a big problem and needs
emergency confrontation, for which these countries are not ready yet.


To sum up with,
climate change is being experienced and expressed very differently around the
world and across countries and its consequences are variable. But it is
important to remember that the aftermath in terms of human migration and
mobility is going to be acute. The causes of movements differ a lot, from
rising temperatures to rising of the sea level, from floods to droughts.
However, when it comes to migration the outcome is the same, since millions of
people will need to move from their homes and either be displaced within their
countries or be relocated abroad.

The times change and
climate change becomes every day more and more noticeable. Therefore, there
needs to be a legal and official term to refer to all the people affected by
it, since ‘environmental refugee’ and ‘climate refugee’ are not recognized, leaving
people without a legal status. However, the solution to including people who
have been affected by natural disasters in the definition of a ‘refugee’ should
not be as easy as modifying and extending the 1951 Refugee Convention, because
this would risk the renegotiation of the Convention. Furthermore, in the
current political environment, this act could result in a lowering of
protection of standards for refugees and even undermine the international
refugee protection regime altogether.

Apart from talking
about words and definitions, though, the most important thing is that actions
will be taken. Climate change migration is neither a situation that is only
affecting a few and unfortunately nor a situation that can be solved and faced
by some specific countries. It needs cooperation and hard work by the whole
international community, both in finding ways to prevent it from happening or
at least to slowing it down, as well as in dealing with its consequences that
in some places turn out to be more harsh than in others.

One of those places
are the Pacific island nations that apart from all the different problems that
they have been facing for years, such as being away from metropoles or not
having many natural resources to develop further, they are now expected to deal
with migration and destruction of their homes.