The Human Face of Climate Change: Updating the Definition of Refugee

Climate RefugeesAccording to the UNHCR 2012 publication “The State of the World’s Refugees,” human displacement as a result of climate change will be “a defining issue of our times.” Environmentally induced migration and displacement could reach unprecedented dimensions, with predictions ranging from 25 million to one billion by 2050.

Despite global concern for those displaced by climate change, “climate refugee” remains merely a descriptive term under the UNHCR’s international refugee regime. The 1951 Convention does not account for people fleeing natural disasters, and thus confers no legal obligation of asylum on States. Even defining the term “climate refugee” poses problems, as this type of displacement can be attributed to many factors, including scarcity of land resources, political pressures, and natural hazards. While climate change may exacerbate these problems – causing more frequent extreme weather events or gradually reducing agricultural productivity – it is virtually impossible to separate climate causes from other drivers of migration. Accordingly, no established methodology exists for calculating the actual number of people displaced by climate change.

Whatever quibbles statisticians may have over the numbers, one thing is clear –millions of people remain displaced and unaccounted for as they do not fit neatly into the UNHCR’s definition of refugee. Is it a matter of renaming this category of people to fit within the international refugee regime? Or, in a warmer world, must the definition and understanding of the concepts of ‘refugee’ and ‘protection’ adapt?

The Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford has identified regional hotspots for potential displacements due to natural disasters and long-term climate change. One such location, the Mekong Delta region on the southern tip of Viet Nam, provides a progressive model for building resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Because of Viet Nam’s vulnerability to typhoons and floods, the government has proactively implemented state-managed policies and programs that relocate people living in disaster-prone areas. Since 1998, authorities have been trying to relocate 200,000 households – about one million people – to less flood-prone areas. The current policy called “living with floods” will see at least 135,500 vulnerable households relocated to flood-proof homes by 2015. This included the relocation of 260,000 people before tropical storm Son-Tinh hit Viet Nam’s coastline this past October.

Additionally, Viet Nam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has promoted behavioral changes, such as encouraging villagers to switch to aquaculture from agriculture, teaching children to swim, and equipping them with buoys. Thanks to these preventative measures, village populations are more resilient to climate hazards and less likely to become climate refugees.

Viet Nam’s proactive disaster management policies compare favorably to the reactive measures of other countries such as Bangladesh, Ghana and Kenya. With no state strategy in place, these nations do not commit financial and professional resources to preventing climate-induced migration or supporting those already displaced. These governments should look to Viet Nam for a well-developed institutional framework to better care for these groups.

We must continue to seek durable solutions for this group, one of the world’s most marginalized refugee populations. We see in this population the human face of climate change, and we must accommodate this emerging breed of refugee within international frameworks. In the name of climate change, we have adapted our infrastructure, our lifestyles, and our understanding of sustainability.  Why not our definition of refugee?

Miyuki Hino contributed to this article.