There's No Such Thing as a "Climate Refugee"

By Davina Wadley
Flooding forces people from their homes in Colombia
Earlier this week, I joined members of the DC chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and a group of climate-conscious Washingtonians at the DC venue Bloombars to view Michael Nash’s film Climate Refugees and discuss our impressions of the film. 

The discussion kicked off with my biggest criticism of the film – its title. 

The term “climate refugees” is misleading, legally incorrect, and dismissed by those who are facing displacement from environmental harm.  Environmental harm includes environmental degradation, natural disasters (flooding or droughts), and climate change-induced changes to environments, such as sea level rise.

The 1951 Refugee Convention only provides protection to people residing outside of their country of origin, and who have a well-founded fear of persecution.  People who flee from environmental harm, are not persecuted, and are usually protected by their government.   For example, governments of small island developing states (SIDS), such as Kirabati and the Maldives, are the main advocates for developing legal and policy solutions to prevent displacement from rising sea levels.

Use of the term “climate refugee” distracts from the hard work and progress of various academics, governments, and NGOs in developing legal and policy alternatives for those displaced and at risk of displacement from environmental harm.  Legal alternatives may include extending the Refugee Convention to include displacement from environmental harm, or establishing guiding principles on displacement from environmental harm (similar to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement). Policy alternatives may include migration agreements with other nation states.

As an alternative to the term “climate refugee”, terms such as “a person displaced by climate change”, “environmentally induced migrant”, or “environmental migrant” are more accurate and support current advocacy efforts.

Also, people who are at risk of displacement from environmental harm, particularly citizens of SIDS, don’t want to be called refugees.  Professor Jane McAdam, from the University of New South Wales, undertook a field research mission in Tuvalu and Kiribati last year.  Upon return she reported in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that the citizens of Tuvalu and Kiribati “…don’t want to be seen as refugees. They want to be seen as active, valued participants in a new country, not recipients of aid.” 

There is no doubt that the term “climate refugee” is good for raising public consciousness, but for this issue to move forward – we need to get the terminology correct. 

At Bloombars, we discussed the film’s misplaced focus on security concerns and the incorrect assumption that people fleeing from environmental harm will seek asylum in the USA and Europe.  Rather, most movement will be internal, and if it is external, it will in most cases be to neighboring developing countries.  By way of background, the most climate vulnerable areas in the world are also the poorest, and so individuals who are displaced by environmental harm  don’t have the resources to move very far from home, and they have limited safety nets to rebuild or relocate (such as insurance). 

But, like all healthy discussions, we also focused on some positives - particularly the work done by NGOs, governments, and academics towards improving  the knowledge and understanding of best practice models for disaster response, mitigation, and prevention. We also discussed the important role that the film “Climate Refugees,” plays in bringing awareness to the relationship between environmental degradation, natural disasters, climate change, and the displacement of millions world-wide.  

Thank you to everyone who came along on Tuesday evening – it was an interesting and inspiring evening!



but are they?

. . . This comment: "People who flee from environmental harm, are not persecuted, and are usually protected by their government." Numbers of climate refugees have not yet met official UN forecasts, as reported by Die Speigel. But there seems little doubt they will. Once climate migrants, as you prefer, hit sufficient numbers to overwhelm existing systems, there seems equally little doubt that they will suffer persecution via denial of entry to safe sanctuary. With countries like Kiribati facing sovereign extinction from, firstly, exponential increase in severe weather events and, secondly, sea level rise, there will be little that the government can do to 'protect' their citizens. As the father of a part Kiribati child, I accept local rejection of the term refugee and, especially, their contention that they have valuable skills to offer. Indeed, I have just finished writing a column for New Zealand Pacific, a local weekly, pointing out that remote island skills in survival will become increasingly essential as environments degrade. However, as a journalist, my concern is not about getting the 'terminology' right but reporting the facts. Given strict immigration laws barring most Pacific Islanders from Australia and New Zealand, I cannot under present circumstances see any orderly migration taking place. Until such a mechanism is in place, such as a Union of the Pacific, with free entry across borders, most SIDS citizens are doomed to seek refuge wherever they can. Jason Brown editor, avaiki nius agency Aotearoa ...

Climate Refugees

Sounds like you had a wonderful event. I'd like to add that after a screening of the film in Scotland, filmmaker Michael Nash addressed the title issue. He was quick to state that six months after the release of the film, the UN coined this group Environmentally Induced Migrants. In fact, the issue was so new that a name had not yet been giving to this group of people while the film was in production. Nash went on to say the term Climate Refugees works for awareness as a book title or film title but legally does not work within the Geneva Convention. I'm hoping that with all the information that is now available on the issue of climatic/environmental migration, his film team will follow up with another film. Kay

Thanks for speaking at our

Thanks for speaking at our event, Davina! - Erica