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Earth Day: Climate change and displacement across borders

Today on Earth Day, it’s important to consider the numerous ways of approaching the complex issue of climate change. Some of my colleagues work on energy issues which are directly related to the carbon emissions that cause global climate change. Others look at U.S. policies on climate change. I look at climate change from the perspective of migration and displacement. To what extent will people have to move because their communities are no longer habitable because of the effects of climate change?

As I have written previously, some people will see the handwriting on the wall and will migrate before they have to leave. Others will be forced from their homes by a particular sudden-onset disaster – indeed one of the effects of climate change will be an increase in the frequency, intensity, and unpredictability of severe disasters. Still others will have to be relocated by their governments to places where they will be safer. Most of this movement of people will be within the borders of their country where they are considered to be internally displaced persons.

But what happens if people are forced to leave their countries because of a disaster or environmental degradation or the effects of climate change? Under present international law, there is no special provision to admit those leaving their countries for these reasons; rather they are dealt with through normal immigration channels. So, if someone from a Pacific island country has to leave his or her country because of sea-level rise or if a cyclone forces people to cross an international border, governments are under no obligation to treat them differently than any other economic migrant asking for admission. Although sometimes the term ‘climate change refugee’ is used in the media to depict these people, they are not refugees under international law. The term ‘refugee’ is well-established in international law – and applies only to those fleeing persecution on the basis of five clearly specified criteria – race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. It does not apply to those forced to leave their countries because of disasters or environmental degradation or the effects of climate change. Last summer a New Zealand court explicitly rejected the request for refugee status by a citizen of Tuvalu arguing that they could no longer remain in their country because of the effects of climate change.

The Nansen Initiative was set up to explore this gap in international law – specifically to build consensus on a protection agenda addressing the needs of people displaced across borders in the context of disasters or the effects of climate change. I spent a few days last week with 50 or so experts who make up the advisory body to the Nansen initiative, discussing this protection agenda. We heard about the extensive consultations that have been held in various regions of the world – the Pacific Islands, Horn of Africa, South Asia, and Central America. We heard about the concerns of governments and civil society about how to deal with those who might be forced from their countries because of disasters and environmental degradation.

No one wants to be forced out of their country because of disasters or the effects of climate change. Some feel that even talking about it means that the world has given up on mitigation.  Some see the cross-border movement of people in terms of loss and damages – if a government refuses to adopt policies to curb emissions and halt the global warming which is leading to sea level rise, drought, and heat waves that will make certain parts of the world uninhabitable, then that government should be prepared to accept those who turn up on its borders because they can no longer survive in their communities.

I was struck though by how little we know about future migratory patterns. The estimates of how many people will be displaced by the effects of climate change are all over the map – with different researchers using different methodologies and different time scales. Will it be 50 million or 1 billion people over the coming decades? Most researchers agree that most people will move within their countries but how many will end up crossing national borders? Is it a few hundred or a few million? We just don’t know. We don’t even know how many people have already moved because of the effects of climate change. There are anecdotal accounts of people who crossed from one country to another in Central America after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and of Bangladeshis fleeing into India (and being turned back) after cyclones and floods. We know the Brazilian government extended humanitarian visas to hundreds of Haitians fleeing the devastating 2010 earthquake. But although we’re beginning to get a handle on the number displaced within national borders because of sudden-onset disasters, there is no systematic data collection for those who have crossed international borders because of disasters and environmental factors.

The issue of mapping the risk of displacement because of disasters or the effects of climate change is a complex one because migration is multi-causal in nature.  People decide to move for many reasons. Environmental factors may be a key motivation for deciding to move, but it usually intersects with economic factors, family ties, and personal tolerance of risk. We know that climate change is contributing to environmental degradation but human-caused factors, such as deforestation and draining of marshland, also play a role to making parts of the world uninhabitable. Much more research is needed to begin to understand the way in which climate change will contribute to new patterns of both internal and cross-border movements of people. The Nansen Initiative has made an impressive start by raising the issues with governments, civil society, and experts from many disciplines and many countries. I hope that affected communities, experts, and policy-makers offer comments on the draft protection agenda. It’s time to start thinking more seriously about cross-border, disaster-induced displacement. It’s time to put into place policies and mechanisms that can respond to the needs of those who will face the awful reality that they can no longer survive in their countries and will seek to enter another country.


The findings, interpretations and conclusions posted on are solely those of the authors and not of The Brookings Institution, its officers, staff, board, funders, or organizations with which they may have a relationship.

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