Technically not a ‘climate refugee’: legal frameworks, advocacy and self-identification
A herder in Bayankhongor, Mongolia, ties the yak-cow calves to the line for the night. Slow-onset environmental changes like desertification, as well as hazards called dzud, are additional influences on the decisions of many herders to move to larger town or city centres within the country. Photo by Rachael Diniega.
From ‘environmentally displaced persons’ to ‘climate refugees’ or ‘environmental migrants’, popular news media have used a variety of terms to describe a phenomenon that is often oversimplified or misunderstood. That is: the environmental impact of climate change will affect the livelihoods and lives of people around the world, and eventually their (im)mobilities. Some may choose or need to move away from their homes; others may stay. For this oft-cited, yet thoroughly diverse experience, the terminology and the numbers have been key centres of debate.
International media have recently covered the publication of the World Bank’s Groundswell 2.0 Report in September 2021. The report estimated that 216 million people will become internal migrants due to the impacts of climate change. While welcoming the shift from international to internal migration – long emphasised as the more pressing policy and rights issue – academics on social media also sought to clarify the meanings of this number (see the tweets from Sarah Nash and Alex Randall). These discussions hearken back to a long-standing disagreement, regarding 1) the figures and 2) the terminology.
While Homo sapiens has always been on the move, only from 1985, with Essam El-Hinnawi’s coining of the term ‘environmental refugees’, did the field of climate change as a cause of migration develop into a sphere of research. In the 1990s and 2000s, ‘alarmists’ and ‘sceptics’ disagreed over estimates of 150 million ‘climate refugees’ spilling across borders by 2050. Sceptics said these numbers did more harm than good, misrepresenting the realities of people who would mostly move internally and for multiple reasons causing a range of movements from forced to voluntary. Despite these efforts to diversify narratives, alarmist voices persist in today’s milieu.
Whatever number there may be, this group of people are not technically ‘refugees’. International refugee law does not include environmental issues as a category among the reasons to qualify for asylum. This has led to an intense scrutiny of the use of the term ‘climate refugees’. At a time when more and more countries aim to restrict the number of asylum applications, some worry this broad use of the term ‘refugee’ will also dilute its legal and moral significance.
Nevertheless, headlines continue to use the word ‘refugee’ to draw attention to the issue. In New Zealand, the 2014 case of Tuvaluan citizen Sigeo Alesana and his family was reported in international media as the first ruling in favour of ‘climate refugees’. However, New Zealand does not have a climate-related immigration policy; climate change had been considered just as an aggravating factor in the family’s need for protection, but the decision to grant them residence permits was based on ‘exceptional humanitarian grounds’.
In a later case, following New Zealand’s Supreme Court decision to deport him and his family to Kiribati, Ioane Teitiota filed a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee claiming the State had violated their right to life. The Human Rights Committee recognised that sea-level rise ‘is likely to render Kiribati uninhabitable’. This ruling was also framed as the first legal decision in favour of ‘climate refugees’.
First ‘climate refugees’ or exceptional cases? The language used in these examples reveals different positions toward migration. While it is not a legal category, ‘climate refugee’ still conveys a powerful rhetoric for advocacy work.
The force of terminology adds to the impact of figures. In today’s political climate of migrant ‘crises’ at the borders of the US and Europe, even the numbers attached to a concept as diluted as ‘environmental migrants’ are a cause for concern. In one sense, well-intentioned climate and human rights activists use them to drum up awareness and effect change in order to promote the protection of the millions of people who are affected. For others, instead of generating empathy towards the plight of migrants, this rhetoric rings alarm bells for politicians seeking to securitise borders against ‘masses’ of migrants. When the media speaks of these ‘masses of migrants’ (see, for instance, NDRC and the New York Times), states hear ‘threat’. While some states are developing regional agreements for coordinated migration schemes, many are investing heavily in research and policies to keep migrants ‘in their place’.
Some rights-based approaches avoid defining the phenomenon in specific legal terms, and instead emphasise holistic protections. Some regional and national instruments – like the Latin American Cartagena Declaration (1984), the Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention (1969), and some national constitutions – expand the notion of international protection by including displacement from disasters or other language such as ‘events or circumstances that seriously disturb public order.’ They underline the responsibility to protect people on the move, potentially driven by environmental distress, among other causes. Some scholars and organisations believe there is more potential in operationalising existing local policies to exercise people's mobility rights than in reforming the UN 1951 Refugee Convention.
Today, academics like us navigate this terminological minefield in lectures, articles, and research to holistically situate people’s experiences, a challenge that has recently led to a turn in discussing (im)mobilities in the context of environmental change. We seek a balance within our own projects, and in order to achieve it we have suggested thinking of ‘environmental migration’ through the frames of translocality and (im)mobiliities. In our fieldwork so far, we have found people who strategically employ legal terms such as victims in order to claim their rights in their interactions with the state, while simultaneously resisting a narrative of passiveness and victimhood when they self-identify as survivors.
It is important that we continue to reflect upon how we portray in our research the people we talk to, and how they themselves portray their experiences and their needs. People are more than just numbers, and migration trajectories are more than a cause-and-effect relationship. Good intentions are not enough when discussing environmental change and im/mobilities. What vocabulary do people use to self-identify? And what existing categories can they employ in the particular policy frameworks in which they navigate their lives? In the multifaceted debate on environmental migration, language matters, and terminology has consequences.
Further reading and resources:
Paredes Grijalva, Daniela, and Diniega, Rachael. 2020. ‘Thinking of environmental migration through translocality and mobilities’. Refugee Outreach & Research Network, 30 October. http://www.ror-n.org/-blog/thinking-of-environmental-migration-through-translocality-and-mobilities.
Clement, Viviane, et al. 2021. ‘Groundswell Part 2: Acting on internal climate migration’. World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/36248.
‘No “climate refugees”, but still a role for the UN Refugee Agency’. 2021. Migration Policy Institute podcast: https://mpichangingclimatechangingmigration.podbean.com/e/no-climate-refugees-but-still-a-role-for-the-un-refugee-agency/
Rachael Diniega is a PhD Geography student at the Research Platform Mobile Cultures and Societies, University of Vienna, an interdisciplinary research group focused on (im)mobility studies across the humanities and social sciences. For her dissertation, she studies the intersection of translocal social remittances, migration, and environmental change in Morocco.
Daniela Paredes Grijalva
Daniela Paredes Grijalva is a PhD Anthropology student at the University of Vienna and a DOC-Fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences at the Institute for Social Anthropology. Her research uses an (im)mobilities lens to investigate environmental migration. Twitter: @DanizenPG