Climate ‘Refugees’: The Lost Population

Climate ‘Refugees’: The Lost Population

Author: Femke Laauwen (UNU-MERIT)


Climate change is a topic that is on everyone’s minds, in one way or another. It is difficult to look at any newspaper, on any given day, and not see at least one article on the topic. It has led to heated debate within political circles and has exacerbated the differences between us through polarizing society, as illustrated through recent election results within the European Union. Ever since we’ve basically worked out the science behind climate change, the political and ideological differences between us have become all the more stark. But there is one aspect of this debate that has consistently fallen between policy gaps, and that is the concept of ‘climate refugees’. More specifically, the lack of a possibility to gain refugee status if you are fleeing for environmental or climate-related reasons because this is not covered within the scope of the definition of a refugee as outlined in the United Nations (UN) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Why does this not receive more attention? And what will this mean for the future when the effects of climate change become increasingly more visible?



Many people refer to those fleeing from natural disasters and the impacts of climate change as ‘climate refugees’, but, legally, there’s no such thing. The UN’s 1951 Convention previously specified that only those with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted because of [their] race, religion, nationality, membership or a particular social group or political opinion” can qualify as a refugee. As a result of this, climate migrants lack any form of formal or legal protection. This remains a major policy gap, especially seeing as a World Bank report published in 2018 estimated that climate change could force over 140 million people to migrate within Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia.

Citizens of island nations such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru, whose homelands and literally disappearing into our oceans, cannot qualify for any legal protection to relocate to other countries. By 2050, the International Organization for Migration estimates that as many of 200 million people could fall into this ‘protection gap’, as it were. So, what needs to be done? Who needs to be involved? And what does a potential timeline look like?

Some argue that change to the definition of the term ‘refugee’ is necessary to encompass the changes that have occurred in the many decades since the creation of the Convention. But, seeing as the global political climate has been less than favorable to refugees in recent years, to put it lightly, it is highly unlikely that countries will come to an agreement regarding a new definition. This becomes even more obvious considering that many countries that are signatories to the Convention fail to accept asylum seekers who fit even this narrow definition.

The UN Global Compact for Migration, signed by 164 countries, takes a step in the right direction, but is not without its limitations. The document does outline that climate change can be a major driver of migration, however, like many international agreements, it is both voluntary and non-binding. The question that remains, then is whether or not this will be enough to move international policy initiatives in the right direction. But, perhaps instead of implementing policies to prepare for climate migrants, we should start truly tackling climate change. This conclusion seems to be the ‘elephant in the room’ with regards to discussions on climate change: it is less difficult to develop policies for issues that arise as a result of the negative impacts of climate change than to implement policies directly tackling climate change. So how do we proceed? How do we make climate change ‘palatable’, a less taboo subject? And in doing so, how can we find a legal solution for climate migrants?

We should all be aware that we have the power to make a change, and change starts with awareness. With this, I hope that those reading this article understand we all have this power. Read up on the issue, get involved, and don’t stop talking about climate change! It is here and it is here to stay, regardless of whether or not we remain silent. So I suggest it’s time to start truly speaking up.