Climate Refugees – The migrants of tomorrow

Kiribati 2009. Photo: Jodie Gatfield, AusAID

“I am the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying — that’s me, too “, said Ioane Teitiota, as he spoke of his decision to seek asylum. He failed to prove in court that he qualified as a “climate refugee” due to the fact that the particular circumstances of his migration were not covered by the Geneva Convention on the State of Refugees (1951).His original aspiration was to be recognized by the UN as the first climate refugee in the world.

Ioane Teitiota was forced to seek asylum abroad because Kiribati, his native home, was heavily impacted by climate change, making it one of the world’s most threatened states to live in. The sea level is recorded to have risen by 5.9 cm and the area is frequently hit by strong storms. The consequences of this disturbing development are groundwater pollution and flooding, which typically result in poverty and a high mortality rate. If climate change progresses at its current pace and the forecasts are true, Kiribati will disappear from the map in just a few decades.

The inhabitants of Kiribati are not the only victims of climate change. According to a study conducted by Greenpeace on “climate refugees”, if man-made climate change continues to persist, about 200 million people worldwide are estimated to be under threat of becoming climate refugees within the next 30 years. With the prevalence of global warming, living conditions for hundreds of millions of people are deteriorating so dramatically, especially in the world’s poorest countries, that many will be forced to leave their homes in order to survive. Currently, more than 20 million people are fleeing from the effects of climate change, which constitutes more than half of all refugees worldwide.

Lack of legal recognition

As already stated in the introduction, the main issue being addressed in this study is that “climate refugees” do not qualify as refugees in accordance with Article 1 of the Geneva Refugee Convention. Since the Convention only recognizes individual persecution as grounds for the refugee status, those who flee due to climate change and its consequences are afforded only few standards of protection by institutions.

Whether the Geneva Convention’s definition of the refugee concept should be expanded to include those fleeing climate change its resulting negative consequences is a key issue. In this regard, the concept of “climate” or “environmental refugee” needs to be defined precisely because, depending on the definition, the number of people affected could vary considerably. Environmental changes are so complex that in the end all who claim the – mostly unverifiable – relevant grounds would have to be recognized as climate or environmental refugees. Therefore, it is difficult to create a recognition standard.

The non-recognition of “climate refugee” as falling within the definition of the Geneva Refugee Convention is alarming, as despite the large amount of persons needing protection, they are not legally entitled to it. However, the question arises whether the cause of flight is too complex to reduce it to just climate change. The recognition of “climate refugees” under the Geneva Refugee Convention is difficult because the term could be too broad or too narrow, and that would upset the system. This raises the question of whether other solutions would be more efficient.

Long unnoticed, suddenly controversial

The recently established Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), known also as the UN Migration Pact can provide a solution for creating protection for those affected by climate change. In September 2016, 193 United Nations member states agreed on creating the 34-page Migration Pact. Its purpose was to better organize migrant movements and to strengthen the rights of affected persons. Since the UN Migration Pact is dedicated to all forms of migration, including that of “climate refugees”, it protects also their interests. However, to preserve the sovereignty of the nation states and not jeopardize their right to independent organization of their migration policies, it is emphasized that the Pact is not binding international law.

Austria decided not to sign the UN Migration Pact and turned its back on it, which has rekindled the political debate on the agreement in various European countries. The Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis recently announced that he would exit the pact. On the same day, Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic similarly declared that she would not sign the pact. Austria’s former Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache concluded, “Migration is not and cannot be a human right. It cannot therefore be the case that no distinction is made between legal and illegal migration flows. This can be interpreted from the content of the treaty. It cannot be that someone has a right of migration because of climate issues or poverty”.

“It is worth fighting for the Pact”

Some world leaders, however, have advocated for the UN Migration Pact. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted in support, saying, “The United Nations were founded after the Second World War, so I stand here as Chancellor of Germany, a country that brought so much suffering through pure nationalism.” Merkel reminded her audience, that the Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948. “It pays to fight for the pact, because at the heart of the debate is the issue of multilateralism, but that is the only way the world is getting better. National unilateralism cannot solve the problem.”

On December 10 this year, the UN Migration Pact was signed by 164 member states in Marrakech, Morocco. However, a considerable number of UN member states, including Poland, Hungary and Chile, stood against the idea and refused to sign the agreement following the example, of Austria.

Precaution and effective action – efforts to fill a legal gap

  • As already mentioned, the UN Migration Pact is a possible solution to the “climate refugee” problem, as the Pact covers all types of migration. Due to the legal non-binding nature and the generality of the concept of migration, however, it is nothing more than a possibility. It is important to build on it. If the right to live in one’s own country is no longer a given and escape is unavoidable due to circumstances caused by climate change, an efficient instrument must be created. At the very least, climate refugees should be considered subsidiary beneficiaries as war refugees are.
  • One step in the right direction seems to be the Nansen Agenda, adopted in 2015, which has been supported by 109 states. The aim of the Agenda is to better protect persons displaced by climate change internationally. An important part of the Agenda is to provide emergency services for victims of natural disasters. The consultation process, which was launched by Norway and Switzerland, lasted approximately three years.
  • In order to support those affected, it is first necessary to identify risk areas and particularly vulnerable persons. Resilience needs to be significantly strengthened by taking precautionary and adaptive measures, for example by using drought-resistant seeds in agriculture or building sustainable dike systems to handle large volumes of water. Migration abroad could often be avoided by aiding in the country concerned.
  • Even today, however, in many places it is no longer possible to prevent damage and losses resulting from climate change through protection and adaptation measures. Here, the particularly vulnerable need assistance, such as relocations. What is important in all these measures is that those affected are not only informed, but also actively involved. State-directed resettlement programs, respecting for human rights, are to be pursued. World Bank experts suggest, for example, that Australia and New Zealand allow orderly immigration from threatened Pacific states to prevent mass migration later.
  • All these measures would not be necessary if the industrialized countries had not chosen economic success at the expense of climate protection. The current situation would have been avoidable – or at least climate change would not have reached such an extent – through early action. Consequently, action must be taken immediately to curb the negative consequences of climate change. In the first place, global warming must be limited to below two degrees Celsius. The drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is, therefore, indispensable.


The decision by countries such as Austria, the Czech Republic and Croatia to reject the UN Migration Pact is a political statement that damages its international reputation. It is to be hoped that the countries which have signed the agreement will pursue its goals and thus act as positive role models, leading other states to sign the agreement. Migration, specifically climate migration is a significant current issue, which, given a constant lack of will to act, will severely affect future generations. It requires on-the-ground assistance and international cooperation to ensure safety.


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About the AUTHORS:

Maria-Angela Brunner is currently pursuing a master´s degree in law as well as a degree in political science at the Karl-Franzens-University Graz. After working as a legal assistant in the consular sector in Strasbourg, she recently finished volunteering in Tunisia, where her work focused on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Quality Education. Due to her interest in diversity, she is currently the vice president of the international student organization AIESEC. Her main interests include human rights, with a special focus on migration, as well as foreign policy.

Clarissa Gross is currently a law student at the Karl-Franzens-University Graz. Before her studies, she spent time in Indonesia as a volunteer. There she contributed in the educational sector as an English teacher. She also takes part in the NGO “Amnesty International” as an active member in Graz and plans to specialize in international relations and working for an NGO after her studies.