Climate change is one of the greatest threats to human security and mobility. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that by 2050, up to 250 million people will be displaced by climate change impacts such as rising sea levels, floods, famine, drought, hurricanes, desertification and the negative impacts on ecosystems. In 2013 alone, almost three times as many people were displaced by disasters than conflict. Beyond natural disasters though, climate change serves as a 'threat multiplier' as food and water insecurity and competition over resources provoke or exacerbate conflict and compound displacement.
Although we refer to climate refugees, the concept does not exist in international law. Our work seeks to change that.
Those who leave their countries in the context of climate change or natural disasters do not qualify for protection under international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention offers protection for those fleeing war and conflict who face persecution along grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. This could leave the Bangladeshi family displaced across borders by a disaster, the subsistence farmer in Chad with no option but to leave his country because he lacks water for farming, or a mother forced to flee her country because of a climate change-induced resource war, outside the legal framework for protection.
Some progress has been made to address the protection gaps, but there's more to do, and we must act now.
The world responded to Europe's refugee crisis following WWII by forming the 1951 Refugee Convention and UNHCR. With the expected pace of climate change, the world may need to respond again, this time to meet the gaps in protection. The current Syrian refugee influx in Europe highlights the consequences of inaction and unpreparedness.
With 59.5 million forcibly displaced persons in 2014, UNHCR has a record number of persons of concern under its mandate under the Refugee Convention. The agency is stretched thin in resources and limited in its mandate to protect those forcibly displaced as a result of climate change.
A promising answer is the Nansen Initiative on disaster-induced cross-border displacement. Developed in 2011, the Nansen Initiative aims to build consensus among states on key principles and elements towards a protection agenda, but does not seek to develop new legal standards.