How Aid for Climate Refugees Must Focus on Human Rights and Human Health
Family gathering sticks and branches to use as firewood. (https://tandfonline.com)
Two widely recognized attempts at comprehensive descriptions of human rights of refugees exist, and they have produced influential sets of criteria that could be used in determining whether someone who requests refugee status will have it granted. Both of these sources recently released statements commenting on the possible status of climate refugees, responding to migrants attempting to gain refugee status due to factors they attribute to the increasing impacts of climate change (the September 2020 General Distribution of its Views Adopted by the Committee under Article 5 (4) of the Optional Protocol, Concerning Communication No. 2728/2016 by the UN Human Rights Committee; and the March 2021 Pastoral Guidelines on Climate Displaced People from the Vatican's Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development). These documents highlight two different approaches it is possible to take toward environmentally related refugee status petitions, and the impacts these discrepant approaches will have for real people seeking refugee status as this crisis plays out. The case study of Ioane Teitiota and his family, from Kiribati, and of their unsuccessful attempt to claim status as climate change refugees is presented and analyzed.
This article focuses on the fates of those who attempt to claim refugee status due to events they ascribe to climate change. The ways that discussions of people who leave their homes en masse are framed are complicated. The United Nations' (UN's) relevant legally protected category for those leaving their homes has been “Refugee” since 1951. As a unique legal protection has been tied to the “Refugee” category, we focus on the result of people's appeals that they attain this category.
The fate of people fleeing the impacts of climate change has been identified by many organizations as a forthcoming humanitarian crisis. The World Meteorological organization estimated2 that from 2010 to 2019 weather events exacerbated or increased in frequency by climate change caused on average 23.1 million people to be displaced every year. Other organizations describe the likelihood that many millions of people will leave their homes and livelihoods because of climate change-related events, including the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the Norwegian Refugee Council's Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the UN, the Brookings Institute, and recently the White House. Facilitating such prediction, the science of extreme event attribution continues to develop and raise alarms. This rapidly developing field brings increasingly sophisticated and reliable efforts to bear to answer the question, “Has climate change influenced the frequency, likelihood, and/or severity of individual extreme events?” What were until recently unanswerable hypotheticals are now approachable scientific questions.9 Climate modeling now anticipates sea-level rise on the scale of several meters over a 50- to 150-year time scale, with impacts in coastal areas at least that will be transformational. Elevation data indicate that 230 million people live within 1 m. elevation from current sea level.
Melbourne Global climate strike, 2019.
“The Term 'Climate Refugee' Is Not Endorsed by UNHCR”: The UN on Environmental Refugees As discussions of the fate of people impacted by climate change have unfolded, other voices have emerged to interrogate what they view as “the predominant normative politicization of the climate (change)-migration narrative”, challenging sometimes simplistic explanations by which human movements are explained. A full analysis of the appropriate way to understand large-scale human movements has begun elsewhere in the literature, including discussions of the rhetorical use of “refugees” in the securitization of climate change, the relationship between development narratives surrounding threats of refugees and donor self-interest, long-standing preexisting factors related to human migration, concerns about the relationship between sustainable development and neoliberal economic policies, and other factors beyond the scope of this article. Securitization deserves special note as a deeply political question; international tensions are high over migrants coming from politically unstable nations both impacted recently by severe drought and associated by many today with potential terrorist risks (e.g., Sudan, Iraq, and Iran). It is also notable that many authors question whether categorizing climate change alone as the cause of much migration characterized as “climate migration” is appropriate, as many other factors are in play in decisions to migrate. A more nuanced research agenda for the future would take into account uncertainties in estimates of climate change-related movement, and would analyze “multiple forms, directions, and multiplicities of human movement in the context of climate change”, preferably to be articulated as “climate mobilities”. However, this article focuses on the people, moved by the complicated forces just summarized, who are striving to receive the legal protections afforded to refugees and who characterize their movement as being primarily motivated by climate change for these purposes. While they might be more accurately described in other categories if other legal protections were available, it is nonetheless important to analyze these requests under the existing refugee framework, along with how the existing framework might meet these needs more appropriately.
Worries about the legal and moral status of people displaced by environmental change have featured on these pages for decades. Pittock (December 2002) noted that “Migrants displaced by environmental and economic stresses are not legally refugees and thus may not be welcome in many countries.” Bierman and Boas (November/December 2008) called for a global protocol for climate change refugees18 and discussed reasons that the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank might be better equipped than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to meet the needs of the anticipated numbers, but none of that has transpired in the intervening decade-plus. Conca (January/February 2019) examined a potential role for the UN Security Council and described reasons why, except for brief moments in the Council, it has been generally unwilling to debate climate change threats in a formal way. Recently, the additional thread of the social injustices faced by migrant women has been discussed by Santos (September/October 2021).
Refugees wait at the West Railway Station in Vienna, Austria, in 2015.
The preceding all helps to set the context for this article, which is focused specifically on human rights and what the UN already owes (or should owe) to persons claiming (or attempting to claim) refugee status under the existing rules. The relationship of human health considerations to potential refugee status due to climate change is explored in the following. In considering persons who make claims to being climate change refugees, we examine how those claims are received and the implications for the people involved of that treatment.
Two widely recognized attempts at comprehensive descriptions of human rights of refugees exist. Both these sources recently released statements commenting on people who would identify with and claim climate refugee status (the September 2020 General Distribution of its Views Adopted by the Committee under Article 5 (4) of the Optional Protocol, Concerning Communication No. 2728/2016 by the UN Human Rights Committee; and the March 2021 Pastoral Guidelines on Climate Displaced People from the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development). These documents highlight two different approaches it is possible to take toward climate refugees, and the impacts these discrepant approaches will have as this crisis plays out. As shown in the following, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development’s Pastoral Guidelines on Climate Displaced People provides a pathway for the protection of climate refugees to which the UN and other major organizations could turn.
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by Steven A. Kolmes, Sara K. Kolmes & Pei-Hsuan Linhttps://tandfonline.com