Climate Refugees definition: can we define a climate refugee?

Climate Refugees definition: can we define a climate refugee?

Alex Randall 

Alex is the programme manager at the Climate and Migration Coalition. An organisation focused on the rights and welfare of people displaced by the impacts of climate change. 

Image: The Pacific Island state of Kiribati. Rafael Ávila Coya. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The term “climate refugee” has become a shortcut for the entire issue of climate-linked migration. Two huge debates currently rage about the phrase: first, exactly who counts as a climate refugee?; and how many climate refugees will there be?

The case we make here is that both of these questions might be impossible to answer, and there are actually some much more important questions we should be thinking about.

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Getting started

Getting started

Our 20 minute ‘getting started’ podcast provides a fast way to get up to speed with the basics of climate-linked migration

Can we define climate refugees?

There are a great number of different definitions of the term “climate refugee”. However, it is worth noting that there is no official definition. Neither the United Nations of any international agency that works with refugee or climate change recognises any particular definition.

For a definition to be useful it would need to make it clear who is and who is not a climate refugee – and this is where things get complicated. When people move due to climate change impacts they are often moving for a variety of other reasons as well.

Consider this example.

Climate change could have an impact on drought and then on farming. This may mean that people move as the income from their farming declines and they need to find other work. Are they climate refugees?

It could well be that if they had access to other non-farming work nearby that they wouldn’t move. So is it climate change that has caused them to move? Or is it the fact that their local economy lacks alternative employment?

Of course we can say that climate change was among the forces that made them move. But the phrase “climate refugee” suggests something very absolute. Either some is a “climate refugee” or they are not. But the reality is that a variety of forces – including climate change – will cause people to move. So absolute definitions are difficult to apply.

Key resource

Getting started

Our 20 minute ‘getting started’ podcast provides a fast way to get up to speed with the basics of climate-linked migration

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What might be wrong with climate refugee definitions?

The term “climate refugee” suggests that people who fit the definition might be entitled to some kind of refugee status. They might be allowed to enter and stay in a country because climate change has forced them to move. There are several problems with this:

  1. The Refugee Convention specifies very clear things that people must be fleeing in order to gain refugee status. The impacts of climate change are currently not included on that list. Therefore even if someone is described as a “climate refugee” it does not mean they are would legally be in the same position as other refugees.
  2. Most climate-linked displacement will be internal. To be a refugee someone has to be outside their country of residence. As well as meeting other criteria, they must have crossed an international border. People who are forced to move within their country are Internally Displaced Persons. Given that climate change is likely to create internal movement, the term “climate refugee” can be misleading
  3. Most people facing migration due to climate change do not want to be “refugees”. The idea of a refugee comes with a lot of baggage, and people facing climate-linked migration would prefer not to be seen or defined as refugees of any kind.

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