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We all have in mind the image of refugees as people fleeing war, persecution and poverty, but there is another type of refugee: climate refugees, also called environmental refugees. They are probably less visible, as they are not numerous and are less often talked about. Driven by the worsening climate situation, these people find themselves forced to abandon their land and move to other regions in order to survive.
Who are the environmental refugees?
In a 1985 UN report for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), environmental refugees were defined as "those who are forced to leave their homes temporarily or permanently because of environmental disruption (natural or man-made) that has endangered their existence or seriously affected their living conditions".
This was the first time the term "environmental refugees" was officially used.
Since then, the term has been gaining momentum as a result of the climate change that the world is facing. Indeed, many studies estimate that in the future these changes will be among the primary causes of displacement of people.
Climate events that lead to refugee displacement
Climate change can present itself as natural disasters such as heavy floods capable of destroying a whole country, tsunamis, earthquakes, rising seas etc.
However, this phenomenon is not new. It has been proven that throughout history climate change has been the cause of division of people in the world. We can take the example of the Roman Empire whose fall was precipitated by a long cold spell and a pandemic.
Cyclone Idai, which destroyed the lives of thousands of people in Mozambique between the night of 14 and 15 March 2019, is a recent example of how people are driven out of their region by a natural disaster.
It is the most vulnerable who are most affected by these natural calamities. Their migration will be linked to these tragic events, as well as economic and social reasons.
Environmental refugees in the world
Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult for these environmental refugees to reach certain borders and find refuge for themselves and their families.
According to the World Bank, by the year 2050, 140 million people will become environmental refugees. Most of them are from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. Three areas are already in a precarious situation in terms of migration.
Of these refugees, only 20% will seek to reach a more distant continent, Europe. The remaining 80% will seek refuge in their own continent.
What status for environmental refugees in Europe?
There are different categories of refugees, but they all have in common the need for protection. Although the issue was raised during a recent hearing at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), there is little legal writing that aims to protect the rights of climate refugees.
Other legal texts referring to international refugee law, such as the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, are either not adapted to environmental refugees or are too focused on the situation of a particular continent.
However, this year saw a turning point: In its first decision on a complaint by an individual seeking asylum from the effects of climate change, the UN Human Rights Committee stated that countries may not deport individuals who face climate change-induced conditions that violate the right to life.
This is the first decision by a UN body following a complaint by a person seeking protection from the effects of climate change.
Environmental migrants need more facilities to move to a safe environment where they will feel protected from natural disasters. A place where, if the earth revolts, they can at least receive adequate health care. The cause of their displacement should not be minimised in any way.
The intersection of climate change and migration requires new, flexible and comprehensive solutions to the multidimensional challenges it creates.
CAIRN.info (2010). https://www.cairn.info/revue-tiers-monde-2010-4-page-55.htm
UNHCR L’Agence des Nations Unies pour les réfugiés (2020). https://www.unhcr.org/fr/news/stories/2020/3/5e70dc4ea/an-apres-personnes-deplacees-cyclone-idai-tentent-reconstruire-vie.html
CNCD 11.11.11 (2017). https://www.cncd.be/Climat-des-millions-de-refugies
Comité économique et social européen (2020). https://www.eesc.europa.eu/fr/news-media/news/les-refugies-climatiques-ne-beneficient-que-dune-faible-protection-alors-quils-representent-plus-de-la-moitie-de
Office of the High Commissioner Human Rights (2020). https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25482&LangID=E#:~:text=GENEVA%20(21%20January%202020)%20%E2%80%93,violate%20the%20right%20to%20life