Submitted by guest writer Lia Mordezki
2022 saw Egypt host COP27 in Sharm-El-Sheikh. Leaders worldwide, and 36 private jets, arrived ready to discuss the implementation of strategies to combat climate change and its effects. A main focus of discussion was the idea of loss and damage, where wealthier countries (often with a history of colonisation) fund the mitigating strategies for poorer countries who are suffering the effects of climate change, despite their little contribution to global emissions.
A historic loss and damage fund was announced, although the details are vague. What struck me as a missed opportunity was the lack of conversation regarding climate migrants, of which there could be a billion by 2050. There was even an opportunity to link the loss and damage fund to a strategy where richer nations take in a larger
proportion of people displaced by climate. 1
So what are the issues regarding people displaced by climate? And how could we approach them internationally?
Firstly, nobody is sure about how to refer to people displaced by climate. Currently, the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention does not include people displaced by climate disasters. A refugee must be someone who fled their country due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. This has led to interesting court decisions. For example, a Kiribati national attempted to claim refugee status in New Zealand, stating that the effects of climate change were a threat to his livelihood. The courts in New Zealand rejected this, and the UN Human Rights Council accepted New Zealand’s decision, whilst still highlighting the effects of climate change and the need for a migration strategy. 2 Some have argued that climate migrants must be included in the UN convention, as the lack of legal status for those displaced by climate has allowed countries to ignore them and reject their immigration, as they do not classify as economic migrants either.
They are left in a damaging legal limbo.
However, an expansion of the refugee convention is not an apt response for the size of the
issue. Nor does it pay enough attention to the nuances of climate migration. There is also a
concern that expanding the definition of refugees would lead to a lower level of protection for established refugees, as countries seem unwilling to increase their capacity and funding for them. The former president of Kiribati even resisted the label of refugee for his people,
claiming they wished to “immigrate with dignity”. 3
When creating a climate refugee status, categorizing the reasons for migration becomes an
issue. A large proportion of nations that are vulnerable to climate change are equally
vulnerable to conflict and unstable economies. An IPCC report highlighted the nations with
“very high” relative vulnerability to climate change, almost entirely in sub-Saharan Africa, as
well as in the Pacific Islands. 4 Countries such as Malawi, South Sudan, and Niger are amongst the most vulnerable, whilst also prone to civil unrest. Therefore, a separate legal status of climate refugee would lead to a burdensome legal procedure in defining whether someone is a refugee solely due to climate change.
The solution lies in an international strategy.
When New Zealand hoped to tackle the issues by itself, producing a climate visa for neighbouring Pacific Islanders, the process was scrapped within six months, citing a lack of preparation and research into the issue. Alternatively, an international strategy considering the wishes of those forced to displace is essential.
Firstly, those living in low-lying nations have repeated that they would prefer to live in their own countries. Therefore climate migration should not be considered the first resort. Instead, prevention strategies should be continued, and their funding increased, especially
through processes like the loss and damage fund. Countries that produce the most carbon must contribute to a climate change prevention fund for vulnerable, low-income countries. If climate migration is the only option left, this must be done through existing migration pathways to ensure the safety of migrants. The earlier these processes are established, the easier it will be to react to climate emergencies that leave many in need of refuge.
Although it has been suggested that those countries producing the most greenhouse gases
must take in a larger proportion of climate migrants, this strategy may not work. Firstly, it
disregards the cultural ties that climate migrants may have. For example, a Pacific Islander may feel more comfortable in neighbouring New Zealand, than they would in top-polluter China.
Secondly, it is not realistic to assume polluting countries will have the political appetite to
accept a larger portion of migrants. Any strategy should take note of the current population
density of host countries and the realistic availability of resources in these host nations.
Importantly, most displacement caused by climate is internal. For example, Ethiopia has 1.78
million internally displaced migrants. Therefore, refugee status would not be helpful for those who are internally displaced. Climate change is set to accelerate the pace of urbanisation, with more people unable to keep their agricultural lifestyles and being forced to move to the city.
Therefore, cities must increase their capacities. Climate change is also known as an exacerbator of existing issues; a rise in climate refugees may lead to competition over resources like food and water. Consequently, countries need to have effective security strategies in place, to avoid conflicts escalating and national security being threatened.
COP27 committed a grave mistake in not including climate migration in its official agenda.
Climate migration is already happening and at increasing rates. We must be ready to deal with it, as being unprepared can cost lives.
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1 Ahmed, B. (2018) “Who takes responsibility for the climate refugees?,” International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management, 10(1), pp. 5–26. Available at:
2 Ioane Teitiota v New Zealand (2015).
3 STATEMENT BY H.E TE BERETITENTI ANOTE TONG (On the occasion of the 106th Council Session, Wednesday 25 November 2015, Geneva)
4 IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M.Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama
(eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. Page 76
Featured image credit: CSIS