The Syrian refugee crisis is dominating the agendas of many countries. But there’s another migration crisis on the horizon, and it’s likely to impact millions of people.
The striking phenomenon of climate change is climate-induced displacement. Annually, across the world millions of people are being forced to flee, due to natural hazards within their country. The majority of these risks relate to extreme weather conditions. Climate change is increasing the intensity of displacement and will soon increase the frequency; as droughts, floods and other extreme weather events become widespread. According to scientist estimations, the number of those likely to relocate due to climatic reasons ranges between 50 and 350 million by the year 2050.
In a world constantly changing, the traditional definition and understanding of the concept ‘refugee’ may need to change to accommodate new situations that arise as a result of climate change. The lack of a link between climate change, migration and the legal treatment of the category of refugee is clear. The legal instruments currently, shaped years ago, do not consider aspects such as climate change refugees that generate debate in today’s generation. Given that no legal instrument offers protection relating to people displaced by climate or environmental factors, the most effective responses would consider a legal movement intertwining both human rights as well as a political framework. In recent years, the number of international forums regarding climate and environmental issues has multiplied, but none of these have materialised. It is believed impossible to achieve a global consensus on the issue of international population movements and climate change.
The term “refugee” conjures powerful images and is the root of current day controversy. We can anticipate that people moving due to the impacts of climate change; would move within the bounds of their current country of origin. However unfolding disasters like droughts, changing rainfall and desertification create different patterns of movement. Although climate change will be a primary factor of movement it will be hard to distinguish genuine circumstances amongst the contrast of people seeking refuge for economical reasons. The issue lies within differentiating a climate change refugee from an economic migrant as the government tend to integrate both circumstances into one. These blurred lines must be rectified as climate change is a process developing countries have mostly contributed to.
Currently, a central problem with the term ‘climate refugee’ is that it is not an officially recognised category under existing international law. Climate change refugees are not fleeing conflict or persecution, so will not be defined as refugees or asylum seekers by law. There are no conventions or protocols that can provide protection for people crossing international borders because of climate change. If laws are not made regarding climate change refugees, Europe could end up with boarder control problems spiralling into political issues.
Displaced people will migrate internally as they do not have the means or resources to cross international borders. Many could become trapped, without alternative employment to move towards. The extent to which climate change will intensify conflict and displacement in Europe’s near abroad will depend largely on how effectively countries and populations adapt. Unfortunately, resilience to climate change is predicated on wealth, strong institutions and cohesive societies.