There's No Such Thing as a Climate Refugee

Earlier this week, I joined members of the DC chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and a group of climate-conscious Washingtonians at the DC venue Bloombars to view Michael Nash’s film Climate Refugees and discuss our impressions of the film. 

The discussion kicked off with my biggest criticism of the film – its title.

The term “climate refugees” is misleading, legally incorrect, and dismissed by those who are facing displacement from environmental harm.  Environmental harm includes environmental degradation, natural disasters (flooding or droughts), and climate change-induced changes to environments, such as sea level rise.

The 1951 Refugees Convention only provides protection to people residing outside of their country of origin, and who have a well-founded fear of persecution.  People who flee from environmental harm, are not persecuted, and are usually protected by their government.   For example, governments of small island developing states (SIDS), such as Kirabati and the Maldives, are the main advocates for developing legal and policy solutions to prevent displacement from rising sea levels.

Use of the term “climate refugee” distracts from the hard work and progress of various academics, governments, and NGOs in developing legal and policy alternatives for those displaced and at risk of displacement from environmental harm.  Legal alternatives may include extending the Refugee Convention to include displacement from environmental harm, or establishing guiding principles on displacement from environmental harm (similar to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement). Policy alternatives may include migration agreements with other nation states.

As an alternative to the term “climate refugee”, terms such as “a person displaced by climate change”, “environmentally induced migrant”, or “environmental migrant” are more accurate and support current advocacy efforts.

Also, people who are at risk of displacement from environmental harm, particularly citizens of SIDS, don’t want to be called refugees.  Professor Jane McAdam, from the University of New South Wales, undertook a field research mission in Tuvalu and Kiribati last year.  Upon return she reported in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that the citizens of Tuvalu and Kiribati “…don’t want to be seen as refugees. They want to be seen as active, valued participants in a new country, not recipients of aid.”

There is no doubt that the term “climate refugee” is good for raising public consciousness, but for this issue to move forward – we need to get the terminology correct.

At Bloombars, we discussed the film’s misplaced focus on security concerns and the incorrect assumption that people fleeing from environmental harm will seek asylum in the USA and Europe.  Rather, most movement will be internal, and if it is external, it will in most cases be to neighboring developing countries.  By way of background, the most climate vulnerable areas in the world are also the poorest, and so individuals who are displaced by environmental harmdon’t have the resources to move very far from home, and they have limited safety nets to rebuild or relocate (such as insurance).

But, like all healthy discussions, we also focused on some positives – particularly the work done by NGOs, governments, and academics towards improvingthe knowledge and understanding of best practice models for disaster response, mitigation, and prevention. We also discussed the important role that the film “Climate Refugees,” plays in bringing awareness to the relationship between environmental degradation, natural disasters, climate change, and the displacement of millions world-wide.

Davina Wadley is a former fellow with the Refugees International climate displacement program.