Climate, Migration, and Displacement – What are the Implications for Human Rights Law?

This piece was originally published by the Observatory for International Human Rights.


Climate change and migration dredge up very specific imagery. It is often portrayed in the media as mass hordes of people crossing through barren deserts or Pacific Islanders standing at deteriorating shorelines. But the impact of climate change on human mobility is more complex than that – and its complexity creates barriers to protection. Despite this, there are some pathways forward for the human rights community.

To begin to grapple with the complexity of climate change and migration issues, it’s important to understand that human mobility outcomes depend on a variety of variables, including the type and magnitude of impact that induces movement, the existing vulnerabilities of communities affected by the impact, and the ability to cope with said impact. Although, in general, “sudden-onset” impacts such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires are much more likely to induce immediate displacement.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that in 2019 almost 24 million people were displaced due to extreme weather. For context, they estimate that in the same year about 8.5 million people were displaced due to conflict.

Meanwhile, “slow-onset” impacts such as sea-level rise or desertification may slowly erode the ability to maintain livelihoods to such a degree that people may be forced to move. Although those that move have much more of an ability to plan the timing and duration of their movement than those displaced by sudden-onset events. The World Bank estimates that certain slow-onset impacts may mean more than 143 million people moving internally by 2050 in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. Importantly, however, this estimate cannot predict to what degree this movement will be under duress or voluntary in nature.

The numbers are also a bit misleading – and cover up the very real human face of mobility outcomes. For example, we know that those who will be forced to move due to climate change impacts will be disproportionately vulnerable.

In particular, studies show that farmers reliant on rainfed agriculture will likely turn to seasonal rural-urban migration to weather shocks to their income. While we know that the poor are more likely to engage in this sort of migration decision making, we also know that the poorest of the poor may not be able to move because of economic and social limitations, effectively becoming “trapped.” Men, women, children, and the elderly will face different sorts of burdens whether they’re moving or trapped. For example, when young men and women move to the city to become the principal breadwinners in their household, children are left behind with grandparents that serve as their primary caretakers.

Barriers to “protection”

The complexity of climate change-related human mobility makes it difficult to envision one sort of solution for “protection.” In fact, “protection” may mean many different things. For example, much headway has been made by entities such as the Platform on Disaster Displacement to push for freedom of movement among contiguous countries during disaster; and more regional mechanisms that protect those displaced by disaster. These should be considered vital gains in the patchwork of protection needed for the most vulnerable – but it is an accumulation of smaller ball policy. In juxtaposition, the form of protection most members of the media and general public are concerned with is something akin to “refugee” status – a “super framework” – which is international in nature and binding. However, this form of protection faces the most barriers to becoming a reality.

For one, refugee status is determined under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines refugees as those fleeing across borders from violence and persecution. This is purposefully a very narrow definition – one created by Europeans for Europeans in a post-WWII context. And even while many advocates argue that this is inadequate in today’s world, it’s unlikely that this definition will be amended any time soon.

Another related barrier is attribution – or the fact that it’s very hard to disentangle the role climate change plays in “push” factors of migration in many cases. For example, people may need to move in the face of increasing desertification and drought, but land use change, population growth, and mismanagement of water may all equally be impacting these drivers. The case of Syria may prove instructive. In 2015, a study found that climate change was largely responsible for prolonged drought, which led to rural-urban migration and subsequent unrest. However, others were quick to point out that failures of governance, such as overuse of groundwater and decreasing agricultural subsidies, may actually be more to blame.

With this question of attribution comes tension over who to hold responsible for climate change impacts as well as for offering protection and remuneration to those displaced.

What does this mean for human rights law?

Given the barriers to expanding the Refugee Convention, advocates have been turning to other potential legal frameworks. Some have argued that there are some group-specific human rights treaties that would be relevant alongside refugee protection, including those on stateless persons, migrant workers, and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Of note, however, are recent developments related to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty which commits its 173 parties to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights, and rights to due process and a fair trial.

This year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), a body of independent experts mandated to oversee compliance with the ICCPR, made a decision on a case related to an individual claiming to be a “climate refugee.” The individual in question was Ioane Teitiota, an i-Kiribati man who filed a submission with the Committee arguing that New Zealand’s determination that he was not a valid asylum seeker and sending him back to Kiribati violated his right to life (ICCPR Article 6) or to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (ICCPR Article 7).

While the Committee agreed that there was some merit to Teitiota’s claims that climate change was irrevocably changing his homeland, it found that there was still time to hedge the effects and thus ultimately found favor with New Zealand’s initial decision. However, within the decision text was the acknowledgement that their viewpoint may change in “10-15 years,” as sea-level rise may render Kiribati uninhabitable. In this case, there may be room to argue that under the ICCPR that individuals should not be sent back to their countries of origin because it may violate their rights under Articles 6 and 7.

While this has limited implications for the near-term, it does show, as UN special rapporteur on human rights and environmental issues John Knox tweeted, “that courts are increasingly willing to bring constitutional and human rights to bear on the climate crisis.”

Human rights advocates finally have an opening to take the battle for a more comprehensive international mechanism to the courts. It will be up to them to find a client that may be able to prove their case to the UNHRC. But it will also be to them to bring pressure to bear on countries that may be less willing in today’s political environment to adhere to the standards set by the non-binding ICCPR. Those working on refugee and migration issues are already at a crossroads, and a COVID-19 world is making their work harder than ever before.

With the world in such tumult, now is the time to reinforce existing refugee law, but also to claw back small gains and to turn them into something lasting.