Climate change threatens to cause the displacement of millions of people from their homes. Shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, and the particular vulnerability of small islands to rising sea levels and increased severe weather events compromise their continued habitability, impacting upon agricultural viability, vital infrastructure and services, the stability of governance, and ultimately human settlement. Whereas some people will move within their own countries, others, especially from small island States, may need to relocate elsewhere.
At present, those displaced by climate change are not recognized in international law as an identifiable group whose rights are expressly articulated, or as a formal legal category of people in need of protection, on several counts:
► They do not fit the international legal definition of ‘refugee’, which requires individuals already outside their country of origin to show that they have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. As a result, their rights, entitlements and protection options are uncertain in international law.
► There is no international agency, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with a specific mandate to assist them.
► While international human rights law protects fundamental rights, such as the right to life, livelihood, health and self-determination, and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, only the last of these is currently recognized as giving rise to other States’ protection obligations under international law. It remains to be seen whether courts and legislators would be prepared to recognize climate-induced displacement on this CIDT basis.
International legal definitions are often narrow: ‘statelessness’, for example, refers to those who are denied a nationality, rather than to those whose State has become uninhabitable or physically disappeared. While humanitarian aid may enable some communities to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, in other regions displacement seems inevitable.
Whether the displaced are regarded as people in need of international protection, or are permitted to migrate through prioritized labour or relocation schemes, it is important to think now about how States might best respond.