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Global Governance of Cross-border Climate Migration: Is Expanding the scope of the Refugee Convention an adequate solution?
contributor, HAND Association
According to the experts, the current number of displaced people and the number of people who have a high likelihood to be displaced in the future due to severe climate disasters have been increassing as a direct effect of climate change. According to the 2017 Global Disaster Displacement Report, the annual global average of displacement was 13.9 million in 2017 as a result of sudden-onset environmental disasters such as Tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes. However, floods, which a have direct connection with climate change led to the displacement of around 10 million people in 2017 whereas other factors led to the displacement of the remaining 4 million people. (Anzellini, et al., 2017, p.10-11)
However, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre state that the number of displaced people only due to severe weather events such as floods and storms is more than 21 million. (Valle, 2017, p.2; Staiano, 2017, p.24) Even more, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that the number of climate migrants might reach 200 million by 2050. (Zgoła, 2017, p.151; Bruner, 2019, p.195)
Even though climate migration is one of the hot topics of the current international agenda, the direct connection between climate change and migration has been started to take attention in the 1980s. In this regard, Graeme Hugo was one of the first scholars who has been focused on the direct relation of climate change and migration. (Warner, 2018,p.386) In 1990, when the United Nations (UN) acknowledged that “the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration as millions will be displaced” the situation has been carried to the government level (Piguet, 2011 P.5) and the climate migrants have been acknowledged as “human face of climate change.” (Gemenne, 2011, p. 225)
As Saul argues, climate migration is a “refugee issue, a human rights issue, an environmental issue, a security issue, and a humanitarian issue.” (Klepp, 2017, p.14) Moreover, effects of the climate change on the natural environments have a direct relation with social, political, and economic matters of societies. (Sudmeier-Rieux et al. 2017). Therefore, climate migration is a sophisticated and important topic of international governance that has a direct relation with several issues.
However, even though climate migration is a filed which needs special and urgent attention of global governance, today still there is no international organization or institute which has been devoted to the security and assistance of climate migrants. (Zgoła, 2017, p.155)
Therefore, the ultimate aim of this research is to foster the debate among actors of global governance by making a comprehensive evaluation of one of the most discussed issues of cross- border climate migration, the status, and protection of cross-border climate migrants. In this regard, the study analyses the 1951 Refugee Convention’s scope, gaps, and inefficiencies regarding the protection of the climate migrants besides main discussions of the climate migration governance regarding extension of the existing Refugee Convention to include environmental refugees. In this regard, this research answers the research question that whether the extension of the 1951 Refugee Convention can provide an international protection mechanism for cross-border climate migrants or not.
- Literature review
The absence of a cross-border climate migration convention and structural difficulties in establishing one have been discussed by academics and experts since the direct connection between climate change and migration has been released. In this respect, Bierman and Boas (2010, p.60) and Atapattu (2010, p.609), argue that even though global governance has acknowledged that mitigation policies are not efficient without adaptation strategies regarding the problems of climate change since the level of carbon emission has been already reached serious levels, states are not willing to create adaptation strategies such as creating efficient tools to address climate migration.
In this regard, Bruner (2019, p.195) argues that lack of climate migration regime paradoxical since the number of people who flee because of the environmental reasons is not less than those who flee due to military conflicts. In this scope, especially the last three-decade academia and experts questioned the current mechanisms regarding cross-border climate migration and proposed new remedies regarding issues. However, neither global environmental governance nor academia agree on a specific solution.
Despite the absence of a consensus regarding remedies of cross-border climate migration issues, many of the authors such as Ney (2017, p.51), Warner (2018, p.391) and Zgola (2017, p.147-166) agree that without having a legally binding nature, climate migration frameworks cannot provide adequate protection. In this regard, although, some of the main authors of cross-border climate migration, Docherty and Giannini, (2009, p.402) believe that expanding the scope of the Refugee Convention might be a solution, McAdam (2011, p.5) and Valle (2017, p.2-23) argue the inefficiency of the Refugee Convention to address climate migration and uncover the reasons behind it. Besides sharing the same idea with McAdam and Valle regarding the restrictive nature of the Refugee Convention, Bierman and Boas offer a new mechanism that has been criticized as a “vague concept” by Atapattu. (Atapattu, 2010, p.631).
Indeed, in order to create state responsibility, a legally binding convention is a must. However, even though the mentioned authors define the structural difficulties and government’s unwillingness toward a legally binding commitment, none of them offers better remedies or uncover the possible solutions to overcome structural difficulties and increase the government’s willingness for a significant protection and policy gap in the global governance.
- Climate Migration as an Adaptation Strategy
Even though in the previous decade the main concern of the climate governance was mitigation of the climate change and its results, today since the carbon emission and greenhouse gases reached a serious level, only mitigation policies are not a solution but further remedies, researches, and policies are necessary in order to reduce the detriments of climate change. (Biermann & Boas, 2007, p.1) In this regard, Atapattu mentions that the adaptation and the mitigation strategies are like two sides of the same coin since the level of already emitted greenhouse gases reached a level that sooner or later the world will suffer its results. (Atapattu, 2010, p.609.)
Importance of the Climate change adaptation policies was mentioned in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990 (Schmidt-Thome, 2017, p.1). In this regard, climate migration has been called “the most extreme form of adaptation”. (Atapattu, 2010, p.613) Indeed, migration is the last resort strategy when other adaptation mechanisms have not created desired solutions. (Gemenne & Blocher, 2016, p.2) In this regard, in 2010 COP16, climate migration has been acknowledged as a part of the climate policy under the UNFCCC Cancun Adaptation Framework. (UNFCC, 2017, n.p) According to the UNFCCC, industrialized states have a responsibility to assist other states that are even though directly vulnerable to climate change, do not have enough resources to conduct adaptation strategies regarding climate migration. (Atapattu, 2010, p 613)
However, even though it is known that effects of climate change on people will result in the loss of basic human rights of climate victims such as the right to life, the right for a healthy environment and the right to reach basic human necessities to survive, today, still there is no a comprehensive and legally binding cross-border climate migration framework. (Atapattu, 2010, p.609-610; Merone & Tait, 2018, p.508) Therefore, especially considering the number of people who migrates because of environmental reasons, Bruner argues that “it is paradoxical that there is no regime in case of environmental migration, which may produce three times more displaced persons than armed conflicts” (Bruner, 2019, p.195)
- Lack of consensus in Climate Migration Terminology
One of the reasons for a inefficient climate migration adaptation strategies is the lack of concensus on the terminology (Gemenne & Blocher, 2016, p.1) The “ envirenmental refugees” term refers to the fact that climate refugees have created an obstacle for further researches and data collection. Therefore, in order to reach a conceptual clarity climate refugee needs to be redefined regarding the casue and type of migration. (Biermann & Boas, 2007, p.3) On the other hand, the complexity of the terminology which is represented by different expressions such as “environmental refugees”, “climate change migrants”, “climate refugees”, “forced environmental migrants” and “environmentally displaced persons” which pair different meanings with different authorities even though none of them has a legally binding basis to bring state responsibility under the current Refugee Convention (Valle, 2017, p.3)
Since the nature of the migration has a wide range of factors which differ from each other, policy-making process regarding cross-border climate migration is a complex process. (Klepp, 2017, p.5) In order to reduce this complexity, Biermann and Boas define climate migrants as “people who have to leave their habitats, immediately or in the near future, because of sudden or gradual alteration in their natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.”(Biermann & Boas, 2010, p.68)
For Atapattu, this definition is problematic for several reasons. As he argues, the “near future” is a vague and subjective term and what they mean with the near future is unclear since it might be 5 years or 10 years. Similarly, “gradual alterations” in the natural environment is also in lack of an objective sense. On the other hand, since the direct relation between the migration and climate change has not been specifically mentioned, this definition might exclude many people who must migrate because of the slow-onset consequences of climate migration such as economic consequences and conflicts because of the lack of resources. (Atapattu, 2010, p.631) Therefore, Atapattu offers “a legal framework to deal with all environmentally displaced people with specific principles governing those who have crossed an international border.” (Atapattu, 2010, p.631)
In this regard, International Organization for Migration (IOM) offers a broader definition which covers all type climate migrants regardless cross-border or slow-onset characteristics of migration although it is not legally binding nor brings protection for climate migrants as 1951 Refugee Convention.” (Environmental Migration Portal, n.d., n.p)
- Extention of the 1951 Refugee Convention for Cross-Border Climate Migrants
Although global governance accepts that, “new frameworks are needed to prepare all countries to manage large-scale movements of people that maximize safety, dignity, and livelihoods” (Warner, 2018, p.385), there is no a commonly accepted view regarding which policy must be followed for these aims. In this regard, whereas some scholars argue that “the best way forward” in the climate migration policies might be creating a new comprehensive and binding convention which specifically addresses the climate migration (Docherty and Giannini, 2009, p.402; Biermann & Boas, 2010, p.70), McAdam believes that since the convention might define the climate refugees strictly, it might be exclusive for many who do not fit this specific definition.” (2011, p.17-18.) However, climate migration takes different forms and therefore, it needs different forms of remedies. (Zgoła, 2017, p. 155).
In this regard, McAdam argues that instead of a “one fits for all” type international agreement, region-based frameworks which concentrate on specific needs and challenges of the countries and people might be a more effective response. (2011, p.26).
Even though it does not suit the proposal of McAdam and Zgola, there is a widely acknowledged view that the extension of the current refugee convention’s scope in order to create protection for climate migrants might be an efficient solution. Regarding this, In 2006, Maldives offered a new protocol within the Refugee Convention regarding climate migration by counting climate change related disasters as persecution. Similarly, Belgium and Bangladesh have called a new revision for environmental refugees under the Refugee Convention’s authority. (Valle, 2017, p. 11.) Moreover, in 2011, UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres associated the current protection gap in the global governance regarding cross-border movements of climate migrants with the narrow scope of the 1951 Refugee Convention. (Warner, 2018, p.392)
According to the Refugee Convention, refugee refers a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” (Atapattu, 2010, p.616). In this regard, climate migrants do not fit this strict definition for several reasons.
First of all, climate migration is not a direct result of a persecution of individuals as it is defined in the Refugee Convention. (Bruner, 2019, p.198) In the same manner, unlike traditional refugees who individually persecuted, since the climate disasters affect the relevant population as a whole, instead of individual migrants, climate migrants migrate in large-scale groups. (Biermann & Boas, 2007, p.16) Moreover, according to Refugee Convention, persecution must be regarding individuals’ “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” whereas climate disasters affect the population regardless of these factors. (Valle, 2017, p.6) Therefore, in climate migration there is no direct state responsibility as a persecutor. (Bruner, 2019, p.198)
However, regarding the lack of state responsibility as a persecutoe, some argue that countries that have caused the current level of carbon emission must be acknowledged as responsible. (Biermann & Boas, 2007, p.16) Therefore, they offer an exchange of “ the traditional notion of persecution through the home states” by “global responsibility of all states.” (Biermann & Boas, 2007, p.18). On the other hand, since the current refugee regime has been dominated by developed countries that are reluctant to even narrow the scope of the convention, it is hardly possible to convince them to take extra responsibility of even higher refugee movements and create financial support for them. (Biermann & Boas, 2007, p.19) Moreover, even states may be responsible by abusing the human rights of the affected population following a climate disaster by not providing rescue for its citizens, since this persecution will be related to violation of the human rights’ regardless climate disaster and the status will be based on the traditional refugee convention. (Valle, 2017, p.8-10)
Besides persecution and state responsibility, the other structural difficulty of the Refugee Convention for an extention is that whereas it foresees return to the home country, in case of climate migration since reasons of migration based on inefficient living conditions of the home country, there is less possibility of return. Therefore, their migration is mostly permanent. (Biermann & Boas, 2007, p.15)
On the other hand, even though a possible expansion realized as it is mentioned in the previous part of the study since the effects of the climate change disasters are not always sudden but sometimes associated with other problems such as poor living conditions and economic problems, it would be hard to define the persecution as well as distinguish them from other migrants who migrate for better socioeconomic conditions. (Valle, 2017, p.18; Lonesco, 2019, np)
Furthermore, national borders are not always marked and the lack of data regarding the number of migrants and duration of their stay causes knowledge gaps and therefore; harden the creation of new mechanisms. (Anzellini, et al., 2017, p.7; Zgoła, 2017, p.155)
Last but not least, in addition to the above mentioned structural difficulties of a possible extension of current refugee convention governments that have not been affected by climate-related disasters which cause climate migration do not have a desire for an extension. Due to political conflicts in several parts of the world that have caused a high number of refugees, the capacity and infrastructure and political will of the states which have hosted high numbers of refugees within their borders have significantly shrinked. Moreover, since the migration of the high number of refugees can cause severe effects in the host country since infrastructure, demography, and resources of new places might not be enough for both the host and guest populations. Therefore, there might be a scarcity of sources and public services, which might cause conflicts in the host country. In this context, migranst might not be welcomed by host countries’ population. (Clark, 2007, p. 9-10; Atapattu, 2010, p.623) As a result, creating a broader refugee policy might be met with the unwillingness of states to provide protection and take new responsibilities. (Valle, 2017, p. 14-16; Klepp, 2017, p.18)
On the other hand, despite structural difficulties of an extension in the convention, unlike war or conflict refugees, climate migration is more likely to be foreseen. Therefore, there is an opportunity to create necessary mechanisms and manage the process before the migration occurs. (Biermann & Boas, 2007, p.15) In this regard, in order to create better responses regarding the issue of climate migration, academia, civil society, experts, governments and institutions must collaborate and cooperate both in defining the problems and finding the solutions besides as well as host country and home country of the climate migrants (Warner, 2018, p.392; Zgoła, 2017, p.155).
Due to climate change’s effect on human habitats, an increasing number of people have migrated to other countries. However, even though global governance has acknowledged climate migration as one of the adaptation strategies for climate change, today there are no legally binding international frameworks which define the legal status of climate migrants in other countries. Therefore, cross-border climate migrants deprived of many basic human rights as well as a protection mechanism.
Regarding this protection gap, despite the absence of a consensus, the extension of the 1951 Refugee Convention for cross-border climate movements was one of the most discussed topics of the relevant literature. However, the Refugee Convention which has been designed for traditional refugees has structural difficulties for an extension due to its restrictive nature.
First of all, cross-border climate migrants are not persecuted individuals for the reasons which were mentioned in the Refugee Convention. Therefore, climate migration does not bring state responsibility as a persecutor. Secondly, unlike traditional refugees, climate disasters cause mass movements. Thirdly, whereas the Refugee Convention foresee a return of refugees at the end of the high possibility of persecution, climate migrants have less possibility to turn due to the absence of the living conditions in the home country. Moreover, since climate migration sometimes is the result of the slow-onset effects of climate change, it might be difficult to make a distinction between climate migrants and other migrants who migrate for better social and economic conditions. Additionally, tracking the data regarding the number of cross-border climate migrants might be difficult due to the unclear borders. Last but not least, an extension in the Refugee Convention might not be desired by states since it will increase their burden and harden the policy-making process.
As a result, due to structural difficulties and state unwillingness to take more responsibility for a high number of human movements, the extension of the current Refugee Convention as a climate change adaptation strategy is not an adequate solution. Moreover, due to the same reasons, a new climate migration convention cannot provide the necessary remedies. Therefore, global governance needs to concentrate on possible solutions to overcome the mentioned obstacles in order to reach desired outcomes through a legally binding convention.
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