Picture Credits: - Boston University

*Bitthal Sharma

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced”

-James Baldwin



The adverse climatic conditions today have led to an upsurge of people migrating from their natural habitat to a different place, be it in their own country or any other country. People affected by such drastic climatic conditions arising out of climate change and natural disasters do not have any alternative but to migrate from their place of living to an entirely different habitat. It has become a matter of compulsion for them without which they cannot survive. Climate change can have a deleterious effect on the living conditions of people as their livelihood is affected resulting in their displacement. The term used to define these people is ‘Climate Refugee’, although there has always been a lack of consensus regarding the nomenclature. The use of the term ‘Climate Refugees’ is discarded by some campaigners under international law due to various reasons, one of them being that the crossing of international borders is a requisite for a person to be labelled as ‘Refugee’, which at times is not the case with people displaced due to natural disasters, who don’t commonly cross the international borders and settle beyond their country.


One of the things which distinguishes climate refugees from the conventional refugees is that the former are not defined in any convention or international document while the latter have been provided with a legal status as having been incorporated in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol which clearly define refugees as: “ A refugee is 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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

Some scholars justify the exclusion of environmental refugees from the 1951 Refugee Convention on the ground that the concept of people being affected by climatic conditions and natural disasters was unheard of at the time of the convention coming into force with its sole intent being ceasing the perturbation received by people in their country and to pay heed to their interests. This clearly establishes a dichotomy between those displaced by natural calamities and the ones forced to leave their country due to the fear of being persecuted.

Due to the narrow and restrictive definition of ‘refugee’ under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the people displaced from their habitat due to the ruinous environmental conditions are not vested with the same rights and entitlements provided to the people coming within the ambit of ‘refugee’ provided in the convention. In the year 2011, it was observed by the European Parliament that the term ‘climate refugees’ is not legally recognized by European Union making it evident that the existing legal regime does not have the requisite provisions to subsume climate refugees leaving them out of the benefits conferred upon the conventional refugees.  Despite the presence of numerous regional initiatives such as Kampala Convention which aims to protect the internally displaced persons in Africa and the Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement which envisaged protecting people displaced due to climate change from their natural home, the condition of these refugees has not improved due to the absence of a global framework to protect their interests.

The situation of the climate refugees is exacerbated by various loopholes and inadequacies in the current legal framework which is devoid of measures which could come to the rescue of these people.

Principle 1 of the 1972 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Declaration) states that there’s a fundamental right to freedom, equality, and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being’. Similarly, Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms set in the declaration without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’. The presence of such provisions fails to assuage the fears of climate refugees as most of them are not binding, hence unenforceable thereby providing countries an option whether to comply with them or not. The failure of various conventions to protect the rights of refugees subjected to persecution neglecting those suffering from environmental conditions further aggravates their already vulnerable situation.


The global population is not adequately equipped to face this colossal challenge of environmental migration, let alone fight it. Neither are they aware of what befalls them. Due to this, the lower strata of the society around the globe are more prone to the effects of climate change, where they are the least responsible for these deteriorating conditions. In the first half of 2019 itself, the world saw a total of 7 million environmental migrants who had to be displaced without the territories of their own countries due to drastic climate conditions. This calls for an overhaul in the present status quo with respect to the climate refugees in order to make sure that they are not left out due to the deficiencies in the current international legal system.

One of the steps which could be taken in this direction is to bring out an international framework to meet the requirements of people displaced due to climate change. The countries need to frame an international convention similar to the 1951 Refugee Convention which would specifically deal with the plight of climate refugees. The convention should contain provisions   mandating the ratifying nations to receive and accept people displaced due to climate change. Moreover, this global framework needs to be consonance with the principle of Non-refoulment, according to which a country is under a duty not to return a person to a place where his life is under threat. The principle of Non-refoulment has attained the status of jus cogens, non-conformity to which is considered as an infraction of international law. Apart from a global convention, several regional instruments such as Kampala convention and Nansen initiative should be set up in order to strengthen the legal framework to solve the numerous challenges faced by climate refugees. These regional arrangements would help in ensuring that persons displaced due to climate are able to find a safe haven in other countries of that particular region. These regional conventions could prove to be more efficacious than a single global framework as the former would have a limited and specific region under their ambit which would be more effective due to its limited applicability.

The incorporation of climate refugees is the call of the hour due to the sheer volume of people displaced all over the world through adverse climatic conditions which requires a quick and viable solution to this conundrum. If this problem is not curbed anytime soon, the world would soon be witnessing mass migration of people due to environmental conditions taking control of which would be a humongous challenge in itself.

Bitthal Sharma is a 3rd Year student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala.

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