Climate refugees account for more than a half of all migrants but enjoy little protection

Up to three times as many people are being displaced annually due to natural disasters as to armed conflicts or other forms of violence, and much of what is now international migration started out as weather-related internal displacement.

Despite this, legal protection of people driven out of their homes and countries due to environment-related causes is still flawed, with no legal definition describing their status and no specific international body monitoring the protection of their rights – concerns that were raised at a recent hearing at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

The hearing, held online due to coronavirus measures, brought together EESC members, representatives of environmental and international organisations and academics specialising in law.

We are still not fully aware of the consequences of climate change for our people and communities and how this is linked to migratory flows. At the international level, there isn't really a description or definition encompassing the group of people we call "climate refugees" and we are not even sure if the latter is the right term to describe them at all, the president of the EESC's Study Group on Immigration and Integration, Carlos Trindade, said in his opening remarks.

Peter Schmidt, president of the EESC's Sustainable Development Observatory, said civil society should put pressure on politicians to act on this phenomenon in the interest of all people.

It is exactly the question of migration that can make us see how sustainable our societies and economies are. Are our societies really prepared for crises of this kind? And these crises are not coming out of the blue, a lot of them were forecast but the warnings went unheeded, Mr Schmidt said.

The speakers at the hearing said that according to figures by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, natural disasters were the reason behind the displacement of over 17 out of 28 million people who fled their homes worldwide in 2018. Of those, 16 million displacements were due to weather-related events such as storms, floods, typhoons and hurricanes. The number for 2019 was likely to top 20 million.

Most disaster-induced displacements occurred in East Asian and Pacific countries, such as China and the Philippines, followed by Cuba, the USA, India and Bangladesh.

Environmental displacement is not always caused directly by disasters but can also be the result of a slow onset of events, such as rising sea levels or desertification, making many places no longer suitable for agriculture and even unfit for human life.

Impacts of climate change fall unevenly, intersecting with geographic, socio-economic and governance factors, and hitting the most vulnerable and poorest communities the hardest. They are often the least able to absorb the damage and will feel the consequences of climate change most dramatically, said Rachel Simon of Climate Action Network Europe.

François Gemenne, director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, said it was difficult to categorise people by the reason for migration, as the drivers were largely intertwined and influenced one another.

We continue to distinguish between internal and international migration, but the reality is that much of what is now international migration used to be internal. We will not be able to deal with international migration from Africa, for example, unless we address the situation there, Mr Gemenne said.

He gave the example of economic migration from West Africa, which was initially motivated by land degradation: once families can no longer make a livelihood from agriculture alone, they send young male family members to big cities to look for work. If they fail, they often cross borders in search for a job, sometimes ending up in Europe after a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

However, despite "guesstimates" that by 2050 there might be as many as 200 million people displaced because of environmental changes alone, there is still no legal definition describing their status nor a comprehensive framework which would guarantee the protection of their rights.

The absence of an accurate definition of what constitutes a person displaced by environmental factors has resulted in the inability to measure exactly the number of existing and potential displacement flows, said Isabel Borges, a professor and researcher at the Norwegian Business School and University of Oslo.

Whereas there are scattered legal mechanisms that can be used for the protection of people displaced for environmental reasons, there is a legal gap when it comes to their international protection.

Many legal texts under international refugee law, such as the Refugee Convention, are either not suited for climate refugees or are too focused on a situation in a particular continent, said Annabelle Roig-Granjon of the UNHCR.

However, some progress has already been made, such as with the Nansen Initiative on Disaster Displacement from 2012, which specifically addresses the needs of such people displaced across borders.

Another landmark was the UN Human Rights Committee's decision in a New Zealand case this year, in which it recognised for the first time that forcibly returning people to a place where their life would be at risk due to climate change may violate the right to life under international law.

Moreover, some EU legislation also contains measures that could be used to prevent environmental displacement and be adapted to protect the environmentally displaced, as was stated in the Commission's staff working document from 2013 Climate Change, Environmental Degradation and Migration.

Environmental displacement has to be seen as a human rights issue and there should be a rights-based approach, Ms Borges maintained. We need a comprehensive framework for that.

However the current political discourse on migration often uses migrants and refugees as props to warn of the danger of climate change, which results in xenophobic arguments implying that, unless you reduce your CO2, you will end up with millions of migrants and refugees knocking on your door.

It is extremely important to consider migration for what it is and to draw attention to the rights of displaced people, Mr Gemenne said, adding that otherwise countries were more likely to increase surveillance on the borders than be alert to the plight of those displaced.

He stressed the need to establish an international organisation to assist the environmentally displaced and urged the EU and national governments to beef up the mandate of the Task Force on displacement set up under the Paris Agreement and to increase its membership.

Another problem is that states act only when disaster strikes, failing to think about prevention of displacement in cases when this is possible.

The most effective way forward is to reduce the risk of displacement, said Nina Birkeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Most people, if they have a choice, want to stay. And we have to help them stay, she maintained.

However it was also important to move people out of harm's way in time and to make arrangements for their planned relocation, Ms Birkeland said, adding that there were tools that could give early warnings by forecasting disaster displacement.

Most importantly, however, it was essential to mitigate climate change, first of all by limiting warming to 1.5 C, which was crucial, but also by significantly reducing CO2 emissions.

Failure to do this will inevitably result not only in more migration, but also in the rise of the "forced immobility" phenomenon – the severe plight of those too poor to evacuate, as has already happened in New Orleans after it was struck by Hurricane Katrina or in Fukushima, where the poor had no choice but to stay in the radioactive zone.