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The term “Environment Refugee” is not legally or officially recognized in international law. However, Prof. Lester Brown[1] first coined the term “environmental refugees”, and defined it as “people that are forced to leave their home due to changes in the environment around them, compromising their well-being and livelihood.” A deeper analysis of the definition highlights the problem of distinguishing “Environmental refugees” from other categories of migrants.

As opposed to disaster displacement, wherein people are forced to leave their homes in response to a natural hazard-induced disaster, the plight of environmental refugees is quite dynamic. At times the climate change or environmental deterioration might not be an immediate cause but a key cause to the plight of the migrants. Extreme weather events may be the most visible and dramatic threat to people’s right to life as a result of climate change, but they are far from the only one. Drought, rising temperatures, disease vectors expanding, and a range of other variables all have a role in climate change-related deaths. Displacement is caused by environmental factors such as: “plateauing of crop yields, water shortages and water-related diseases, shortage of fuelwood by deforestation, desertification, salinization of irrigated lands, biodiversity depletion, population growth, urbanization, development projects such as dams, extreme weather events, and sea-level rise” (Myers 1997, 175).

For this reason, environmental refugees are further categorized into “deterioration refugees”, which specifically try and refer to victims of gradual climate change. The difficulty of separating deterioration refugees from economic migrants is the underlying challenge. Because the social, economic, environmental and political, factors of migration are all intertwined in this case. For example, global warming has shortened the rainy season and exacerbated the drought, resulting in the biggest food crisis in history. Kenyan refugees have fled their homes, leaving them to fend for themselves in a foreign land where food and drinking water have vanished.  In these specific cases, it is difficult to identify an immediate cause for the migration that can justify calling these people as “Environment refugees”.


It has been noted that countries, especially in the southern hemisphere are experiencing the severe consequences of the effects of climate change. Countries with large coastal outlines and islands are slowly submerging into waters due to rising sea levels. People are being displaced from their homes as a result of climatic consequences that are unfolding over time, such as desertification and rising sea levels: According to a World Bank assessment released in March, by 2050, these impacts are expected to displace 143 million people in three of the most vulnerable regions: South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

Ironically, “those who have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions will be the ones who bear the greatest burden; the poorest people, in the poorest countries, their children, and all our children”.


The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951 defines a refugee as “A person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.” Hence, environmental refugees are not included in this definition. At least not on the face of it. The term “environmental refugees” is not recognised officially. The word has no formal validity among international organisations that work for migrants and refugees.

Environmental refugees indeed exist, according to the UNHCR’s UK department, but there are significant differences between them and convention refugees that must be distinguished, thus they are referred to as “environmental migrants”. But characterizing these victims of environmental assault as migrants is problematic because it is an attempt to bring them closer to the term “economic migrants” who are people that migrate in an attempt for better economic prospects, voluntarily. And any attempt to connect environment refugees to “voluntary” is flawed.  According to Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, a climate expert at the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, “Most people don’t want to migrate,” says. “They would rather stay where they are. But they need the means to stay where they are.”

It must be recognised that forcibly evicting people from their homes has the additional effect of violating some of the most basic human rights, including the right to health, sanitation, food, water and adequate housing, and, in the case of several small island states and coastal communities, the right to self-determination and existence. However, in the absence of statutory protection, environmental refugees’ human rights can only be derived from substantive rights to a healthy environment, or procedural rights such as the right to the environment.

But with no ‘hard law’ to enforce these rights and to hold developed countries responsible, it is difficult to force them to accept these refugees into their borders or provide mitigating reliefs to their community at large. Even in such cases, violations can only be determined after the damage has occurred and no protection can be provided in anticipation of looming environmental crisis. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol (KP) are crucial; both treaties can be used to establish obligations related to climate change prevention, such as greenhouse gas reduction. The actual scope of some of those duties, however, is up for debate, and the United States of America, as one of the world’s largest producers of greenhouse emissions, has yet to ratify the KP.

The complexity in providing any kind of third-party protection rises because of the inability to point out ‘one’ culprit and hold them accountable. The customary principle of non-refoulment provides that no person should be returned to a country where they would risk torture, harsh, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, or other irreparable harm. This principle applies regardless of the migration status of the migrants. Refugees who are likely to face the above-mentioned threats are still likely to gain protection under the principle but a majority of other people whose migration is due to a combination of other reasons might fail to find relief.


Scholars around the world are debating over “New Autonomous Instrument vs Existing Instrument” to incorporate environment refugees. Building upon the existing instruments like the Refugee Convention of 1951 will lead to the development of restricted inclusion of these refugees. Further, because it is so difficult to distinguish environmental refugees from other migrants, countries that are signatories of the refugee convention will be reluctant to allow such an inclusion. Countries may exploit the Convention’s extension as a justification to enact tougher refugee policies. The problem arises because, like economic migrants, most environmental refugees are fleeing poverty and famine. If such ‘economic refugees’ are included in the Convention, countries might apply a stricter definition of political refugees and admit fewer refugees in general.

The other way to deal with this issue is to create and bring into force an entirely new convention. In fact, A resolution 27 and a recommendation 28 were accepted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Migration, Refugees, and Population and the Committee on Environment, Agriculture, and Regional Affairs in January 2009. Calling for: “… a further investigation of existing gaps in law and protection mechanisms with a view to an eventual elaboration of a specific framework for the protection of environmental migrants, either in a separate international convention or as parts of relevant multilateral treaties.” Even though the focus should be more on preventive rather than reactive measures but the need for statutory laws to enforce a duty upon developed nations cannot be undermined.


Environment refugees are the forgotten victims of the havoc that we have created. The United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri, stated at the Human Rights Council panel discussion that “those who have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions will be the ones who bear the greatest burden; the poorest people, in the poorest countries, their children, and all our children”. Since a majority of the people affected by the environmental change are displaced internally, the human rights organization puts obligations on the host country to provide for them. But at times when entire island countries are drowning in water bodies. The legal status of citizens of the ‘disappeared’ State has yet to be determined. It’s questionable if they qualify as “stateless” under the international statelessness convention.

However, any difficulty to identify them cannot be an excuse to not address the issue at all. It is expected of developed countries, who have the largest part to play in the exploitation to come forward and take responsibility. Each year more people are forced to leave their country due to climate change as compared to those who leave due to social and political conflicts and persecution, it is high time that adequate funding and attention is diverted toward both preventive and reactive measures to ensure welfare of these people.

Authors Name: Aditi Rathore & Stuti Jain (Nirma University, Ahmedabad)

 [1]  Lester R. Brown, Twenty-Two Dimensions of the Population Problem, 102 (1976).

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