Climate refugees have no legal rights – and 200 million expected by 2050

  1. 'You will see a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions' if there are barriers to climate refugees - Steve Trent
  2. World’s least developed countries experience 99% of the deaths from climate-related disasters but account for 1 percent of global emissions - report
  3. 'One million people were already on the move before a single bullet was fired in Syria' - Trent
  4. 'Kiribati will be the first country in the world to go completely underwater' - Ricky Kej

Global warming will create 200 million climate refugees by 2050, by the most widely cited estimate (IOM). However, climate refugees currently have no legal rights (International Bar Association; UNU) and are “unlikely” to in the near future, Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) director Steve Trent told WikiTribune.

The global sea level is projected to rise between 0.3 to 2.5 meters during the 21st century (NOAA), with scientists increasingly thinking they will rise one meter by 2100. It’s a consequence of climate change, which is predicted to create refugees by amplifying the frequency and intensity of natural disasters – such as droughts, floods, and tropical cyclones.

Ironically, those living in countries which produce the least greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be the most affected by its impacts.

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The world’s least developed countries have experienced 99 percent of the deaths from climate and weather related disasters, but account for just 1 percent of global emissions (Global Humanitarian Forum). Despite this, climate change and environmental degradation is not mentioned in any of the key legal conventions that provide protections for refugees and asylum seekers (International Bar Association).

Tsunami, Solomon Islands 2007 (Author: AusAID; Copyright: CC BY 2.0)
The tsunami that followed the 2007 Solomon Islands earthquake killed 52 people. (Author: AusAID; Copyright: CC BY 2.0)

Trent said “only a fool or a fraud would say that climate change was responsible for the Syrian war [but] … in the region of one million people were already on the move before a single bullet was fired in Syria,” with drought playing its part. Exacerbated by climate change, extreme weather events have already forced roughly 27 million people each year since 2008 to leave their homes, according to the EJF – the equivalent of 41 people every minute. Scientists predict it’s going to get worse, with the number of climate refugees forecast from 25 million to 1 billion (UN) by 2050.

‘Kiribati will be the first country in the world to go completely underwater’ – Ricky Kej

One study predicts climate change will cause the number of asylum-seekers applying for EU entry to triple by the year 2100, to one million a year. Considering the 2015 European migrant crisis “almost brought down the most powerful politician on the continent in Angela Merkel,” as Trent says, it seems highly possible Europe will struggle to be welcoming in the future when the developing world is disproportionately affected by climate change.

Also, developing regions already bear the brunt of the situation, hosting 86 per cent of the world’s refugees in 2015 (UNHCR). “We can try and put up barriers [but] … if we do that as climate refugees are forced to move, you will see a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions,” Trent said. 

Climate refugees in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Author: Climate Vulnerable forum; Copyright: CC BY 2.0)
Climate refugees in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Author: Climate Vulnerable forum; Copyright: CC BY 2.0)

Who should take climate refugees?

A national from the archipelago nation of Kiribati, whose islands are mostly two meters above sea level, lost his appeal for asylum in New Zealand, in a 2015 case that would have made him the world’s first climate refugee. The court rejected Ioane Teitiota’s argument that if deported he would face “passive persecution,” as the Kiribati government would be unable to protect him from climate change’s effects (The Independent).

The court said that if Teitiota’s arguments were accepted it would “stand the [1951 UN refugee] convention on its head” and millions facing the threat of natural disasters would be entitled to protection. Sydney University professor of human geography, John Connell, told WikiTribune this verdict set a precedent.

Kiribati’s former president, Anote Tong, purchased roughly 5,500 acres of Fiji in 2014 in case his country’s 114,000 people had nowhere to migrate. Tong predicted his country will likely become uninhabitable in 30-60 years because of flooding and contamination of its fresh water supplies.

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Musician Ricky Kej, who interviewed the president during his 2016 visit, told WikiTribune: “Kiribati will be the first country in the world to go completely underwater due to climate change … [yet] it is a country that lives within nature – no major industrialization, barely any carbon emissions – so climate change is not of their making.”   

The issue of safe drinking water is even more immediate than the threat of island nations being swamped, as this World Bank feature indicates.

Overall, the biggest changes to the Pacific Islands have come from cyclones magnified by climate change and “king tides” (especially high tides), rather than sea level itself, according to Connell. The nearest countries of substantial land mass to the Pacific Islanders are New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. Connell said that Indonesia and Papua New Guinea will not accept climate refugees from the archipelagos in this part of the world but that New Zealand will recognize the need to do so “much sooner” than Australia, in large part because of the vulnerability of its dependent territory of Tokelau.

A map of the Pacific Islands region Map information based on Vaka Moana: Voyages of the Ancestors - the discovery and settlement of the Pacific, ed K.R. Howe, 2008, p57. (copyright: Public Domain)
A map of the Pacific Islands region. Map information based on Vaka Moana: Voyages of the Ancestors – the discovery and settlement of the Pacific, ed K.R. Howe, 2008, p57. (copyright: Public Domain)

New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced last year that she plans to create a special visa for 100 Pacific Island climate refugees annually (Straits Times), while Australia has often been criticized for its tough asylum seeker policy (Huffington Post) which is supported by its two leading political parties. 

The roughly 175,000 people living on the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, will “quite likely” be able to migrate to the United States, Connell said, under an international agreement they have with the U.S., which in return allows it to conduct military operations there.

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A fifth of the Marshallese population left between 1999 and 2011 (Marshall Islands Gov) under the Compact of Free Association agreement, which allows them to live and work in the United States without a visa. This is due to expire in 2023 (The Guardian), but given that the agreement allows the United States use of its Kwajalein Atoll missile test range base until 2066 with an option until 2086 (U.S. Government), it seems likely it will be extended.

However, for most of the Pacific Islands, “their countries are going to be gone,” Hawaii’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands Sam Lemmo said. “The only way we could theoretically keep global warming to two degrees centigrade is if we basically stopped burning oil now. That’s impossible.” Lemmo told WikiTribune Hawaii is trying to reduce the impact of sea level rise on the next generation but “we’re not going to stop it.” 

‘Their countries are going to be gone’ – Sam Lemmo

Dr Charles Fletcher, who was the chief scientist for Hawaii’s recent Sea Level Rise report, which Lemmo oversaw, told WikiTribune geo-engineering could be used to remove CO2, but “the promise of some technological solution is extremely weak.” It “has enormous risk of changing rainfall patterns, changing wind patterns, changing ocean circulation, and of course that could affect food growth, and drought.” He said “we are in a crisis” and that humanity needs to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions within the next 30 years.

University College London research associate Bayes Ahmed concluded that, based on current countries’ living standards and ecological footprint per person, Australia and the U.S. should each take 10 percent of global climate refugees, followed by Canada and Saudi Arabia with 9 percent each, South Korea at 7 percent and finally Russia, Germany and Japan 6 percent each.

Ahmed told WikiTribune that his soon-to-be published findings show that in Bangladesh, which is projected to be one of the worst affected areas, climate migrants already make up 30 percent of the population of its capital, Dhaka, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. He has visited and seen people forced to leave their villages as paddy fields become flooded with sea water, and too saline to grow food. By 2050 up to 25 million people will be affected by rising sea levels in Bangladesh alone (UNEP)

As part of the 2016 Paris Agreement, countries agreed to give $100 billion (€85bn) each year from 2020 to 2025 to help vulnerable nations adapt to climate change. However, Bayes described President Donald J. Trump announcing the United States would pull out of the Paris Agreement as “a real threat” to reaching this target. He also said he was not hopeful global sea level rise will be tackled before it creates millions of homeless and stateless people by the middle of this century.

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