It was not until the late 2000s that environmental migration and displacement stepped into climate change negotiations. Now that they have however, are the EU and UN doing enough to deal with this growing issue?

The Legacy of 20th Century History

Climate change is here to stay, but what about “climate refugees”?

The United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been voicing concern for the increasingly widespread use of this term. Indeed, not without reason. There is no reference to either climate or environmental refugees in international refugee law. The landmark 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the ‘Refugee Convention’) and its 1967 Protocol do not cover the status of individuals who have been displaced by climate change or other environmental challenges. In the Refugee Convention, the status of refugee was attentively tailored down on the ground of historical facts occurred before 1951 since the definition dwells on “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”, as provided for by Article 1(A)(2).

It is safe to contend that the very concept of ‘refugee’ is a legacy of 20th century aberrations and consequent raise of conscience, whilst at that time environmental causes of displacement appeared to be sporadic and unpredictable. Although science has convincingly showed the nexus between environmental challenges and migration, forcibly displaced people for environmental reasons are not dubbed environmental refugees, but rather environmental migrants. According to the International Organization for Migration:

“Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to have to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their territory or abroad”.

Even if the Refugee Convention proves silent on the environmental causes of forcible displacement, the international community is called upon to respond to this new phenomenon with effective instruments. If not refugee law, which branch of law can shield environmental migrants? The latter would ideally be able to find legal safeguards in human rights and international humanitarian law. In addition, persons displaced within their own country would be guarded by provisions laid out in the 1998 “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement”. Yet plenty of questions loom on the horizon. Environmental migrants are too difficult to flesh out an entity, being so ‘intangible’ and ‘vague’ that environmental treaties negotiations have not seriously tackled the issue, albeit with some notable exceptions.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is considered one of the most striking exceptions towards the progressive recognition of environmental migration. This much-needed awareness comes at a time when the most engaged Signatory Parties to the UNFCCC and related Kyoto Protocol, namely the European Union and its Member States, are faced with new waves of migration from countries plagued with conflict, dictatorship, and environmental challenges.

For the purpose of this article, I would consider a specific category of environmental migrants, namely climate change displaced persons (CCDPs).

Climate Change Migrants: Between Science and International Politics

Empirical studies on the nexus between climate change and migration came to the forefront of the public debate especially in the 90s[i] and became mainstream in the 2000s[ii]. It was not until the late 2000s that migration and displacement stepped into climate change negotiations. Two elements account for this regained awareness of the “human” face of climate change: 1) reliable data from research institutions, especially at the European Commission-sponsored Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios Project (EACH-FOR) and 2) awareness raised by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Climate, which is supported by the UN General Assembly.

Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has constantly mentioned environmentally induced migration since its first assessment report in 1990, migration came to be referred to in the context of the UNFCCC for the first time at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 13 in Bali in 2008 (more precisely in the Assembly Text). Moreover, the Bali Road Map entrusted the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) with the task of discussing climate-induced migration. Notwithstanding its consideration in both the 2009 Copenhagen COP15 and the Tianjin session of the AWG-LCA, adaptation to climate change-induced migration was only tackled by way of an international law binding instruments for the first time at the 2010 Cancun COP16.

The topic came to be brought to the floor at the Cancun Adaptation Framework, paragraph 14(f), which invites “all Parties to enhance action on adaptation under the Cancun Adaptation Framework…by undertaking, inter alia…measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate, at national, regional and international levels”. Moreover, in the framework of the Cancun Agreement, the COP16 established a National Adaptation plan (NAP) process, a package on technology cooperation, and other valuable initiatives.

Cancun COP16 has raised expectations on the capability of the UNFCCC forum to address climate change and displacement, yet it appears unrealistic that the Cancun Adaptation Framework itself will implement the full array of these measures. The following paragraphs are moulded on the very wording of the Cancun Adaptation Framework, namely on measures tackling climate induced displacement at national, regional and international level with reference to a specific country, Eritrea.

A Focus on Eritrea

Eritrea might be a valuable example to show that the Cancun Adaptation Framework has not been sufficiently implemented. Indeed, the Eritrea-Italy trajectory of migration is particularly suitable as a focus of inquiry since 9,834 Eritrean migrants landed in Italy alone in 2013. What is more, roughly 300 Eritrean migrants were shipwrecked and died in October 2013 next to the Italian shores of Lampedusa.

There any many reasons people migrate from Eritrea, but there are two broad categories: human rights violations and environmental challenges. We will tackle the latter and assess whether the Cancun Adaptation Framework has come into place to decrease environmental migration of Eritrean people to Italy in recent years.

At the national level, Italy is not committed to adaptation projects with the aim of helping Eritrea adapt to climate change and prevent migration.

At the regional level, in 2009 the European Commission earmarked 36 million euros to support food security in Eritrea by way of a seven-year EuropeAid programme in the agricultural sector. However, the European Union seems to have fallen short of providing a full range of adaptation plans through development aid towards Eritrea. In fact, the EU appears to be more committed to adaptation plans to be developed in less problematic countries, such as Namibia and Djibouti, which is surprising since no large groups of climate migrants are reported to come to Europe from these countries.

At the international level, what appears to be particularly effective in tackling the Eritrean tragedy is a specific program, which was started by the UNFCCC Adaptation Fund within an integrated water management and agricultural development approach in order to increase the availability of water, and promote climate-resilient technologies. Though a rare event, the international community is to be acknowledged as the only actor tackling the climate challenges of Eritrean people in an effective way.

Towards COP21

The UNFCCC is surely one of the highest-profile UN fora, especially for vulnerable countries. Yet what is lacking in the political debate run-up to the next step of the UNFCCC negotiations – namely the Paris COP21, is a focus on climate-induced migration, especially from Eastern Africa towards Europe. Despite its outstanding performance on climate change mitigation all across its territory, the European Union shows a still faltering commitment when it comes to adaptation plans that might tackle both climate change and migration issues.

During the negotiations leading to the COP21 final document, the EU should advocate for enhanced commitment on specific adaptation programs in vulnerable countries. Still, environmental migrants are here to stay, and rightly so. In this regard, the EU may endorse the proposal for a new binding multilateral instrument aimed at tailoring down and protecting the status of climate-induced migrants.

All in all, the European Union is vested with legitimacy and knowledge to persuasively bring climate migration issues to the COP21 forum. Is there enough political will to do this?



[i]  See D. Massey, W. Axinn and D. Ghimire, 1997

[ii] See D. Kniveton et al., 2008; J. Jäger, J. Frühmann, S. Grünberger, A. Vag, 2009; F. Laczko and C. Aghazarm, 2009

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