Climate Change and Human Rights: Climate Change and Refugees

By Serena Parekh - 23 November 2015
Climate Change and Human Rights: Climate Change and Refugees

This column by Serena Parekh is part of Global Policy’s e-book, ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: The 2015 Paris Conference and the Task of Protecting People on a Warming Planet’, edited by Marcello Di Paola and Daanika Kamal. Contributions from academics and practitioners will be serialised on Global Policy until the e-book’s release in November 2015. Find out more here or join the debate on Twitter using #GPclimatechange.

What will climate change’s impact be on human displacement? I would like to suggest that we consider two aspects. First, there is a widely shared consensus that climate change will create new displaced populations and exacerbate existing displacements (estimates indicate anywhere between 50 and 200 million people moving internally or across borders). We must therefore take seriously the effects of climate change on the ability of human beings to create and sustain forms of political belonging. Second, I propose that rather than being simply reactive and looking for solutions after the fact, we instead treat human displacements as a foreseeable and predictable outcome of both climate change itself and the political-economic stresses climate change puts on otherwise stable human populations. Below I briefly review the first aspect, and elaborate some arguments for the second.

It is important to recall the difference between a refugee and an economic migrant, as well as current international legal obligations. According to the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1968 Protocol, the two legal instruments that define refugees and the international legal obligations to them, a refugee is anyone who has crossed the border of their home country because they are fleeing persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Though this definition, strictly speaking, does not include people fleeing violence, civil war, or natural disasters, many states will recognize such people on an ad hoc basis. The most widely agreed upon norm to emerge from these documents is the norm of non-refoulement – a state cannot send any individual who has a “well-founded fear” of persecution back in her home country. While this is a right that is claimed by many asylum seekers – those already on the territory of the country they are claiming refugee status in – it has little bearing on those who remain trapped in refugee camps or urban spaces close to (or within, as in the case of internally displaced people) their home countries.

There are at least three ways in which climate change can produce refugees. The most self-evident case of climate refugees are those who have lost access to the territory of their state due to rising water levels or other changes in the natural environment, which can be traced back to climate change. Second, many predict that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters that will force people to leave their homes, either temporarily or permanently. Third, and more indirectly, climate change will contribute to situations of political conflict that will result in populations leaving their home countries to seek safety and security. Many predict that climate change will make natural resources such as land and water more scarce, and this scarcity – actual or perceived – will motivate conflicts over who has control over these commodities. Indeed, as Timothy Snyder has recently argued in the New York Times, even the Holocaust can be understood, at least in part, as driven by a belief that Germany needed more land and food in order to survive. Anxieties about food availability and maintaining standards of living are likely to fuel conflicts, civil war and other violent situations, which have produced some of the greatest human displacements in recent decades. It is likely that climate change will negatively contribute to almost all situations of conflict that produce refugees.

Under international law, there are no global norms that require states to resettle refugees, or even to fund NGOs and states that host refugees. All aid to, and resettlement of refugees is by and large considered an act of generosity, and not the fulfilment of any moral or legal norms. As a result, less than 1% of refugees are resettled, and refugee humanitarian organizations (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, being the largest) are chronically underfunded. In short, the current refugee protection arrangement is conceptually feeble (as it fails to recognize most of the sources that have produced refugees in the 20th and 21st centuries), politically and legally weak, and financially fragile. All of this will be compounded by climate change.

Given that the international community has, for the most part, failed to find durable solutions for refugees and stateless people produced by political conflict, how should the international community prepare for refugees produced by or through climate change? In order to answer this question, I argue that we ought to abandon two assumptions that implicitly underlie the contemporary treatment of refugees: that human displacement is exceptional (rather than being a foreseeable and predictable outcome of globalization and other related phenomena including climate change) and short-term (when on average people are displaced for 17 years and often longer). Once we abandon these two assumptions, the reasons for supporting my suggestions below become clear.

Though this is of course politically challenging, the international community must recognize that the human displacement that will result from climate change is not a problem that can be solved by different countries unilaterally deciding to take in a certain number of refugees, any more than climate change can be solved by different states making small changes to their environmental policies. Like climate change, the scale and severity of the problem can only be addressed by concerted international effort.

First, the international community must come together to devise a global plan of resettlement based on a shared sense of our moral responsibilities to the displaced. Climate change assures us that mass displacement and migration will be the norm, not the exception; it must be seen as a normal and predictable feature of the future global political landscape. The high numbers of people who are forced to live outside their homes, coupled with the long duration of these displacements, maintains the need for a global response. Currently, aid to refugees, either in the form of resettlement or funding to the UNHCR, is strictly voluntary; and states, for their part, have to balance their desire to help the displaced with concerns around national security (and often xenophobia) that limit their ability to provide aid. As a result, while some states end up doing a lot in terms of hosting displaced populations, and others relatively little, refugees end up failing to receive either the sufficient short-term help they need to survive or, in the long-term, a genuine political solution. To see the difficulty with relying on unilateral action by states, we need only consider the current debate around resettling Syrian refugees. Even if Europe, the United States and Canada were to resettle the highest number of refugees proposed, the vast majority of Syrians fleeing civil war would remain in camps and urban spaces in the countries surrounding Syria. It’s worth mentioning that life in refugee camps in Jordan have gotten so bad that Syrians are now preferring to return home and live in the middle of the extreme violence caused by civil war rather than remain in the camps.

Second, we need a set of ethical and legal norms for the treatment of refugees immediately following their displacement. Squalid refugee camps, detention centres, and extreme vulnerability are the norm for those who find themselves displaced. Because mass displacement is seen as exceptional and short term, this treatment is implicitly justified as the best response to the circumstances. Yet, once we abandon the idea that human displacement is short-term, abnormal and not something that can be anticipated, we can see that this treatment of the displaced – in terrible camps with the denial of basic human rights or with limited access to food, medicine, and protection in urban spaces – ought to be rejected as morally unacceptable. The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out norms for how refugees must be treated by host states – refugees have the right to work and to freedom of movement, and states must protect refugees on their territory while providing the same level of treatment as they do to other categories of aliens – yet these norms are routinely ignored and violated by the present system. Given the difficulty of attaining a durable solution like resettlement or repatriation, especially when people have fled due to climate change, developing a robust set of moral and legal norms concerning the adequate treatment of human beings while they are between their old homes and new ones is of utmost importance.

In short, the international community must prepare for a world in which mass human displacement is the norm, by developing robust legal principles based on moral norms. The scale and severity of human displacement that is likely to result from climate change can only be addressed by collective action and a concerted international effort.

Serena Parekh is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Northeastern University. Her primary research interests are in social and political philosophy, feminist theory, continental philosophy, and the philosophy of human rights. Her recent publications include: “Hannah Arendt and Global Justice.” in Philosophy Compass (forthcoming); "Between Community and Humanity: Arendt, Judgment and Responsibility to the Global Poor.” in Philosophical Topics (2013); "Does Ordinary Injustice Make Extraordinary Injustice Possible? Gender, Structural Injustice and the Ethics of Refugee Determination.” in the Journal of Global Ethics (2012); and Hannah Arendt and the Challenge of Modernity: A Phenomenology of Human Rights.

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