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Who are Climate Refugees?

Updated: Mar 4

Butterflies aloft at the US-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona. Photo Credit: Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus

The World Bank predicts that by 2050, there may be at least 143 million people displaced by climate change-related events, and 2 billion by the end of the century.

After World War II, the United Nations (UN) was created and established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

In 1951, the UN adopted a “Refugee Convention,” and a follow-up Protocol in 1967, rooted in the declaration of human rights. The refugee convention established the basis for how “refugee” is defined in international law today: a person who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

But there are limits to the definition of “refugee” in international law. For example, how is “persecution” defined?

The Refugee Convention defines this narrowly, in political terms. People displaced by economic factors (such as poverty) or environmental disasters do not fall under this definition. However, political circumstances (such as histories of colonialism, war, and oppressive governments) are often inter-related with economic and environmental conditions.

The Refugee Convention also defines a “refugee” as someone outside of their country of origin. But a majority of people displaced by climate change-related events are displaced, at least at first, within their own countries.

The concept of “climate refugee” is difficult to define, because the wide-ranging impacts of climate change are hard to measure and predict. Although the UN recognizes the reality of climate change-related displacement, there are currently no protections for “climate refugees” under international law.

To make matters more complicated, not everyone likes the term “Climate Refugee.”

Those who like this term argue that it expands the current definition of “refugee” to demand rights for more people, and that it is more inclusive of all the factors that cause people to leave their homes--political, economic, and environmental--and how those factors often work together.

Those who dislike this term say that it makes people seem to be powerless victims of climate change, that it is a label often applied by outsiders, and that it assumes an “adaptation” response to climate change--meaning, an acceptance that relocating people is a solution rather than people obtaining justice on lands that are their home and that they do not want to leave.

What do you think? Who are “Climate Refugees”?

Could “climate refugees” be:

People displaced by immediate environmental factors, such as a hurricane event? Or by slower-moving trends, such as recurring droughts and poor crop returns, or rising sea levels?

People displaced outside of, or within their own countries, regions, or even towns?

People who have been colonized or historically left out of the wealth of the developing world, but who face some of climate change’s heaviest impacts?

Indigenous peoples and communities who have lost their land or who are fighting to protect their land from the interests of oil, mining, tourism, and other extractive industries?

Migrants who face harsh environmental conditions and environmental racism on their journeys or after resettlement?

Anyone who identifies themselves as such?

Here, we invite storytellers and audiences to debate and define “climate refugees” for themselves.

And we ask, “What does it take to move from a world rooted in violence, extraction, and domination to a world rooted in regeneration, resilience, and interdependence?