Copyright © 2021 - Ex Gratia Law Journal

Climate Refugees- The Refugees Our World Seldom pays Attention to


The crisis caused by Climate change has reached a defining moment in our times due to the lack of feasible solutions for the future to come. The earth has gone through a lot of changes in recent time especially on account of changes in the climate pattern. These changes have increased natural calamities like desertification, sea level rise and disturbed weather patterns which aren’t just abnormal, but compromise our secure livelihood resulting in climate refugees.[1] At instances like these which require immediate solution, these refugees may migrate to another country, or within their own country.

In this article, the authors briefly address the neglected segment of refugees known as the “climate refugees” along with their legal status and some suggestions to overcome the lacunae currently present in The Refugees Convention of 1951.[2]

Who are Climate Refugees?

If all the Arctic ice were to melt, the sea level would rise by about 21 feet (6.5 meters), and that water would end up submerging 80 percent of the cities in the world.[3] Rising temperatures and sea levels and other catastrophic effects of global warming are not just the high notes of future troubles but are a reality today. Climate change isn’t just about the environmental changes, though its effects touch each and every part of our lives right from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we reside.

Where would you go if a flood hit the city you live in? Millions of people around the world have been forced to move to other places due to such a sudden crisis caused by these natural calamities. These people are climate refugees, also known by a plethora of other names, such as environmental refugees, eco-migrants, environmental migrants and environmental deportee.

The Genesis of Climate refugees:

It is a herculean task to pin down the first reference to climate refugees. In 1958, they were called “primitive migrants.” If somebody told us a 100 years back, that there will come a time when the people of this earth would be forced to flee their country owing to climate changes or ecological conditions, we would’ve brushed it off. But fast forward to the present, this has indeed become the vérité.

Under the 1951  Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. Thus, climate refugees do not fall under the tenor of this definition.

Climate refugees have been left invisible for many years on the migration and climate debates. As of 2017, there was no customary definition of what climate refugees are described in international law. But the term “environmental refugee” was first proposed by Lester Brown in 1976 in The International Organization for Migration (IOM). However, an article in the UN Dispatch noted that “people who have been uprooted because of climate change exist all over the world, even if the international community has been slow to recognize them as such.”[4] Experts have also opined that due to the difficulty of rewriting the UN’s 1951 convention on refugees, it may be preferable to treat these refugees as “environmental migrants.”

Thus, it’s concluded that climate refugees are a subset under environmental refugees who migrate places due to emerging environmental issues. We can no longer be oblivious to their plight as it will only exacerbate it.

The lacunae in the Refugee Convention of 1951:

As gradually deteriorating climate patterns and, even more so, severe weather events, prompt an increase in human mobility, people who choose to move will do so with little legal protection. The current system of International law is not well equipped to protect and safeguard climate refugees, as there are no legally binding agreements that oblige countries to support climate refugees. While climate migrants who flee unbearable climate conditions resemble refugees, the legal remedies and protection offered to refugees sadly do not extend to them.

The UNHCR has thus far abstained from granting these people refugee status, instead designating them as “environmental migrants,” in large part because it lacks the means to address their needs. But with no organized effort to supervise the migrant population, these helpless individuals go where they can, not necessarily where they should. As their numbers grow, it will become increasingly difficult for the international community to ignore this challenge. As severe climate change displaces more people, the international community may be forced to either redefine “refugees” to include climate migrants or create a new legal category and accompanying institutional framework to protect climate migrants. However, opening that debate in the current political context would be fraught with difficulty.

Who are facing these problems?

South Asian populations are particularly vulnerable to slow-onset and rapid-onset disasters related to natural hazards and climate change. According to the World Migration Report (2020), at the end of 2018, there were a total of 28 million new internal displacements across 148 countries and territories. “61% (17.2 million) of these new displacements were triggered by disasters, and 39% (10.8 million) were caused by conflict and violence.”

Have their rights been duly sought?

In a ground-breaking asylum case, Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand,[5] Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati native, applied for asylum in New Zealand on the grounds that he was unable to grow food or find potable water in Kiribati. The courts rejected the case and Teitiota and his family were deported as he could not prove the existence of persecution .The court conceded that Teitiota met a “sociological” definition of a refugee, but not a legal one.[6] On an appeal by Mr. Tetiota, the UN human rights body also ruled that the deportation had not been unlawful because Mr. Tetiota didn’t face an immediate danger to his life in Kiribati. However, it recognised that climate change represented a serious threat to the right to life and therefore decision-makers need to take this into account when examining challenges to deportation.   

Deportation of Climate refugees is also viewed as a serious violation of Article 6(1)[7] of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights when these climate refugees are denied the right to seek asylum and residence in other countries due to rising environmental issues. It is every nation’s duty to protect everyone seeking asylum under them.

UNHCR also plays a leading role in the Global Protection Cluster for protecting and assisting people who are forcibly displaced inside their countries and cannot return safely home by providing concrete support for registration, documentation, family reunification and the provision of shelter, basic hygiene and nutrition. It is the world’s most endangered people who are made to bear the distress of climate change, though they are the least responsible for causing it, and are ill-equipped to deal with the aftermath. With climate change intensifying, international humanitarian agencies are overwhelmed and lack the necessary funding required to provide the necessary. A classic example is The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals commitment to “leave no one behind” is failing. It’s time to prioritize climate-induced humanitarian problems and assemble a full range of resources and equipment to tackle the issue at the earliest.


In the authors’ view, though refugee rights have been partially rendered to these people living on the front-line of climate change, their issues are not solved and a full redressal seeking mechanism is yet to be established. All states are obliged to fulfil their human rights duty to protect people from the harmful repercussions of climate catastrophe, including displacement. The ultimatum of climate change and environmental degradation are becoming palpable that in the near future we can estimate millions of people becoming prey to its outcome which is likely to deprive the people of their life and livelihood. Merely reducing the issue of migration due to climate change to the status of “climate refugees” has failed to address main key aspects that define human mobility in the context of climate and environmental degradation.

[1] UN Secretary General’s remark on Climate change- Delivered on September 10, 2018.

[2]The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention or the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951, is a United Nations multilateral treaty that defines who a refugee is, and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum.

[3] National Geographic magazine- September 2013 issue.

[4]Kimberly Curtis, “Climate Refugees”-Explained, UN DISPATCH, (Apr. 24, 2017),


[6] Kayla Walsh, Kiribati Prepares for “Migration with Dignity” to Confront the Ravages of Climate Change, THE WIRE (Jul.15, 2017),

[7] Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

Cite this article (The Bluebook 20th ed.)-

Soundarya Mathavan and Rachel Florence J., Climate Refugees- The Refugees Our World Seldom pays Attention to, Ex Gratia Law Journal, (October 1, 2020),

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Soundarya Mathavan
Student - School of Excellence in Law, The Tamil Nadu Dr. Ambedkar Law University.
Rachel Florence J.
Student - School of Excellence in Law, The Tamil Nadu Dr. Ambedkar Law University.