World, Life, Environment

Climate refugees: Forgotten migrants in environment (2)

Neither terminology nor legal framework available to govern climate refugees, says expert

Burak Bir   | 25.10.2019
Climate refugees: Forgotten migrants in environment (2)


The developed countries of the West are afraid of "climate refugees," although they are the most responsible ones creating problems that cause environmental migration, according to head of a human rights program.

"Those in the global North as major emitters are especially afraid that they will be required to take more climate refugees as they shoulder a greater responsibility in creating the problem," Sumudu Atapattu, executive director of Madison Human Rights Program at University of Wisconsin (UW), said.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, as part of its "Climate Refugees: Forgotten migrants of environment" feature series, she said the immigration laws of most states are planned to keep climate refugees out, which is a highly political issue.

Talking on the legal aspect of the issue, Atapattu, also an academic at UW Law School, said that climate refugees or environmental migrants are "entitled to the minimum protection accorded under international human rights law".

"They [climate refugees or environmental migrants] do not have the right of entry to other states unless they also fall into the recognized categories like persecution," she added.

'No place for climate refugees'

Atapattu stressed that neither climate refugees, nor environmental migrants and environmentally displaced people are legal persons, as part of international law.

Referring to the undefined status of climate refugees in comparison with other migrants, she highlighted that there is no grounded terminology: "There is neither terminology nor legal framework to govern those who cross an international border due to consequences related to climate change".

On the lack of legal arrangements, she mentioned the Geneva Convention on Refugees which is the only legal framework for those who migrate to another country: "Currently, the only legal framework that govern people who seek refuge in another country is the Geneva Convention on Refugees and since one has to establish persecution, it cannot apply to climate refugees".

She also referred to the Nansen framework, which govern the displaced people: "Those who are internally displaced will be governed by the UN Guiding Principles on internal displacement but international law is not implicated as they have not crossed an international border. The Nansen framework seeks to govern those who are displaced across borders due to disasters. But there is no recourse to those who will be displaced due to reasons other than disasters".

Even the Task Force on Climate Displacement report, established by the Paris Agreement, refers to migration and human mobility in relation to climate change with no grounded terminology, she added.

'UN needs to be reformed'

Referring to the gap for the climate refugees who are affected by climate related disasters or problems in international law, she recommended reforming of the UN.

"UN does need to be reformed but I don’t see that happening any time soon. It is a hugely political issue as well," she said, adding that the difficulties of the reform due to the existing system that in order to change the UN Charter, one needs the synchronous vote of the five permanent countries, "which is unlikely to happen if that means restricting their powers".

On the legal status of industrial companies some of which lead to environmental migration with their harmful activities to environment and people's health, she said that those are not held responsible internationally.

"Companies are not legal persons under international law so if companies are to be held accountable, it has be done at the national level," she said by mentioning that this is another highly problematic issue.

Atapattu added that parent companies are not usually held responsible for activities of their subsidiaries which are separate legal entities, so it is unlikely to hold them responsible by a harder approach although there have been some soft attempts such as "adopt codes of conduct".

As for the solution, she recommended urgent recognition of refugee status of those affected by environmental disasters and the right of their legal protection abroad.

Climate refugees: Forgotten migrants in environment 

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