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‘Climate Change Refugee’: A misnomer?


Mostafa Mahmud Naser*

While the term “environmental refugee” has been floating since 1970 to identify the people displaced for environmental reasons; with the increasing certainty of global warming, the more precise term “climate refugee” has become a staple of popular discourse in recent years. In 2007, the link of climate change to “large-scale migration” became even part of the rationale for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize. Many academics, NGOs and noted personalities frequently use the catchy term “climate refugee.” Barak Obama in his remarks at United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s Climate Change Summit on September 22, 2009 used the term “climate refugee.”

By the same token, academics, government officials, policy makers and NGOs in Bangladesh popularly coin the term “climate refugee” to generally mean “people displaced for environmental degradation as a result of climate change” without any corresponding reference. Given the existing international law on refugees, it is debatable whether the people forced to migrate as a consequence of environmental degradation should be described as “refugees.”

The debate circles around the concern with ascertaining whether a particular individual displaced for environmental reasons fits the definition of “refugee” under 1951 Refugee Convention. The term “refugee” has a precise meaning in international law. A refugee is currently defined in the Refugee Convention as someone who holds a “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; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable, or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Clearly, someone who flees due to environmental reasons or does not cross an international border is not treated as “refugee” in strict sense. Generally, the “movement for environmental reasons” is not considered as “persecution” required characteristic to get a refugee status. Moreover, the distinction between refugees and internally displaced persons is a fundamental and integral characteristic of traditional refugee law. The concept of “refugee status” under the Refugee Convention is predicated on being outside and unable to return to the country of habitation.

However, some commentators argue that they are implicitly included under the Convention’s refugee definition and, thus can avail themselves of the Convention’s protection. Such argument, though, carries some academic merit and bears the impression of ensuring international protection for them; ultimately making the situation complex and leaving a large number of people unprotected. Those who propose to use the term “climate refugee” seem to be less concerned with issue of protection and more with the social and political implications of it. Indeed, the term “refugee” has “strong moral connotations of societal protection in most world cultures and religions.” It evokes a sense of global responsibility and accountability, as well as a sense of legitimacy and urgency it deserves for impending disasters. There is also no justifiable reason that the term “refugee” should be reserved for only those who, being persecuted for certain political reasons, crossed an international border and sought refuge to another country different from his country of origin; and cannot be used for people who are also facing similar grim consequences.

However, the application of the term “refugee” with climate change induced displaced people is likely to raise many legal and extra legal complexities. Given the narrow applicability of the Refugee Convention intended by the parties, it is hardly convincing that the climate change migrants are protected under existing refugee regime. The term “refugee” has been vigorously criticised by some scholars as “unhelpful, unsound, controversial;” “deeply problematic” and “legally meaningless” — having no practical value. To them, defining the term as “climate change refugees” does not appear to serve any purpose other than raising the profile of the issue, and it does not create new international legal regimes. While most of the people displaced because of climate change in Bangladesh are likely to be internal, the attempt to categorise those people as “refugee” bears the risk of leaving large number of people unprotected under international law. So, using a non-legal definition might create unnecessary confusion and undermine the necessary protection of this emergent migrant group.

*The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Law, University of Chittagong.

Published in The Daily Star on 20th March 2012.




  1. Farzana Hoque says:

    yes , Its a great challange for our country to manage these climate refugee who are not include UNHCR definition of refugee.
    thank u for this article.

  2. Fayjus Salehin says:

    It is difficult for us to define the term ‘climate refugee’ as far as Bangladesh is concerned. River erosion is a common scenario here in Bangladesh. It has been happening for a long time and it is an incessant process. Dislocation is also happening from long time. So, how we will be measuring that current displacement is the consequence of climate change. If there would be no climate change and climate would behave normally, there must be occurring river erosion, as we are a nation of downstream. Cyclone, Storm surge, flooding are also common phenomena in Bangladesh. It happened, happening and will be happening in future as well. For this reason, we cannot define whether they are the victim of climate change or not.

  3. Shahzada Mohiuddin says:

    World Bank’s study on “the impact of Sea level rise in Bangladesh” 2009 reveals that, “15 to 17 percent land areas i.e. 22135 to 26562 square kilometers will be inundated within next 100 years by 100 cm sea level rise, which will make 20 million people environmental refugee and a country like Bangladesh may will not be able to accommodate such huge uprooted people”.

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