What makes a “climate refugee?” There is no standard definition and no such a category of refugees currently exist under international law. But the fact is 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.

Two recent immigration court cases in New Zealand highlight how difficult it can be to untangle these issues under our existing frameworks.

In 2014, the New Zealand Immigration and Protection Tribunal granted legal status to Siego Alesana and his family. Originally from the small island nation of Tuvalu, which is only two meters above sea level and slowly receding into the ocean, the family made legal claims of being refugees, protected people, and claimed exceptional humanitarian grounds – all due to climate change. After years in court, the tribunal finally granted their stay on the third claim, specifically noting the harm climate change could have on their young children if returned to Tuvalu.

But this does not mean that New Zealand is open to environmental migrants. The following year the New Zealand high court ruled against Iaone Teitiota and his family, originally from the small island nation of Kiribati. Like Tuvalu, Kiribati is slowly disappearing into the Pacific. So dire is the situation in Kiribati that plans for mass migration of the entire population have been floated, with the country’s leaders seeing this as an inevitability if the people are to survive.

But his attempts to claim refugee status for himself and his family, including his three New Zealand-born children, failed because he could not prove persecution. The court went so far as conceding that Teitiota met the “sociological” definition of a refugee, but not the legal definition, and therefore could not be granted status in New Zealand. Him and his family were promptly deported back to Kiribati.

Climate change has become the major scientific topic of our times. But despite high profile international action to slow its progress, the political will to address its current impacts remains weak.

The area where this is most evident is with climate change or environmental migration, a noticeable trend in 2017 that is only bound to grow.

The term “climate change refugee” has become popular in the media in recent years but it is actually a misnomer. People compelled or forced to move due to changes in the local environment are not recognized or specifically protected under international law. In fact there is not even an agreed upon definition on how to categorize these types of migrants. The International Organization for Migration tried to address this in 2008 by releasing its working definition of “environmental migrants” but adoption of the definition into domestic and other international systems is lacking.

“Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.” – IOM working definition

A growing body of independent and government research acknowledges that environmental migration due to climate change is real —  but what to do about it is still disputed. Part of the problem is the varied ways environmental changes can lead to migration. Most research links climate change to warming oceans and more frequent severe weather, leading to natural disasters such as the 2010 floods in Pakistan that displaced 11 million people and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines that displaced 4 million people in 2013 with 1.9 million left homeless. In those cases migration is often temporary and domestic. But shifts in the environment due to climate change are not always so obvious or dramatic.

Changes in climate and local weather patterns can accelerate or compound existing problems or in some cases create new problems. Increased temperatures directly impacts the organic material in soil, increasing soil degradation and in some cases making soil more vulnerable to erosion. Rising sea levels threaten to completely submerge low lying coastal areas, but even before that happens also often contaminates fresh waters sources and increases soil salinity. Food staples grown for generations become unfeasible while crop yields fall. With enough degradation, it becomes virtually impossible to grow anything at all. Over time it is easy to see the connections, but none of this happens overnight.

So what do you do when your land simply won’t grow food anymore or, more dramatically, disappears altogether? What do you do when you haven’t reached this extreme point yet, but it is inevitable that this is what your future holds? How many hurricanes, floods, droughts and harsh winters do you and your family live through  – and the rebuilding that follows – before you just give up?

For most people facing these scenarios the only logical answer is to move. But whether that migration is within their own country or to another country abroad, governments remain ill-prepared to handle these migrants.

Why climate change migration is so difficult to address

The 2006 drought in Jowzjan province of northern Afghanistan made the land unfarmable. © UNHCR/V.Tan

Most climate change migration is domestic but inevitably some migrants will cross borders in search of better prospects. While refugees are protected under the international refugee convention and economic migrants are afforded some protections under the International Labour Organization, environmental migrants have no specific protections and governments have no agreed upon guidelines to follow.

Part of the reason why climate change migration is so difficult for the international community to grapple with is because it doesn’t fit the traditional framework of migration. Migration is often viewed in terms of “push” and “pull” factors. Refugees, forced out of their homes by violence they have no control over and at risk of death, are “pushed” into other countries while economic migrants are “pulled” to other countries by the prospect of better opportunities. The motivation for why someone migrates becomes the key determinant for how they are treated under the law. Someone who is “pushed” is generally given more protections as it s not fully under their control, while someone who is “pulled” is seen as making a voluntary choice.

But with environmental migration, it is difficult to say whether a person was “pushed” or “pulled” from their country.  It is easy to say that lack of food security and disappearing land “pushes” people from their homes, but neither one of these things are due to violent conflict or the risk of persecution, the things refugees and asylum seekers must prove. At the same time, it is easy to conclude that dwindling opportunities due to environmental changes “pulls” people to other countries, but this lack of opportunity is not within their control and can often be the only means for their continued survival.

These issues are not just theoretical, as the two cases in New Zealand demonstrate.  These two cases are likely just to be the first of many.

The Need for a New International Agreement on Climate Refugees

The age of environmental migration is upon us, and the world is woefully unprepared for it, both politically and legally. But whether countries are prepared for it, environmental migration is bound to only increase.

An estimated 10 percent of the world’s population lives in places less than 10 meters above sea level. Although developing countries face the biggest burden from climate change due to costs, the areas threaten range from Bangladesh and Nigeria to New York City and Washington, DC. While most of the focus on environmental migration is on small island nations and flood prone areas, the truth is this is a global problem threatening developed and developing countries alike.

As the international community focuses on ways to reduce emissions and slow the progress of climate change, the impacts it is having now need to be addressed. The first step would be to define this new phenomenon, but far more than that is needed. Until a truly international framework is adopted to address climate change migration, the people impacted by it are likely to be left adrift without a life boat.

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