Climate change refugees: rights and responsibilities

By Annegret Kapp
May 11, 2010

The international tug-of-war over carbon emission thresholds and other instruments meant to limit the deterioration of the earth's climate has caused a big stir in recent months, but yielded little results. Therefore the international community must now get ready to take care of those who will be forced from their homes by climate change.

As the global climate changes, millions of people will be uprooted by sea-level rise, extreme weather events, droughts and water scarcity. While many players – ranging from development consultants to security pundits – have incorporated this fact into their rhetoric, the international community so far has done little to protect the rights of "climate refugees".

When it comes to climate change induced migration "everybody jumps the bandwagon and waves their own agenda" said Prof. Dr Frank Biermann, an expert in global environmental governance, in a keynote presentation at a recent conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

Even environmentalists have gratefully used the fact that some Pacific islands are likely to be submerged by the end of the 21st century in order to stress the urgency of the problem, the professor says: "To them Tuvalu is a canary in the mine."

"In order to put the rights of these vulnerable populations on the agenda of the international community we must build bridges between academia, civil society organisations, governments and churches working on the issue of climate change," Dr Guillermo Kerber, World Council of Churches (WCC) programme executive on climate change, explained. That was the purpose of the 3-4 May 2010 conference organised by the WCC, the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) and the Protestant German development agency, Bread for the World.

"I am mindful of the enormous work that needs to be achieved in order to create a language that will be heard in the corridors of power," PCC climate change campaigns officer Peter Emberson said at the opening of the meeting, "but I have come here with prayerful hope."

Refugees, migrants and displaced people

Finding the right words to describe those people who will be forced to leave their homeland due to deteriorating climatic conditions is the first difficulty on the road towards a protection that would be enshrined in international law.

United Nations terminology makes fine distinctions between migrants, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), depending on the hows and whys of their displacement: did they cross international borders? Were they the target of persecution? How immediate was the threat to their lives and their human rights?

"We call them climate refugees because they seek refuge. This is the best term that will convey the urgency of the issue," said Saudia Anwer, coordinator for prevention and awareness-raising of the Network on Climate Change Bangladesh. Her presentation on the effects climate change has on her country illustrated the need to see the link between displacement within and across a country's borders, as well as between forced and voluntary migration.

Pointing to a picture of people who had to flee from their homes in Bangladesh's coastal belt, she explained: "Suddenly water came into the village of these people and forced them to leave."

Already now, similar scenes are seen in Bangladesh every year, but they affect more and more people, Anwer added: "It is not possible for our country to rehabilitate all people who will be forced to migrate."

A strong moral and legal claim

A specific regime is needed for the people uprooted by climate change, according to environmental policy expert Frank Biermann.

Those affected share a number of characteristics which set them apart from the political refugees and economic migrants that the world has seen in the past: "climate refugees" will not be able to return to their homelands after a temporary asylum. They are likely to migrate in large numbers, collectively and relatively predictably.

And, most importantly, they have a strong moral and legal claim against the international community, since the world's richest nations have done most to cause their problems.

That is why Biermann considers that "a new legal instrument specifically tailored for the needs of climate refugees" needs to be created "as well as a separate funding mechanism". A protocol to the existing United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) could be such an instrument.

"Resettlement is already taking place in the Pacific," said PCC officer Peter Emberson. As an example he cited the Carteret islanders whose evacuation was decided by the Papua New Guinean government in 2003.

The ongoing 14-step relocation process put in place for them is comprehensive, Emberson said, but could be improved with regard to psycho-social accompaniment for those displaced as well as for the host communities in Bougainville, their new home.

The PCC emphasises the need to involve those affected in the decision making – an opinion that is shared by Dr Jeanette Schade, a researcher with the Bielefeld Centre on Migration, Citizenship and Development.

She presented a case study on Mozambique, where the government resettled thousands of families from flood-prone areas to higher lying settlements. The move was combined with an ambitious plan to improve people's lives by providing better housing, schools and sanitation.

However, studies conducted in 2008 found that many had returned to live in the more fertile valley. Local knowledge on the needs of the people and the best places for resettlement had not been taken into account, Schade explains.

These, and other lessons on how to protect the rights of climate refugees, will need to be learned by the international community – and quickly. Judging by the lack of action on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, politicians will need some pushing before they get down to the job.


(c) Annegret Kapp, World Council of Churches web editor, is a member of the Evangelical Church in Württemberg, Germany.

Listen to interviews with Peter Emberson and Prof Dr Frank Biermann -

WCC work on climate change -

WCC work on migration and social justice -

Also on Ekklesia:Migration: Why a broader view is needed, by Vaughan Jones -

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