CREDIT: <a href="">David Ringer</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: David Ringer (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Defining Environmental Migrants

Feb 11, 2010

The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea have been told that their ancestral homeland will likely be under water by 2015. This could make them some of the world's first climate refugees. As a result, many of the islanders are being relocated to neighboring Bougainville, but Bougainville itself has just emerged from a civil war, and finding land for the newcomers has not been easy.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there could be 200 million environmentally induced migrants by 2050. Rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion, and accelerated coastal erosion have been recorded across small island states from Tuvalu and Kiribati in the South Pacific to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

Environmental change has a multiplier effect on other drivers of migration, such as economic hardship and crop failure. Yet terms such as "environmental refugees" and "climate refugees" may cause more problems than they solve. Neither category has status under international law. In the case of small island nations, there is an additional obstacle: If a whole state becomes submerged or uninhabitable, and there is no prospect of return, temporary refuge will not be enough.

Internal displacement is the most likely [PDF] kind of migration brought on by global warming, yet even migration within a country can lead to tension if receiving areas are already suffering from environmental or economic duress, or political instability.

The Carteret Islanders who have relocated to Bougainville are finding it difficult to secure land [PDF] because more than 96 percent of Bougainville is governed by customary ownership—established by long usage and accepted as legitimate, but not always codified in a written land title.

"It's not like removing people from the north of Manhattan Island across to the South Bronx: the land tenure system is unique and traditionally based," said Robert Aisi, Papua New Guinea's Ambassador to the United Nations, in an interview with Policy Innovations. While the Catholic Church in Bougainville has offered up some of its land, additional landowners must still be consulted. "You are living on somebody else's land, you know? You are basically a second class citizen," said Aisi.

Existing UN guidelines for internally displaced persons (IDPs) arguably cover climate change-related displacement within a country, but there is no international framework for small island states whose entire population may need to be resettled abroad.

In the Maldives, President Mohamed Nasheed created a sovereign fund for the purchase of a new homeland for his country's 396,000 residents as a contingency plan for the worst-case scenario. On average the Maldives archipelago sits just 1.5 meters above sea level, while current projections for sea-level rise range up to two meters by 2100. Even a one-meter rise would inundate infrastructure and threaten living areas.

After his election in 2008, Nasheed spoke of possible relocation to countries such as India or Australia, yet it remains unclear whether he would be able to find and purchase a suitable plot of land for his people, and how they would integrate there.

For the moment, internal resettlement from smaller, less populated islands to larger islands within the country is likely to continue. The Maldives capital city, Male, is surrounded by a 3.5 meter sea wall that was funded by the Japanese government after floods in 1987. Yet it is also one of the most densely populated cities on earth, housing 35 percent of the country's population. Building a similar wall around the rest of the country would be cost prohibitive.

What options do the citizens of small island developing states and other vulnerable low-lying areas have if they are forced to relocate internationally? The existing international refugee regime defines refugees in terms of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, and social or political affiliation. International law has yet to address the nexus of climate change and international migration.

As Ambassador Aisi puts it, "The term 'refugee' implies that you are exiting your country for a little while and you will be back... but in this case they can't go back—there's nothing there. So what do they actually become?"

While some advocates have proposed the addition of environmental migration to the existing 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees [PDF], others are aiming for an entirely new protocol. As industrialized states already push for narrower interpretations of the Convention's existing provisions, renegotiating the Convention risks undermining the whole international refugee protection regime. Yet even a new global governance mechanism would require precise definitions of status.

Alexander de Sherbinin of Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network looks at the difficulties involved in separating migrants forced to move by climate change from those who move for more traditional reasons. The effects of climate can be hard to distinguish from political and economic conflicts, population growth, and man-made environmental degradation—all of which can in turn be exacerbated by a changing climate.

De Sherbinin prefers to use the term "environmental migrants," endorsed by the IOM, which allows for longer-term relocation, both forced and voluntary in nature. Indeed, the difficulty inherent in proving that sudden or cumulative environmental problems are caused by climate change per se warns against terms such as climate refugee, which could place too high a burden of proof on those who need to relocate.

Creating sustainable resettlement schemes, developing effective integration policies, and managing permanent migration will require countries to set target populations for these policies. The United States Temporary Protected Status, enacted in 1990, is a step in this direction as it provides a safe haven for those not recognized as legal refugees in the event of environmental disaster. This was recently invoked for Haitian immigrants already in the United States when the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince on January 12.

Nonetheless, a mechanism for more permanent migrants and without such an arbitrary activation policy is badly needed. Sweden's Alien Act provides an example with its inclusion of individuals who are "unable to return to the country of origin because of an environmental disaster," on the condition that relocation to a safe area in the home state is not possible. They are labeled as "persons otherwise in need of protection."

As the world attempts to solve the growth in climate migrants and refugees, accurate and legally justifiable definitions will be a crucial first step.

[CORRECTION: This article originally stated that sea-level rise by 2100 could range up to three meters, while more conventional estimates of the worst-case maximum top out around two meters.]

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