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Climate Change Migration and Environmental Refugees

Paper Type: Free Assignment Study Level: University / Undergraduate
Wordcount: 2961 words Published: 24th Apr 2019

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Climate Change Migration or Climate Change Refugee?

“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” —Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14

According to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, “a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her own country because of persecution, war, or violence” (USA for UNHCR, 2017). This convention promotes human rights, and asserts that refugees are provided with temporary assistance for needy families, access to the courts, to education, to work, and the supplying for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR], n.d.). However, the term “climate refugee” is considered misleading as the current international law does not provide climate migrants with any kinds of support and rights to cross the border of another country (Neuteleers, 2011). It is actually a rational decision that the refugee law and most governments suggest that climate change refugee should not be recognized under the 1951 Refugee Convention for the following reasons: the number of climate change refugees are huge, governments want to solve the problem instead of running away from it, and having additional refugees in the countries that cause the most problems for climate change will lead to a negative feedback loop. However, while some would argue that climate change migrants should not be considered refugees, I am going to focus on arguing the reasons why people are disagreeing with the convention as it is crucial that countries with safe territories accept people who are forced to flee their homes because of climate change and consider them to be refugees. One key reason for that is because the convention is outdated. Additionally, leaving people to die is an abuse of human rights, and not accepting them could be a fuse for conflicts between countries.

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Context on Climate Change and Immigration

Before starting to introduce the intensive arguments, here is some background information regarding the law and climate change refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention states that a refugee should have “a well-founded fear of persecution” on race, religion, nationality, membership of social groups or political opinion, and the convention does not apply to people that are threatened by hazards, disasters and climate change (UNHCR, n.d.). Therefore, people who flee their own country due to the fear of climate change and disasters would have no right to cross another country’s border and would be unable to benefit themselves from regular refugee protections (Wyman, 2013).

Opposition to Call Climate Change Migrants as Refugees

There are several reasons why the governments do not agree on extending the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention to recognize people that flee their country due to climate change as refugees. First, there are more than 20 million people each year that are displaced either in their own country, their own continent or on the other side of the earth (UNHCR, n.d.). It is hard to imagine the number of resources and the level of effort the governments would have to put in to rescue these people from threats of climate change. Also, by focusing on the negative consequences or running away from the settlement of climate refugee problem is not going to help solve the problem. The governments believe that by not approving these people as refugees would indirectly force the world to come up with better solutions to resolve climate change issues (Johnston, 2016). In fact, countries such as Australia, Brazil and Canada are already seeing effective results while solving the climate change problems (National Public Radio, 2011). Furthermore, while more and more developing countries have become signatories for the 1951 Convention to recognize the rights of refugees, the flow of asylum seekers continuously aim at going to wealthy countries, such as Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. However, these four wealthy countries are considered as the top-ranking countries that have produced the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions on an individual level throughout the entire world, which means that they have the most responsibility of causing climate change more than any other countries (McLeman, 2015). It is not only ironic to place people running away from climate change into these countries, by having a few thousand more people consuming energy, the climate would become even worse than it already is. There are some truths to these arguments, but the pace of the governments coming up with a sufficient solution might not be fast enough to chase the rapidly worsening situation of the environment. Millions of people’s lives are in risk waiting for the scientists to come up with solutions that has yet to happen. Plus, most of the countries that are facing the climate change issues are not the counties that primarily cause the climate change. Those countries that cause the climate change should take over the responsibilities of saving lives that are threatened by climate disasters.

New World, Old Convention

People who are forced to flee their home by climate change should be considered refugees and get support from the country that they move to even though they do not fall into any criteria in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention because the convention should be considered too old and is probably out of date (McAdam, 2017). The original purpose of the Convention was to save people from wars. It was approved following World War II period and was improved after the Second World War by continuing to address various refugee situations all over the world. It successfully dealt with waves of refugees and was very handy until the end of the Cold War. (Millbank, 2000). This year, the 1951 Refugee Convention is 66 years old. It is now already a very different world than it was in the 1950s. For the situations nowadays, the convention is no longer as useful as earlier with this totally different context. When the convention was created, the effects of climate change were not as bad as it is nowadays. Each year there are millions of people displaced either in their own country, their own continent or on the other side of the earth because of climate change. If you take a look at the data presented on Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, it is not hard to find out that most of the causes of displacement are because of natural disasters. Based on the data, there is an annual average of 22 million people displaced by disasters, while only 8.2 million displaced because of conflict (UNHCR, n.d.). Not only has the context changed, but the subjects are also different now. Some of the countries that accept refugees are not even part of the convention. At the end of 1999, Iran was hosting 1.8 million refugees. There were 1.5 million refugees in Jordan, 1.2 million in Pakistan, over 300000 in India, 129000 in Iraq, 160000 in Thailand, and 45000 in Malaysia. Sizeable displacements were also happening around Indonesia, while none of these countries is a party to the Convention (US Community for Refugees and Immigrants, 2017). There are so many things that had occurred over the 66-year period. The laws and rules ought to be updated for different era while facing different problems to effectively solve them.

Human Rights

Additionally, not recognizing climate change refugees, not offering support, forbidding them from crossing the safe countries’ boundaries and leave them to die is a violation of human rights. Although international meetings on climate and environmental mentioned about human rights more often, there is still not yet any binding contracts between the two terms (Fernandez, 2015). As climate change is worsening every single day, more and more people are migrating with an environmental push factor because of a rising amount of variation results caused by climate change and natural disasters. With long-term impacts like sinking islands in the Pacific Ocean, drowning deltas in Asia, desertification in West African Sahel and Mexico, and with sudden disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis (Ni, 2015), people have no choice but to leave their own country, sometimes with all their property destroyed. The General Munir Muniruzzaman, the Chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change mentioned that by 2050, one fifth of Bangladesh’s territory would be lost due to the rise of the sea-level, which would cause about 30 million people coming out seeking a new, safe home (Johnston, 2016). Having no permission of crossing another country’s boundary would leave these people with nothing but death. Von, Corkery and Chartres stated in 2007 that climate change may eventually affect the rights to life of individuals, and countries should look for the balance point between responsibilities and human rights. Countries that refuse to accept these refugees are essentially leaving people to die.

The Environmental World War

Finally, leaving the people that flee their countries to die might be a fuse for conflicts. Climate change is already forcing millions of people to relocate to safer conditions. As the situation grows worse, no matter what the governments say or do, that strong desire to live, the unbeatable spirit to survive, plus the great number of people that are having the same destiny would lead those refugees to do whatever it takes to get into a safe condition. “[Even] if you build walls and high fences [to stop them from landing in the safe territories], they will break them and cross over. The risk people are taking when they cross the water… have drowned” (Johnston, 2016). By then, a great conflict would be awaiting not far for us (Reuveny, R, 2007). When people want to go to safety, there is nothing that can stop them. With the rising sea level, countries are losing their territories bit by bit every year; with the desertification, countries are becoming short of resources. As the situation grows worse, governments will have no choice but to suck resources from other countries in order to keep their people alive. Since those people already have nothing to lose, if they don’t get what they want, with their great number and their desire to survive, a conflict or even a war would not be too farfetched. The first environmental world war would be about to begin.

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In conclusion, climate changing is causing millions of people to migrate, yet the increasing amount of climate change migrants are still not legally considered as refugees. Even though many governments suggest that climate change refugee should not be recognized under the 1951 Refugee Convention due to a number of economic and resource scarcity factors, they should be categorized as refugees. The reasons for their recognition as refugees are that the convention is outdated, leaving people to die is an abuse of human rights, and not accepting them could be a fuse for conflicts between countries. If governments fail to make this change happen, environmental refugees will continue to do whatever it takes to get into safe conditions and the risks of conflict and war would remain high.


  • Fernandez, M. J. (2015). Refugees, climate change and international law. Refugee Study Centre. (49), 42-43, doi:10.4324/9781315734583
  • Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (2017). Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Retrieved from: http://www.internal-displacement.org/
  • Johnston, I. (2016). Climate change wars are coming and building walls won’t help, top general warns. Independent. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change-wars-global-warming-conflict-refugees-walls-wont-help-general-warns-a7381031.html
  • Millbank, A. (2000). The Problem with the 1951 Refugee Convention. Parliament of Australia. Retrieved from: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp0001/01RP05
  • McAdam, J. (2017). The Enduring Relevance of the 1951 Refugee Convention. International Journal of Refugee Law, 29(1), 1–9, doi:10.1093/ijrl/eex017
  • McLeman, R. (2015). Environmental refugees: The future of global migration in the age of climate change. Explore Your World. Retrieved from: https://legacy.wlu.ca/documents/62619/Environmental_Refugees.pdf
  • National Public Radio. (2011). What Countries Are Doing To Tackle Climate Change. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/2011/12/07/143302823/what-countries-are-doing-to-tackle-climate-change
  • Neuteleers, S. (2011). Environmental Refugees: A Misleading Notion for a Genuine Problem. Centre for Ethics, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 18(2), 229-248, doi:10.2143/EP.18.2.2116811
  • Ni, X. (2015). A Nation Going Under: Legal Protection For “Climate Change Refugees”. Boston College International and Comparative Law Review, 38(2), 329-366. Retrieved from: http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/iclr/vol38/iss2/7
  • Regional Office for Europe (OHCHR). (2015). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/en/udhrbook/pdf/udhr_booklet_en_web.pdf
  • Reuveny, R. (2007). Climate change-induced migration and violent conflict. Political Geography, 26(6), 656-673, doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2007.05.001
  • US Community for Refugees and Immigrants. (2017). Retrieved from: http://www.refugees.org/world/countryrpt.htm
  • USA for UNHCR (2017). Who Is a Refugee?. USA for UNHCR. Retrieved from: https://www.unrefugees.org
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (n.d.). Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Retrieved from: http://www.unhcr.org
  • Von Doudda, J., Corkery, A. & Chartres, R. (2007). Human rights and climate change. Australian International Law Journal 14(1), 161-184. Retrieved from: http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?public=false&handle=hein.journals/austintlj2007&page=71&collection=journals
  • Wyman, K. M. (2013). Are We Morally Obligated to Assist Climate Change Migrants?. DE GRUYTER, 7(2), 185–212, doi:10.1515/lehr-2013-0007


For the revision of this argumentative essay, as the draft is already narrowed down, there is less work needs to be done. In order to better perfect the paper, I let two of my friends to read through my paper and make suggestion about it. I also brought it to the writing centre and let the lady to give me some advices. Having their suggestions together with the professor’s comment, I did the following few things:

  • First, I structured my essay to kind of hold the readers hand and guide them through the paper as I added a “in this paper, I am going to argue…” kind of phrase to let the readers know directly what the article is about, an extra sentence at the end of most of the paragraphs where needed to conclude and slightly expand what is discussed in the paragraph, and some transition words between paragraphs to make the paper flow well while reading.
  • Also, I cut some of the long sentences short as my friends complained that my long sentences were hard to read and hard to follow.
  • Besides that, I also elaborated more on certain topics as they said when they wanted to know more about something, but I just moved on and talked about other things is really annoying. Since there is a words limit, I did not add in too much extra quotes, but I did add in more citations based on my existed work to make the argument more reliable and more convincing. I added in two geography related citation to link the topic more to the course.

From the essay writing to the revising I learnt a lot from this assignment. Since the beginning of the term when this work is assigned that we need to write an argumentative essay which can be whatever topic that’s related to geography, I’ve started to take note of every topic that interested me. Climate change refugee is one of them which was brought up by professor Brent Dobestein during Geography 101. It was really fascinating indeed that I immediately decided it to be my topic to write about. During the whole research work, I accessed the library system which was really helpful. The research results also kept me thinking about how human impact on the environment would eventually come back to us. During the revise, I accessed the writing centre. Mandy was a really helpful editor who pointed out quite a few things that I haven’t even noticed including grammar, citation and the differences between high school typical five paragraph essay and university type essay. Also, during revise, there were some feedbacks I received that were contradicting to what another reviewer gave. This is challenging for me to make decision on which a better suggestion, but it was also a good training.

Overall, I found this argumentative essay writing very successful in terms of accessing the supports from the university, training the skills of writing longer argumentative essay, and gaining the knowledge of how international refugee and climate change refugee system works.


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