Climate Refugees: Who Are They and Why They Matter

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What are climate refugees? The correlation between climate change and migratory flows has been studied for several years, but is still lacking explicit recognition in international law. The 1951 Geneva Convention and subsequent legislations don’t provide a legal definition for people who leave their country because of the direct consequences (land impoverishment, natural disasters) or indirect consequences (wars over scarce resources) of climate change.

Why, despite the growing attention to the effects of climate change, has the status of the millions of people who may be forced to move in the coming years because of the climate crisis not been updated?

A first answer is linked to the difficulty of mapping people’s movements caused by slow-onset climate change. The impact of a flood, for example, is easily ascribed to a particular area. In contrast, the depletion of land by intensive exploitation and the rise of the oceans are events that are spread over time and space and therefore have effects that are not immediately quantifiable on people’s lives.

In this JOurnal article we try to explain why the use of the term climate refugee is problematic, together with an update on the latest legal frameworks with a particular focus on the European context.


In order to delve into the issue we must first know the distinction between a refugee and an IDP, which stands for internally displaced people, meaning “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or coerced to flee or abandon their homes or places of habitual residence in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, human rights violations or man-made natural disasters and who have not crossed internationally recognised State borders” (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 1998).

A refugee, on the other hand, is a person who has been forced to leave his or her country and has no intention of returning. The Geneva Convention defines refugee status on the basis of a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’. Clearly, these conditions do not include environmental reasons. From a perspective of international law, therefore, climate refugees do not exist, and any responsibility for the primary protection of climate-related IDPs rests with national governments.

Academic studies about IDPs, however, usually include people who have left their home territory due to the climate crisis as long as they do not leave the state. However, it is widely known that climate change affects the entire planet and is not confined to the borders of one nation at a time.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees points out that “developing regions, which are among the most climate vulnerable, are home to 84% of the world’s refugees. Extreme weather events and hazards in these refugee-hosting regions are disrupting their lives, exacerbating their humanitarian needs and even forcing them to flee again”.

The focus at the moment is primarily on natural disasters and it was felt that further specification would not be helpful in ensuring greater protection for displaced persons. IDPs are in fact defined as representatives of climate-related displacement, a qualification that allows, for example, the application of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. However, these are guidelines and not obligations (as we said, the primary protection lies with national governments and there is no recognition of the status at international level).


There could be 250 million of them by 2050, yet the issue of environmental migrants still occupies little space in the migration debate. This is why the United Nations, the European Union and other supranational entities are trying to adjust the focus.


The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), lamenting the lack of a globally accepted definition for people moving for environmental reasons, has recently issued the working definition of ‘environmental migrant’.

Environmental migrants, according to the IOM proposal, are ‘persons or groups of persons who, because of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that have a negative impact on their lives or living conditions, are forced to leave their homes, either temporarily or permanently, and move within the territory or abroad’.

By the IOM’s own admission an attempt to capture the complexity of the issue, the definition of environmental migrant recognises that:

Deprived of the implications of the term refugee, the deliberately vague definition of environmental migrant indicates that human mobility related to the climate crisis can take many forms: temporary or permanent, forced or voluntary, internal or international, individual or collective. For the IOM, moreover, migration can be caused by both slow processes (such as rising seas and temperatures, soil impoverishment) and sudden events (cyclones, tsunamis, etc.), exacerbated inter alia by the adverse effects of climate change.

Over the years, new definitions have been given, some of them with legal force, such as those of the 2010 Cancun Agreements. The latter distinguish three different types of ‘climate change induced’ mobility: displacement, migration, planned relocation.


The first refers mainly to displacement caused by ‘situations where people are forced to leave their homes or dwellings because of a disaster or to avoid the impact of an immediate and foreseeable natural hazard’.

UNHCR identifies specific types of assistance that organisations and governments can provide:


Climate migration describes a movement of people caused by a sudden or progressive event due to a climate crisis. It is therefore to be understood as a subcategory of environmental migration, referring to an event more immediately attributable to climate change.


Planned relocation, on the other hand, occurs in the context of “disasters or environmental degradation, including those caused by the effects of climate change, a planned process in which people or groups of people move or are assisted in moving from their homes to new places, and are given the conditions to rebuild their lives”. Planned relocation should be understood as a long process to be implemented in all aspects of people’s lives until they no longer have needs or vulnerabilities related to displacement. It is a common phenomenon especially in some atolls where rising sea levels already make human life impossible.

Human mobility, a generic expression covering all the different forms of movement of people, is instead an umbrella term summarising the previous ones.


According to the Global Internal Displacement Database, 30.7 million people left their homes due to natural disasters in 2020 alone. These are largely IDPs.

By 2050, depending on how catastrophic the estimates are, there could be several hundred million people voluntarily or forcibly migrating for environmental reasons alone.

“We are not yet fully aware of the consequences of climate change for our populations and communities and how this relates to migration flows. At the international level, there is still no description or definition that accommodates the group of people we call climate refugees, and we are not even sure that this is the right term to describe them all,” said Carlos Trindade, chair of the European Economic and Social Commission’s study group on immigration and integration, in 2020.

The association of the word ‘refugee’ with ‘climate’ or ‘environmental’ is often used by the media or activists to draw attention to people affected by disasters and climate change. Although their needs are often similar to those of refugees, the organisations’ view is that the terms “climate refugees” and “environmental refugees” should be avoided. In addition to having no legal basis, they fail to recognise key aspects of population movements on the basis of the climate crisis, such as the fact that climate migration is predominantly internal and not necessarily forced.

The focus on climate refugees in the media also obscures the vulnerabilities of all those people who, despite living in areas of serious environmental risk, are unable or unwilling to move. This is referred to as ‘trapped populations’, a notion that applies particularly to those who are unable to move due to lack of resources, disability or social reasons (e.g. gender issues) or who choose not to leave their homeland for cultural reasons.

Finally, the fear of several agencies, including IOM and UNHCR, is that such terms could undermine the legal refugee protection regime.

Within the framework of the 2021-2027 Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion, the European Commission launched the project Clicim (CLImate Change Induced Migration), which aims to highlight the role of climate change in the structural dynamics of migration in Africa. Clicim will culminate in December 2021 with the issuance of a final report on which Brussels will base future mobility and migration policies related to the climate crisis.

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