Falling through the cracks: A briefing on climate change, displacement and international governance frameworks

from Environmental Justice Foundation
Published on 10 Dec 2014 View Original


This document is intended as an overview of the legal and policy frameworks governing climate-induced displacement at the international level. It aims to inform policymakers and interested individuals about the range of relevant legal and policy instruments and to assess how effective these various options are at responding to the issue of climate-induced displacement.

This briefing specifically refers to international and regional legal and policy frameworks governing climate-induced displacement. Consequently it does not address national frameworks which may be considered relevant, such as Temporary Protected Status in the US or the Swedish Aliens Act of 2005. Each section details which legal and policy instruments are to be addressed and then highlights key challenges in summary points, referring to specific instruments where necessary.

EJF’s briefing finds that there is a deficit of adequate legal and policy frameworks governing climate-induced displacement at the international level. It refers to a ‘protection gap’ to indicate the lack of satisfactory measures addressing the various adaptation, disaster risk reduction, humanitarian assistance and legal protection needs of climate refugees. As this briefing demonstrates, the protection ‘gap’ is more like a series of holes – suggesting the need for a new legal and policy framework which is both broad in scope and sufficiently sensitive to the needs of multiple populations of concern.

Climate refugees

Currently, there is no consensus on categories or terminology to describe persons compelled to move because of climatic or environmental change. Whilst use of the term ‘refugee’ in this context is not recognised under existing refugee law – and, as this briefing asserts, nor should it be – EJF believes that the term ‘climate refugee’ underscores the human rights dimension of climate change and also successfully reflects the reality that a form of refugeehood – the experience of involuntarily leaving one’s home due to persecution – is an inherent feature of the globally unequal distribution of responsibility for climate change, which has systematically marginalised the world’s most vulnerable communities.

EJF uses a modified International Organization for Migration (IOM) definition to refer to climate refugees as: “persons or groups of persons who, for reasons of sudden or progressive climaterelated change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

Climate-induced displacement

This briefing does not directly engage in the debate over when a person can be said to have fled from environmental degradation. For an introduction to how both environmental and non-environmental factors shape voluntary and involuntary movement in the context of climate change, please refer to the bibliography at the end of this document. In this document, EJF uses the term ‘climate-induced displacement’ to refer to a variety of situations whereby environmental hazards and processes of change associated with climate change can reasonably be said to have contributed to the movement of individuals away from an area for any period of time, without implying direct or exclusive causality. Please refer to the bibliography for a more detailed discussion of thistopic and a policy-relevant typology of population mobility in response to environmental stress.