A feeble light in the shadow: The recognised need to protect environmental migrants

The 2018 World Bank report, the first one to evaluate both the rapid- and slow-onset impacts of climate change, foresees that by 2050 around 143 million people from the 'global South' will be potentially forced to migrate because of sea level rise, crop failure, and water stress. In June 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, shared a prediction for the near future, where we could face a 'climate apartheid, where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer'.

Although the international community has been regulating states' conduct toward environmental protection since the '60s, it is only in the '90s that international and regional bodies began to acknowledge the connection between environmental threats and their drastic effect on people’s enjoyment of human rights.

Respectively, the UN Human Rights Council (30kb pdf), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the European Committee of Social Rights (950kb pdf) found the environment to be a fundamental component of the right to life and to health. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (2.6Mb pdf) also identified human rights violations in the government's negligence to ensure adequate environmental protection to its population. Finally, the European Parliament Resolution on Climate Diplomacy (300kb pdf) noted that fighting against climate change is necessary for the protection of human rights.

In spite of these developments, the international system of protection still fails to provide solid foundations for the protection of people compelled to leave because of environmental factors. The debate on an internationally agreed definition of this category of protection is still ongoing.

To fill this gap, several scholars - Myers (80kb pdf), Docherty and Giannini (260kb pdf) among others - argued that environmental disasters could amount to persecution and called for an extension of the traditional refugee definition enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to include so-called environmental (or climate change) refugees. The widely highlighted lack of a legal basis in international refugee law for such a definition also relates to its particular context, as it is firstly very unlikely to find the environment 'intentionally' responsible for the persecution of a targeted population. Secondly, most people hit by an environmental disaster do not leave their country of origin, thus remaining under the primary responsibility of their national authorities.

Alternatively, the IOM working definition of environmental migrant (55kb pdf) succeeds in recognising a direct, causal link between the environment and migration, reflecting the complexity of the issue. If further explored, it may have the potential to first qualify them in legal terms, to then be able to build, or to extend, a suitable protection frame.

The growing awareness that the prevention and limitation of environmental threats was not only a matter of international environmental law, but also of international human rights law finally reached a breakthrough with the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The Declaration explicitly identifies environmental disasters as causes of forced migration (par. 1, and 7 of Chapter II in Annex II), and pledges signatory states to address their adverse impacts.

The Global Compact on Refugees further separates the environmental cause from the refugee definition by clearly asserting that environmental threats cannot be seen as valid grounds for the application of the Refugee Convention (Introduction, D8). On its part, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) represents another relevant turning point, as it is the first ever inter-governmentally negotiated agreement that simultaneously recognises environmental threats as drivers of forced migration and the urgency to provide protection to their victims.

Most importantly, GCM's Objective 5(g,h) commits participating states to use protection mechanisms '[…] based on compassionate, humanitarian or other considerations for migrants compelled to leave their countries of origin owing to sudden-onset natural disasters', as well as to devise planned relocation. Regrettably, it does not include the victims of slow-onset disasters, such as environmental degradation, coastal erosion, or desertification. The GCM thus confirms the environment to be a cause of forced migration, but not of refugee movements.

The common issue for the protection of migrants compelled to leave due to environmental factors is therefore the official recognition of the issue. Jurisprudence, international and regional case law, as well as international and regional non-binding instruments indicate that environmental threats represent both a breach of human rights and a cause of forced migration. They also argue that states should thus combine their obligations under international environmental law to those related to international human rights law, as inevitably interlinked. The next reasonable step should be to internationally agree on a comprehensive definition of environmental migrants to provide them with adequate protection mechanisms.

This goal is however still far from being achieved, as implementing common strategies for the protection against adverse environmental impacts seems not to be among states' priorities. In this regard, states, overall responsible for climate change worsening will continue to neglect part of their responsibilities as long as they use externalisation policies towards migrants compelled to leave their home because of an unbearable environment that those states have contributed to creating. In seeking to reverse this trend, the New York Declaration, the GCM, and other single statements represent a feeble light in the shadow.

Short biography

Chiara Scissa holds a Master's degree with honours in International Cooperation and the Protection of Human Rights from the University of Bologna. Her main research interests encompass the analysis of new drivers of forced migration, such as environmental crimes, and the subsequent feasibility to expand the system of international protection available at the international and EU level to adequately address the current threats to people’s enjoyment of human rights.