The connection between climate change and migration
The fact that the rise in sea levels or salinisation of coastal areas as climatic processes, or hydro-meteorological natural catastrophes as climatic events, may trigger migratory movements is not disputed. However, environmental migration does not result froma single cause, but rather incorporates complex interactions of existing social, demographic and political contexts.
When considering migratory movements in association with climatic processes or events, therefore, a distinction must be made between climatic and non-climatic migration factors, since migration is not necessarily going to occur for reasons of climatic events alone.
In this regard, adaptation strategies play a decisive role, for a society´s vulnerability always results from its particular risk situation in a geographic sense and the efforts such a society makes to adapt.
Not only catastrophes lead to emigration. It is even estimated that the steady degradation of habitable land due to climate change will in future be the most important trigger for international migration.
Environmental migration is related to issues that make migration not only necessary, but also attractive, the so-called pull factors. These may be of a demographic, social, political or cultural nature. Population pressure, poverty, poor social welfare systems as well as poor governance in states affected by climate change are as decisive triggers for migration as climatic conditions. At the same time, environmental migration takes place in developing countries in an environment of urbanisation for economic reasons, making it difficult to distinguish environmental migration from "normal" migration in metropolitan catchment areas. Climate change is only one factor in a bundle of factors of varying strength. Migration itself can be interpreted as a means of adapting to the socio-economic and political realities under the conditions of a changing environment.
Environmental migration is therefore not solely based on a simple matter of cause and effect wherein migration is always triggered by climatic conditions alone. It is in fact much more complex than that.
This mutual influence and overlapping of environmental factors with political, social and cultural aspects of migration means that it is not possible to differentiate clearly between voluntary and forced migration
Categorisation of affected persons
There have been numerous attempts to find terminology and definitions for the migration scenarios described above. In addition to the term environmental migration used here, there are such expressions as climate change migration, forced migration and environmental refugeeism. In the English-speaking world the composite term climigration is increasingly common. As environmental migration also concerns a mingling of economic and ecological factors and it is virtually impossible to make a clear distinction between these aspects, some authors also refer to ecomigration .
The affected people are mostly referred to as environmental migrants, but also as forced climate migrants, environmental refugees or environmentally displaced persons. The terms used for affected people is of decisive importance for categorisation as a migrant or refugee and the resulting consequences with regard to the international obligation to protect or provide for such people. In contrast to migrants, refugees are granted rights by the Geneva Convention concerning aid and services of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and may not be deported by receiving states (non-refoulement).
The term environmental migrant, coined by the IOM, is finding increasing international acceptance. To facilitate an initial basis for further research and data collection on the phenomenon, the IOM presented a working definition, according to which environmental migrants are "persons or groups of persons, who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad". This definition seizes on the dimensions considered by the IASC of duration, direction and voluntariness of the migration.
Scientists involved in the European research project EACH-FOR (Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios) based their studies on a three-part working definition. They distinguish between environmentally motivated migrants, environmentally forced migrants and environmental refugees. The environmentally motivated migrants differ from the latter two insofar as their change of location is voluntary. The difference between environmentally forced migrants and environmental refugees lies in the fact that forced migrants are subjected to a planned and long-foreseeable, but inevitable migration, whereas climate refugees are forced into sudden emergency migration by catastrophic scenarios. The EACH-FOR working definition does not consider whether in addition to the consequences of climate change there are also social, economic or political inducements to migration, whether the migration is temporary or permanent or whether the migration is only internal or also includes crossing state borders.
Analogous to the term Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), the Norwegian Refugee Council pleads for the descriptive term Environmentally Displaced Persons (EDP). This description includes all persons "who are displaced within their own country of habitual residence or who have crossed an international border and for whom environmental degradation, deterioration or destruction is a major cause of their displacement, although not necessarily the sole one".
Controversy has developed in expert circles in particular with regard to the term environmental refugee .
Essentially the question is whether persons affected by climate change should in future be granted refugee protection in accordance with the GRC and its additional protocols. Article 1 A
The UNHCR rejects the use of the terms climate and environmental refugee as a matter of principle, since it fears that the term refugee established by the GRC and its additional protocols could be undermined by the category environmental refugee. Other UN organisations that come together under the aegis of the IASC, as well as the IOM, fear that the introduction of the term environmental refugee may undermine the established legal instruments for protecting refugees.
The basic conditions for refugee status formulated in the GRC, i.e. the fact of persecution and cross-border migration, would not be met in the case of environmental migration. The impact of climate change does not as yet count as persecution, the majority of the affected persons are internal migrants and therefore still within the protection of their own country. They are therefore less in need of international aid than Convention refugees, according to the UNHCR.
The UNHCR points out that under some circumstances some persons affected by climate-induced migration would meet the conditions for the granting of refugee status in accordance with the GRC. If persecution can be proved for persons fleeing conflict caused by climate problems, then the refugee condition is satisfied. Citizens of the "sinking islands" could also satisfy the GRC conditions if they migrate across borders, because such cases would potentially be a new form of statelessness. If countries of origin were to lose their entire territory, the affected persons could then be treated as stateless and thereby fall under the protection of the Geneva Refugee Convention (GRC) and the attached protocols.
However, the granting of refugee status in the case of the sinking islands scenarios is disputed because it is closely associated with organised or intentional migration. Such intended or tolerated migration can be the result of governmental projects such as the construction of dams or the establishment of flood plains.
Essentially, however, the UN Refugee Agency seems to be concerned with preventing the extension of its own mandate due to its already considerable burden at a time when it is financially stretched. It may indeed be one of the organisation´s obligations, according to a UNHCR paper, to point out to the international community the gaps in the protection offered to the people concerned, but it is by no means striving to extend its own remit by this means.
In addition, the industrialised nations in particular, which are primarily responsible for climate change, reject the term environmental refugee.
Two scientists working on the EACH-FOR project, Olivia Dun and François Gemenne, counter this argument by pointing out that under the Geneva convention refugees are not anyway required to demonstrate persecution as the main reason for their migration, but rather, the decisive factor for granting refugee status is whether persecution in accordance with Article 1 has actually taken place or not. As soon as any association has been shown between persecution and flight, then according to Dun und Gemenne decision-makers could grant refugee status.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which can identify no conclusive definition of the required state of persecution in the UNHCR regulations, also believes that it is entirely possible to recognise climate change as a form of persecution.
Moreover, human rights organisations assert that people affected by environmental migration are being robbed of their fundamental right to protection in a situation similar to that of refugees. These people are, by virtue of this, permanent refugees and should therefore also be treated as such. A corresponding category of environmental refugee is therefore only logical.
The protection offered to environmental migrants is currently precarious. To date there is still no internationally recognised document requiring that the international community of nations should provide support for environmental migrants in the event that their country of origin is unable to do so. Existing regulations do not oblige international states to take in environmental migrants.