By 2050, hundreds of millions of people in developing countries will have left their homes as a result of climate change—a mass displacement that will make already-precarious populations more vulnerable and impose heavy burdens on the communities that absorb them. Unfortunately, the world has barely begun to prepare for this impending crisis.
Those displaced by climate change are neither true refugees nor traditional migrants, and thus occupy an ambiguous position under international law. The world needs to agree on how to classify environmental migrants, as well as what their rights are. It also needs to strengthen its capacity to manage these mass migrations, without weakening existing international regimes for refugees and migrants.
Let’s begin with terminology. Public officials and the press have popularized the phrase “climate refugees.” It’s a catchy but misleading and in fact unhelpful label. To begin with, it stretches the term “refugee” well beyond its established definition under the 1951 Refugee Convention as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” It is not persecution that will cause climate displacement, but hardship due to ecological factors like water insecurity, crop failure, sea level rise and extreme weather.