Saturday, April 30, 2011

Climate Change and Forced Migration: An Overview

Mostafa Mahmud Naser
[is an Assistant Professor, Department of Law, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh and Ph.D. candidate, Macquarie Law School, Australia]


Forced displacement for environmental reasons is not a phenomenon unique to the present day. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, such migration mainly took place due to natural environmental degradation or catastrophe; such as floods, storms, hurricanes; or owing to scarcity of land resources. In the twentieth century, however, environmental degradation due to global climate change caused by human interferences with the ecology has tremendously increased natural disasters and calamities. Now natural disasters are ‘more intense and frequent and the human impacts are more devastating’. 1 Over the past two decades, the number of major disasters per year has increase from 200 to 400 major. 2 According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (hereinafter as IPCC), human-induced climate change will transform the ecological balance of the earth and lead to calamitous consequences for the human rights of millions of people all over the world. 3 The AR4 of the IPCC report concludes that climate change has already influenced ecological systems and this – with scientific certainty – is creating increased and frequency of natural events including floods, hurricanes, droughts, desertification, scarcity of water resources and unpredictability of seasons.4

Climate change induced displacement: no more prediction but a reality

Thus, the serious and rapid alteration of ecosystems by anthropogenic interference has direct and indirect impact on society which will ultimately lead to mass migration, both permanent and temporary. Human migration, forced or otherwise, will undoubtedly be one of the most significant consequences of environmental degradation due to climate change in decades to come. Many experts argue that large numbers of people are already on the move, with millions more expected to follow as evidence of climate change mounts.5 As early as in 1990 the IPCC argued that the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration.

Currently, there is no global assessment of the statistics of environmental displacement since no international organisation collects information on persons displaced by climate change. 6 Nor is there much capacity in developing and least developed countries (LDC) or the international community to gather this sort of data.7 So, the existence and the scope of the issue of climate displacement are often established by reference to the likely numbers of displaced people. Based on a plausible range of emission scenario, current estimates typically range from 50 million to 1 billion, but is usually estimated to be around 200-250 million people by 2050, either within their country or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis owing to the direct impacts of climate change. 8 However, Professor Myers’ estimate of 200 million climate migrants by 2050 has become the generally accepted figure and is widely cited. 9 It would mean that by 2050 one in every 45 people in the world would have been displaced by climate change. 10 Thus, the number of future climate migration shows a terrifying figure, a ten-fold increase on today’s entire population of documented refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

However, numerous fundamental questions about numbers are being asked in scientific, policy and academic circles. 11 The available estimates, generally derived from the environmental academic Norman Myers, are massively contested. The key issue raised by the debate around the numbers of climate change displaced people is whether it is possible to predict with any degree of certainty the likely numbers and distribution of persons displaced by climate change. It is also criticised that such estimates have a large margin of error and mostly depend on underlying assumptions about population growth, economic development, temperature increase, or the degree and timing of climate change impacts such as sea-level rise. 12 The critics also argue that there is ‘no evidence that environmental change leads directly to mass refugee flows, especially flows to developed countries’.13 Migration researcher, Richard Black has criticised the ways of repeated presentation of numbers of environmental refugees by numerous authors as ‘without independent verification of its accuracy’. 14

Lack of international legal framework and importance of developing a new international framework

The climate change poses new challenges to international law. 15 With all the predicted dangers and future catastrophe, the existing international legal frameworks - including its laws and its institutions - do not adequately address the emerging crisis. The current international legal regime does not offer any concrete protection for the environmentally displaced people. There is no legally binding mechanism for protection of these persons. Even they are not yet recognised in international law as an identifiable group whose rights are expressly articulated, or as a formal legal category of people in need of special protection. Obviously this has important ramifications for assigning responsibility to appropriate domestic and international institutions and agencies to address the rights and duties concerned. Because the forced population displacement will induce very real legal, political, economic, human security, human rights, public health and conflict related concerns.16 The international community, specially the developed countries, are both legally and ethically responsible to ensure protection of human rights of this vulnerable section of people.

One solution to the current inadequacy of legal responses is to develop a new international agreement that specifically recognise the plight of individuals forced to leave their homes, families, friends, and livelihoods for environmental reasons. The Convention would establish an international regime for the status, treatment and protection of climate change displaced persons. The new independent convention would prioritise the large and emerging problem of climate change displacement. 17 It would also reflect the underlying issues raised by the climate change displacement problem and fill the legal gap with the specificity states and communities need. This instrument should ensure that climate change displaced persons receive adequate assistance in the form of human rights protections and humanitarian aid. It should also establish an administrative system to implement the elaborate regime in a fair and efficient manner.

Conclusion: Towards a New Legal Framework for Climate Induced Displacement

It is increasingly evident that the numbers of environmentally displaced people are growing at a rapid rate. This vast number of people is largely left unprotected in current refugee regime. States around the world have contributed to or have been affected by climate change. So, the displacement associated with it requires international attention. Since the nature of climate change is global and humans play a contributory role, the international community should accept responsibility for mitigating climate-induced displacement. 18 States should develop an innovative, international, and interdisciplinary approach that can be implemented before the situation reaches a crisis stage.

In recognizing the problem of climate change displacement, this paper has highlighted the present lacuna within the international legal system in terms of effectively recognising and responding to the needs of climate induced displacement. One solution to the current inadequacy of legal responses may be developing a new convention that provides both assistance and protection to environmentally displaced persons and creates affirmative obligations for states to prevent the environmental disasters that force displacement. The new instrument could help alleviate the emerging climate change displacement crisis.


1.António Guterres, ‘Climate Change could Become the Biggest Driver of Displacement’, (Speech delivered at the press conference at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009, Copenhagen, Denmark, 16 December 2009. available at at 02 March 2009.
2.David Adam, ‘Food Prices Threaten Global Security – UN’ The Guardian, (United Kingdom), 09 April, 2008. <> at 03 March 2010.
3.See, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Summary for Policymakers (2007) 12. <> 12 September 2009.
4.See, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Climate Change 2007: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Summary for Policymakers’, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report (2007).
5.Achim Steiner, ‘Foreword’, (2008) 31 Forced Migration Review, 4.
6.Vikram Odedra Kolmannskog, ‘Future Floods of Refugees: A Comment on Climate Change, Conflict and Forced Migration’ (Norwegian Refugee Council, 2008) 13- 14.
7.Tess Burton and David Hodgkinson, Cliamte Change Migrants and Unicorns: A Discussion Note on Conceptualising Climate Change Displaced People, The Hodgknson Group – Climate Change and Aviation Advisors (Publications) 8 at 23 July 2009.
8.See generally, Norman Myers, ‘Environmental Refugees in a globally warmed world’, (1993) 43(11) BioScience 752.; Norman Myers, ‘Environmental Refugees: An Emergent Security Issue’, 13th Economic Forum, Prague, 23 – 27 May 2005; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Christian Aid, ‘Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis’ (Christian Aid, 2007), 50.
9.Oli Brown, ‘The Numbers Game’ (2008) 31 Forced Migration Review, 8.
10.From a predicted global population of 9.075 billion in 2050 from 6.54 billion in at an annual growth rate of 1.1%
11.Camillo Boano, ‘FMO Research Guide on Climate Change and Displacement’ (FMO Research Guide, Forced Migration Online (FMO) 2008) 13.
12.For criticism of such estimates, see A. Suhrke, ‘Environmental Degradation and Population Flows’, (1994) 47(2) Journal of International Affairs, 478.; Stephen Castles, ‘Environmental Change and Forced Migration: Making Sense of the Debate’, (New Issues in Refugee Research Working Paper No. 70, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2002) 2–3.; and Richard Black, ‘Environmental Refugees: Myth or Reality?’ (New Issues in Refugee Research Working Paper No 34, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2002), 2–8.
13.Stephen Castles, ‘Environmental Change and Forced Migration: Making Sense of the Debate’, (New Issues in Refugee Research Working Paper No. 70, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2002) 2.
14.Richard Black, ‘Environmental Refugees: Myth or Reality?’ (New Issues in Refugee Research Working Paper No 34, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2002), 1.
15.The Legal Status of Environmental Refugees, available at
16.Displacement Solutions, Meeting Report on Climate Change, Human Rights and Forced Human Displacement (2008), 11.
17.Bonnie Docherty and Tyler Giannini, ‘Confronting a Rising Tide: A Proposal for a Convention on Climate Change Refugees’ (2009) 33 Harvard Environmental Law Review, 349-403, 397 -- 401.

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