On November 8th, a wildfire began blazing uncontrollably through Northern California for over two and a half weeks. Camp Fire — named after Camp Creek Road where it started — ripped through 153,336 acres of flora, fauna and human settlement, an area equivalent to over 200,000 football fields. The buildings of Concow, a 700 person strong community, were largely wiped out on the first day, alongside those of the now bleakly named Paradise, a town with over 25,000 residents. The human loss currently sits at 85 confirmed fatalities. As many as 1,011 people were missing at the peak of the chaos surrounding the fire.
Media coverage was understandably saturated with the orange, smoke-filled photos taken during the fire — choking yet eerily beautiful. But in the days that followed, a different set of images began to crop up: those of a makeshift camp in a Walmart parking lot. The free space was full of tents hastily erected by local residents displaced by the wildfire, the residual hue of its flames hanging in the still smoky sky. News pieces and articlesaccompanying the photos spoke of American “climate refugees.” The images and headlines stressed a clear, pertinent point: the humanitarian crisis many predict will accompany climate change — indeed, is already accompanying it — had hit American soil. The National Climate Assessment published on Black Friday, two days before the Camp Fire was contained, only drove home the severity of climate change.
Legally speaking, such people aren’t refugees, even if we recognise their temporary living conditions as reflective of such a definition. Neither are the 18.8 million people displaced by weather-related disasters in 2017, a figure that’s expected to rise sharply as the impact of climate change worsens. A report published by the World Bank in March predicts that a further 143 million people will be displaced internally by 2050 across Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America alone. The report’s scope didn’t include those Pacific residents whose islands are already under threat from rapidly rising sea levels.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, recognised internationally by 146 countries, defines a refugee as anyone who has crossed an international border and is unable to return home for fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion. Created in the aftermath of World War II, the agreement helped resettle and preserve the rights of the millions of people displaced by the conflict, as well as many more in the last 67 years. But the “climate refugees” — those displaced by climate change — will require a different set of protections for a highly specific issue. Away from its biology, science, and politics, climate change is asking a knotty, more human question: what will happen to those people who feel the most devastating effects of climate change and how might their rights be safeguarded?
Inhabitants of Bangladesh’s south coastal delta region sit at the forefront of such a question. There, huge numbers of families — predominantly reliant on agriculture for their incomes — are being squeezed between two climate-related issues. To their north, the glacial melt in the Himalayas is increasing as a result of global warming, changing river systems as it flows in new and unpredictable ways. To the south, rising sea levels are pushing saltwater further upstream into the river basin, destroying plant life that’s thrived in freshwater alongside rice paddy fields that many make a living from. Some are losing their homes as the river changes course. Others, meanwhile, are losing their livelihoods as the cultivation of crops becomes increasingly unsustainable, forcing them to seek work elsewhere, usually in the capital, Dhaka. These people certainly aren’t refugees according to the 1951 Convention — persons facing persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion — but even describing them as climate migrants is fraught with difficulties.
"It's very difficult to mark out this group of climate migrants or climate refugees because the driving forces behind their movement are so complex,” Alex Randall, a leading specialist on climate-linked migration and coordinator of the Climate and Migration Coalition, told me over Skype. “It's not like a family reaches a sudden “right this is it" moment. It's that every year, as it erodes more, the farm becomes less profitable. At some point they say, ‘Okay this farm actually can't support the whole family any more, it can only support four of us’, so two people might go and seek alternative work somewhere else. Bangladesh is a key example of that because you have multiple hazards and you have all of that bedded inside a global trend of urbanization.”
The southern Bangladesh coastline also faces a barrage of increasingly severe tropical storms, catalyzing a different pattern of migration: short-distance, short-term movement. Frequent exposure to such extreme weather can also instigate more permanent moves from vulnerable areas. Victims of these rapid-onset disasters are perhaps closer to the climate refugees we imagine but often their movement takes place within an internal border.
Currently, a piece of international soft law called the Guiding Principles On Internal Displacement protects the rights of those affected by such climate disasters (The principles are not legally binding but they do suggest how states might respond to and treat internally displaced persons. According to Randall, the document “basically creates a refugee-like status for people who've been displaced within their own country.” It’s not without shortcomings, though. Such protections often require substantial investment in aid responses and, because it’s voluntary, the rights of those displaced aren’t always respected. A wider problem is one of interpretation — it’s unclear whether climate migrants who move due to the erosion of livelihoods can enjoy protections from the Guiding Principles On Internal Displacement.
For those who do cross international borders because of climate change, things are even murkier. You’re not technically a refugee according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor are you a migrant because you haven’t crossed a border voluntarily. “That's the point where the international legal system is just not geared up with a solution to this,” Randall stressed. He points towards the Platform On Disaster Displacement as one avenue that is actively engaged with protecting the rights of those displaced by climate change-related disasters. Rather than creating a new legal definition for such people, the platform recommends protecting the human rights of those affected through existing domestic laws.
Randall also described what might become a future crisis point, a situation where people can’t afford to migrate because their livelihoods have been decimated by climate change. “I think you're left with a situation where more people are going to move internally, more people are going cross borders but also more people are going to end up trapped.” With displacement consigned to a “side event” on December 6 at the COP24 climate summit in Katowice, Poland, it remains to be seen whether political leaders and third parties will rally to produce tangible action from the meeting’s hour and a half run-time.
Steve Trent, the founder and Executive Director of Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), believes the situation calls for “an entirely new multilateral legal instrument,” which could, ultimately, result in the right to asylum. In spite of the challenges in unravelling factors behind climate-related migration, the EJF is actively calling on governments to recognise climate refugees and support a new legal agreement to guarantee their rights, focusing first on producing detailed legal analysis to be published before the European Parliament elections in 2019.
The EJF has also tabled a proposal for the United Nations to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Climate Change to examine the issues surrounding climate change and human mobility. Trent explained to me over the phone that the proposal is on the back-burner following the election of President Trump in 2016. “When we first made that proposal, you had a very different administration in the United States. I think the reality is — whether people want to accept this view or not — that within the UN family, if you have the United States either on your side or, at least willing to demur, then you have the potential to make headway. If you have the US directly opposed to anything being pushed on a substantive level, it will not happen.”
Such a shift in focus makes clear the substantial political obstacles that stand in the way of making legal and protective ground. In Europe, the situation is little better for migrants, even if climate change is now past the point of debate. The refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East, particularly the brutal, ongoing Syrian War, have been met with militarized borders. In theory, they should be protected from crossing illegally by the Refugee Convention but in practise this is routinely ignored by governments, making their very existence illegal. To claim asylum they need to get in but they can’t do so without illegally crossing a border, usually lacking the necessary papers. It’s a Catch 22 of callous calculation and Trump has very publicly enacted the policy for the so-called “migrant caravan” at the US-Mexico border recently. “You get what looks like a crisis,” Randall said. “It's trying to prevent people moving that’s stimulated the crisis.”
The Republic of Vanuatu is looking to take matters into its own hands, currently exploring the option of taking legal action against the fossil fuel industry “and the states that sponsor it” in a bid to shift costs onto those who have perpetuated the crisis. If such a claim was successful, it could mark a watershed moment in forcing highly developed Western states to accept collective responsibility for climate change. The resulting support might look like financial support in order to develop, engineer and build new climatic infrastructures or, for those displaced, it might simply mean the right to asylum.
As far-right populism grows in countries across Europe such as Italy, Spain, and Hungary, the possibility of making significant headway on large-scale climate displacement seems more difficult than ever before, particularly if resettling within Western states forms part of the answer. Dishearteningly but also predictably, Trent was frank in his assessment of forwarding an agenda to such governments: “This subject to many politicians is toxic. Very few people want to talk about the issue of trans-boundary migration, let alone trans-boundary migration of the kind of biblical proportion that is possible.”