Climate Refugees Suffer in Obscurity

International law needs to acknowledge persons displaced by the changing climate.

Survivors struggle to receive relief goods from a private group in typhoon hit Tacloban, Leyte province, central Philippines Monday, Nov. 18, 2013.
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In the beginning of "Paradise Lost," Milton describes Hell as containing no light, only "darkness made visible." As the sun rose across the Philippines to reveal the supreme devastation of Typhoon Haiyan, there were indeed "sights of woe, regions of sorrow, and doleful shades."

But the Philippines is not Hell, and the global community must recognize a different darkness made visible by this recent tragedy: the looming problem of climate refugees.

International law is silent on the matter of climate refugees – an emerging victims class in the 21st century. While political refugees of Syrian and Congolese violence dominate news headlines, groups and individuals displaced due to environmental factors often suffer in obscurity. This is not altogether surprising, given that refugee law emerged from the darkness of World War II, as Europe attempted to rediscover humanity in the ashes of the Holocaust. The Refugee Convention of 1951 was a response to the egregious human rights violations of the preceding decade, and the accompanying 1967 Protocol reaffirmed the status of refugees as political victims. 

In addition to the Philippines, a number of the world's most populous states confront a future of almost-certain displacement crises. The bulk of Bangladesh's 160 million residents live near the coastline, where the country's primary export, rice, grows in abundance. As sea levels rise, coastal flooding will likely inundate Bangladeshi croplands and force residents inland. Initially, Bangladesh will struggle with the problem of internally displaced peoples, or IDPs.

If environmental degradation continues unabated, internal refugees will be driven to seek safety in other countries. Thus, a domestic problem becomes an international emergency.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

International law, if truly modern, would contain a template for managing the urgent scenario above. All the major legal instruments in human rights law, refugee law and international environmental law are relics of a previous age, before climate change cascaded upon the global consciousness. Given this reality, substantive revisions to those three legal arenas must be made in order to properly safeguard the most vulnerable victims of climate change.

Refugee law must expand the definition of "refugee" to extend beyond its one-dimensional application to victims of political violence. Regional treaties adopted since the 1967 protocol can serve as virtual lighthouses for constructing new international treaties.

The 1969 African Refugee Convention applied the status of refugees to any person displaced by "events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality." The 1984 Cartagena Declaration echoed this call for a more inclusive refugee status, classifying as refugees "Persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order." In the age of climate change, international law must be preoccupied with outcomes rather than causes.

Human rights law is shackled by historical constraints; if a person or group is displaced by manmade violence, they are protected; if a person or group is displaced by environmental violence, they are not. This shortsighted approach is unprepared for the trials of the present century. Human rights law must fully adopt a victims-centered mindset. Doing so does not require a complex, paradigmatic shift, but rather a return to the field's original document: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 3 of the decleration states that, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the security of person." Stated at the beginning of the declaration, these rights of life, liberty, and security can be seen as fundamental to humanity. Article 3 is not qualified on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or circumstance. Through the lens of Article 3, a person or group fleeing from environmental disaster is no different than a person or group fleeing violent state tyranny. In a world where global leaders herald equality, human rights law must be inclusive, expanding its consideration to the environmentally displaced.