Climate change displacement and the need for pre-emptive, managed migration

Claire van Herpen

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013,

Awareness of climate change has risen significantly over the past 30 years and while there is still a long way to go in terms of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, global agreements have been established in an attempt to address the problem. Less attention has been paid, however, to the human rights implications and the impacts that climate change is likely have on millions of people in the future, with the biggest concern being human mobility and displacement. From this perspective, climate change related displacement has been referred to as the greatest threat to human security in the 21st century. Despite dire predictions, victims of climate change displacement do not meet the United Nations legal criteria of a refugee and are therefore not protected under existing international refugee law and frameworks.

The effects of climate change are already palpable in many areas across the globe and one only needs to watch or read the news to see that rising sea-levels, desertification, resource depletion and increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters − something that climate scientists have been warning for many years now − are adversely impacting communities all over the world. Over the last three months alone, we have seen record flooding in Indonesia, snowstorms throughout North America, severe storms and flooding in the UK and record heat-waves and bushfires in Australia. The most deadly disaster, Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm on record to ever make land fall, killed over 6,000 people in the Philippines in November last year and left millions displaced.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more people are now displaced by natural disasters than conflict and the organisation warns that environmentally induced displacement and migration could take on unprecedented dimensions, with predictions about the potential scale of such movement ranging from 25 million to one billion people by 2050.[1] The International Organisation on Migration (IOM) projects that the number of people that will be displaced by climate change could reach 250 million by 2050.[2] If these predictions eventuate, the number of people who will be displaced by climate change will dwarf that of traditional refugees.

Climate change displacement is not some far away, abstract threat – not least for Australia's neighbours in low-lying Pacific Island nations, including Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and island groups in many of the larger nations such as Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Tonga. Several low lying "coral cay" islands in the Torres Strait are also under serious threat. According to a recent report released by the London School of Economics, by 2050, Pacific nations could be grappling with up to 1.7 million climate migrants.[3]

At present, there is no internationally recognised term which defines those who are forced to migrate as a result of climate change impacts. Under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, or the Refugee Convention as it's more commonly referred to, a refugee is legally defined as someone who has been forced to flee outside the country of his/her nationality, on the grounds of "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". Under this definition, no provisions for climate-induced displacement exist. While the terms "climate change refugee" and "environmental refugee" are used and preferred by many environmental human rights advocates, these definitions remain contentious and have no legitimate basis in international law. For the purpose of this article, the term "climate change displaced person" (CCDP) has been used to identify those who are displaced due to the effects of climate change.

While the UNHCR is legally required to assist refugees fleeing conflict or persecution, it has no mandate to assist trans-border CCDPs. It has, however, recognised the increasing number of people displaced by climate change and acknowledged some minor involvement in assisting those who have been internally displaced as a result of environmental issues. Despite this acknowledgement, the organisation is already struggling to provide assistance to over 15 million existing refugees across the globe and one must question its capacity to provide adequate protection to this new class of displaced persons without undermining its current core obligations.

Paradoxically, developing countries, who are amongst the lowest carbon dioxide emitters, are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and displacement and this raises serious ethical implications.

Nations and perhaps even multi-national corporations, who have contributed the most to (and have economically benefited from) carbon dioxide emissions have an undeniable moral obligation to play a lead role in establishing, implementing and financing a framework that encompasses climate change mitigation, adaptation and pre-emptive managed migration systems.

In 2008, Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stressed the need for developed countries to realise this ethical responsibility, declaring that: "we must not lose sight of existing human rights principles in the tug and push of international climate change negotiations. A human rights lens reminds us there are reasons     behind economics and enlightened self-interest for states to act on climate change."[4] In 2012, Robinson went on to establish 'The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice' as a centre for leadership, education and advocacy for justice for those particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Climate change displacement is an extremely complex and multi-faceted issue. It is often inextricably linked with other major contributing displacement factors such as development projects, population, socio-economic pressures and political instability. According to Jane McAdam, one of Australia's leading authorities on climate change displacement, it is virtually impossible to say that climate change will be a sole reason why people migrate. Rather, climate change acts a "threat multiplier" in that "it impacts on pre-existing vulnerabilities or stresses and exacerbates existing socio-economic factors".


The situation in Kiribati and the plight of its citizens is a case is point. Located in the mid-Pacific Ocean, and comprising of 33 atolls with an average elevation of less than two metres above sea level, Kiribati is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and rising sea levels. Like many island atoll states, Kiribati's economy faces significant constraints, including its small size, remoteness and geographical fragmentation, and a harsh natural environment with infertile soils. Kiribati's economy relies heavily on fishing licence fees and remittances from Kiribati citizens employed abroad, mainly as seamen on foreign ships.

Kiribati's 100,000 inhabitants live a subsistence lifestyle and the country is already experiencing severe population and socio-economic pressures and growing unemployment. On top of this, for several decades, rising sea-levels have led to the inundation and erosion of key areas of land and storm surges have (and continue to) contaminated the fresh groundwater lens. Thousands have already been forced to relocate further inland and urbanisation is rapidly increasing. According to McAdam, some areas of the main island, Tarawa, now have "an average population density of 135.1 people per sq km − greater than that of Hong Kong, but without high rise buildings". Inevitably, it is very likely that the entire population of Kiribati will eventually have no other option but to relocate.

Perhaps most striking is the sad irony and injustice regarding cause and effect. Kiribati's per capita carbon dioxide emissions are a mere 0.3 tonnes − minute when compared to Australia's per capita emissions of 28 tonnes.[5]

Can this crisis be effectively addressed by expanding the mandate of the Refugee Convention to include "climate change refugees"? The short answer is no. This option tends to be the "default" policy response to the situation and may seem like the most logical course of action. The overwhelming consensus of human rights scholars and experts in the field, however, is that an expansion of the existing refugee regime would be a counter-productive response for several key reasons.

Firstly, the vast majority of CCDP's affected will be internally displaced, thereby falling outside the scope of the Refugee Convention. The Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement, established in 1994, provides an advocacy and monitoring framework to assist and protect these victims, although, as is often the case with international environmental and human rights law, it is not legally binding.

Secondly, such a move would compromise the protection of existing refugees and potentially undermine the protection of CCDPs. The UNHCR already struggles to protect roughly 15 million refugees whose status is clearly defined. In addition, the Refugee Convention deals only with adaptation and does not have the capacity to establish and incorporate long-term pre-emptive, managed migration. This is really what it all boils down to: acknowledging the problem and planning so that victims of climate change displacement don't become "refugees" in the first place. The sheer scale and complex nature of climate change displacement requires a specialised solution. A "one size fits all" policy response is not going to be effective.

The most effective way for the international community to protect victims of climate change displacement is through the establishment of a specifically designed, stand-alone and legally-binding convention which incorporates mitigation − in cooperation with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) − adaptation, regional and international cooperation and forward-planning.

Longer-term solutions

While adaptation efforts may go a long way in helping to ease the impacts of climate change and delay the forced migration of civilians, longer-term solutions must also be established. McAdam, who has spent a considerable amount of time on the ground in Kiribati consulting with members of government and civilians, believes managed migration could potentially be the most effective mechanism to address displacement in Pacific Island nations where slow-onset change will inevitably lead to trans-border displacement. She notes that the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has been very vocal in promoting "merit-based migration" or "migration with dignity", in which citizens (particularly the young) could apply for overseas working visas in advance.

Tong is keen to skill up the population of Kiribati as a means of providing citizens with labour skills to be of use abroad and contribute at home in the meantime if they are unable to migrate. At the World Environment Conference in New Zealand in June 2007, Tong outlined this plan and highlighted the importance of taking pre-emptive action, stating: "[W]e want to begin that [migration] now, and do it over the next 20, 30 or 40 years, rather than merely, in 50 to 60 years time, simply come looking for somewhere to settle our 100,000 people because they can no longer live in Kiribati, because they will either be dead or drown. We begin the process now, it's a win-win for all and very painless, but I think if we come as refugees, in 50 to 60 years time, I think they would become a football to be kicked around."

There are many benefits of a managed migration system: population pressures can be alleviated, more citizens can remain for longer than if everyone were forced to stay put (a common desire amongst many older civilians), remittances from migrants could contribute to further adaptation funding in Kiribati and perhaps, most importantly, McAdam explains, "it would allow younger people to move to other countries, earn a living, send remittances back home and be seen as valued contributors to their new country, rather than being seen as charity cases".


[1] UNHCR, 2012, 'The State of the World’s Refugees: In Search of Solidarity', available at:, accessed 12 April 2012.

[2] International Organisation for Migration, 2009, Compendium of IOM’s Activities in Migration, Climate Change and the Environment, IOM, April 2010.

[3] The Brookings Institution - London School of Economics Project on Internal Displacement, September 2011.

[4] Robinson, cited in: Environmental Justice Foundation, 2009, No Place Like Home: Where Next for Climate Refugees?, EJF, London.

[5] UN Data, 2012, Country Profile: Kiribati, World Statistics Pocketbook/United Nations Statistics Division, , accessed 29 Sept 2012.

Claire van Herpen is a Melbourne-based member of Friends of the Earth's Climate Frontlines Collective who, in 2012 completed her Masters dissertation on climate change displacement and the need for a new international framework. For more information on FoE's climate justice campaign or to read Claire's dissertation in full, visit The author welcome queries or feedback and can be contacted at [email protected]


Friends of the Earth, Australia has been working with Pacific Island communities to raise awareness of the effects of climate change on Australia's nearest neighbours. We have been heavily involved in a Climate Justice campaign which began in 2002 and focuses on vulnerable communities, particularly in the Pacific Islands region. We are also supporting the Tulele Peisa ("sailing the waves on our own"), a local community organisation in Papua New Guinea that is implementing a "pre-emptive, managed" relocation of Carteret Islanders to mainland Bougainville in response to the impacts of climate change.