The last few years saw an increase in the awareness of the devastating consequences of climate change, with more and more people expressing fear for their future. What we easily forget is that for millions of men and women (17.2 million people in 144 countries and territories just in 2018) the effects of global warming and of harmful human practices are not simply a frightening possibility, but a harsh reality they must deal with. These people, the so-called “environmental migrants”, are forced to leave their homes and move to different regions or countries.
Despite the seriousness of their condition, these migrants are not granted with the status of refugees, as climate and environmental change are not considered causes of persecution. This topic is obviously highly debated, and it was the main focus of the event “Political Issues of Environmental Migration”. The discussion took place on December 2 during COP25 and it involved the participation of Ibrahim Mbamoko, director of Carré Géo & Environnement, Mariam Traore Chazalnoel of the International Organization for Migration, and Alpha Oumar Kaloga, member of the Executive Committee on Loss and Damage.
As Mbamoko observes, “victims of environmental crisis have the same motion strategy of victims of conflicts”. In fact, these two groups face the same struggles: poverty, a lack of knowledge of what is happening beyond national borders, and a high likelihood of being rejected from countries of destination.
Notwithstanding the striking similarities, environmental migrants are not considered legal refugees. According to Traore right now the recognition of an international binding status is extremely unlikely. Firstly, several Member States of the United Nations consider this a politically unattractive option. These countries are usually the wealthiest ones, and they therefore have a higher bargaining power in negotiations. Moreover, many fear that attempting to change the Geneva Convention, whose scope is already being restricted by national legislations, could actually cause more harm to individuals seeking protection. Finally, extending the refugee status to climate migrants would also be complicated from a technical point of view, as it is hard to identify the impact of climate change on the decision to migrate.
The conversation on the recognition of the refugee status to environmental migrants raises many doubts and we may be tempted to swept it aside. Whether we are willing to tackle the issue or not, climate-induced displacement is a phenomenon that is happening right now. What we can decide is how we choose to deal with it.