The legal definition of climate refugee protection is necessary

“Climate migrants” and “climate refugees” resounded loudly in conference rooms and panels during the UN Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai last year. Prominent UN officials, outside stakeholders, academics, and activists dealing with the effects of climate change utilized these titles with great enthusiasm. I emphasized that these terms have no legal significance during a panel discussion and asked whether there should be any special legal rights for people who are displaced due to climate change. The panel organizers abruptly stopped answering my question, shocking the attendees.


My thoughts immediately turned to the many people I knew who had been displaced by climate change: the Ecuadoran refugees who came to New York in search of safety from the environmental unrest back home, the women in West Bengal’s Sundarban islands who were facing climate-related disasters but were unable to leave, and a large number of my Brooklyn neighbors who have regularly had their homes destroyed by heavy rains. They are all without any kind of international legal protection that would allow them to live honorable lives. Sadly, there is a wider pattern of denial reflected in the contemptuous response at COP28. Legal definitions of “climate refugees” have been the subject of intense global discussion for many years.


A complex network of factors affect human movement, and critics frequently claim that blaming migration exclusively on climate change oversimplifies the issue. They contend that these definitions downplay the part that institutions, people’s reactions, and social settings play in turning environmental pressures into crises. Therefore, it is impossible to discriminate between economic migrants and climatic refugees due to this intricacy. Paradoxically, this argument actually continues to be made in tandem with projections that indicate 1.2 billion people (PDF) may experience displacement by 2050 as a result of risks associated with climate change.

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