International Earth Day 2022: Climate migrants are on the move, and the law must move with them

International Earth Day 2022: Climate migrants are on the move, and the law must move with them

With experts predicting the number of climate migrants will soon soar, our government needs to have the legal infrastructure in place for when it does. (Image: A Syrian refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens via Julie Ricard, Unsplash)

By Viki Ntafillis | @viki_ntaf

On International Earth Day, climate change is probably the most widely discussed topic regarding the environment; however, many are unaware of one of its most severe impacts – climate migration.

The “Groundswell” report, released by the World Bank Group in 2018, predicted a total of 143 million people from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America will become internal climate migrants by 2050.

In Australia, recent extreme weather events have shown we may not be immune to this reality.

Floods in Queensland and New South Wales earlier this year saw the decimation of countless homes; in Lismore in particular, over 2600 homes were seriously damaged and 2000 deemed uninhabitable, with residents debating whether to rebuild or relocate.

Throughout the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season experienced in five states, 33 people died, over 17 million hectares were burnt and 3,094 houses were lost.

Flooding in Lismore in early 2022. (Image: David Lowe, The Echo)

University of South Australia lecturer in Law, Sue Milne, said climate migration then becomes more complex in its interaction with the law.

“Climate migration is increasingly becoming a big issue in the international migration space, because of the increasing incidents of climate migration drivers,” she said.

“When people move across borders, you have issues with respect to the receiving country managing that.

“Then, there is the question, are climate migrants people who require international protection? That is, do they fall into protections that encompass people considered to be refugees?”

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the definition of “refugee” under international law is:

“…[a person] outside their countries of origin who are in need of international protection because of a serious threat to their life, physical integrity or freedom in their country of origin as a result of persecution, armed conflict, violence or serious public disorder.”

Milne argued climate migrants do not immediately come to mind upon reading this definition, which is a problem.

“Upon fleeing their country of nationality, how do climate migrants translate that idea of persecution to the incapacity or unwillingness of a state to address climate change issues?” Milne said.

“The state might be unable to manage climate change, or there may be poor governance that undermines public order, or mismanaged natural resources that are already scarce.

“Poor management of climate drivers can lead to conflict and may be considered discrimination.”

This idea of climate-born conflict has already manifested, with evidence showing that climate change was one direct cause of the Syrian Civil War, sparked by unrest from the 2007-2010 drought.

Drought in Syria. (Image: Khaled Al Hariri/Reuters on The Conversation)

As more places on Earth become uninhabitable, or at least unpredictable in nature, climate migration is seemingly becoming the new global crisis, but is often overlooked.

“Climate drivers are sometimes slow, so climate change is partly happening at a pace where people don’t need to immediately respond … it is changing people’s way of life incrementally,” Milne said.

She said many events across the globe, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, also detract from the climate migration crisis and its “air-play”, due to their immediate and pressing nature.

“These events are enormously tragic but they do take away from the image of climate migration in areas like Africa and South Asia, and the ongoing issues that are there all the time.”

While speaking to The YEARS Project, leading climate change scientist, Dr Michael Oppenheimer, said the movement of people across international borders will require great governmental support.

“Governments will have to think about this in advance,” Oppenheimer said.

“The answer is not to prevent people from migrating … it’s to make it easier for people to stay where they are, because they don’t really want to move.

“The only thing I can think of to help the situation is to reduce climate change enough so that … the risk of a lot of people moving to a lot of places at the same time is reduced significantly.

“Governments should be planning how they will handle migration from certain well-known climate change hot-spots.”

Rising sea levels in Haulover, Nicaragua. (Image: Cesar Nunez/The New York Times/Redux on NRDC)

Although Australia has systems in place to accept migrants fleeing persecution, Milne explained the entry process is “very controlled and contained”.

“Climate migrants could be protected under a raft of international human rights protections, so they could fall into that category of the humanitarian visa,” she said.

“But they may not have the economic wherewithal, or the relevant documentation, or possess enough proof to establish their condition to then formalise an application for regular migration.

“It’s a very small part of the possible catchment of people that can get into the regular migration scheme … there are lots of hurdles.”

Milne said the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration help facilitate the movement and resettlement of peoples with their outreach programs, but there are still “big time delays” when people arrive at refugee camps.

“People fleeing from climactic disaster zones are vulnerable because they need to move, they need to have someone help them move across territory and facilitate their entry,” she said.

“They are more vulnerable to criminal activity such as human trafficking and people smuggling.”

Fortunately, in recent years, the United Nations has taken action with the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in 2016 and Global Compact for the Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018; Australia is party to both.

Milne said this intergovernmental activity has shown direct recognition of climate migration, but there is more to be done.

“We need agreements that are binding international law, and Australia needs to increase its humanitarian intake by being more flexible in rules around managing the documentation of climate migrants,” she said.

“We also need to be more active in the climate change mitigation sphere … you don’t just tackle the end result, which is people fleeing; you tackle the cause as well.

“It needs to be a multifaceted approach.”

Evidently, climate change and climate migration are not issues that can be solved overnight, but they do need to be addressed in the very near future.

Or we all may be fighting for a place to live.

If you would like to learn more about climate migration, here are some useful resources:

Climate Migration: An Impending Global Challenge (

Homepage – The YEARS Project

Refugees Are Fleeing Climate Change – YouTube

Climate change will displace millions. Here’s how we prepare | TED-Ed

Links between migration and climate change – YouTubeClimate change and migration: How do they connect? – YouTube

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