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A Legal Opinion

  • Published at 05:47 pm June 28th, 2018
  • Last updated at 11:55 pm June 28th, 2018
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According to the UN, there is no such entity as a “climate refugee” legally. This is because international law does not recognize climate change as one of the reasons that can grant an individual refugee status.

Refugee status can only be claimed by those who have fled their national borders and fear persecution if they were to return home.

While initiatives do exist at the UN that to establish broader international frameworks for migration, which would include climate change related migrants —the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Migration— not all scholars in fact are in support of a climate migration treaty.

Scholar Jane McAdam, in her 2011 article, “Swimming against the Tide: Why a climate Change displacement Treaty is not the answer,” published in the International Journal of Refugee law, argues against the use of an international instrument as a viable response towards climate change induced displacement.

According to McAdam, focusing on international migration law to address the climate challenges could hamper other adaptive interventions that could prevent or minimize the pressure for vulnerable populations to move.

She further elaborates that most climate induced migration occurs internally, and so a national or local level response to the migrants would be more apt than an international treaty.

And on a technical level, she explains it is extremely difficult to determine who exactly is a “climate migrant” since people decide to migrate based on a variety of socio-economic factors, not limited to climate change.

In my opinion, the question of the utility of a new treaty on climate change “movement” does not refute the necessity of having legal instrument at all level addressing this topic. Indeed, one of the main purposes for the existence of law is to address new or existing situations creating a risk of harm to people and providing a legal framework for their protection and ensure them a safe and secure life. The existence of a law should be regarded as a first step enabling people to ensure a recognition of their rights to a dignify life and thus needs to exist.

However, I consider that law also needs concrete translation on the ground via actions and policies. Thus, the real question of utility of international law to respond to climate induced “movement” resides in how the current international legal system is apt to apprehend the reality of climate change as well as its well integration with the other elements of the wider system of climate actions. Still under construction, the international climate change law must develop a framework to address climate induced “movement” of population as climate change impacts are global and cross border movement do and will continue to exist, despite the lack of ambition from a part of the international community to address the subject.

Before working on the technicality of adopting a new treaty or the revision of already existing ones, there must be a consensus on the utility for law translating this new reality caused by climate change.

The question of the utility of a new treaty on climate change “movement” does not refute the necessity of having legal instrument at all level addressing this topic.

Indeed, one of the main purposes for the existence of law is to address new or existing situations creating a risk of harm to people and providing a legal framework for their protection and ensure them a safe and secure life. The existence of a law should be regarded as a first step enabling people to ensure a recognition of their rights to a dignify life and thus needs to exist.

However, law also needs concrete translation on the ground via actions and policies. Thus, the real question of utility of international law to respond to climate induced “movement” resides in how the current international legal system is apt to apprehend the reality of climate change as well as its well integration with the other elements of the wider system of climate actions.

Still under construction, the international climate change law must develop a framework to address climate induced “movement” of population as climate change impacts are global and cross border movement do and will continue to exist, despite the lack of ambition from a part of the international community to address the subject.

Anne-Laure Pilat is a visiting researcher at ICCCAD with a background in Public and European environmental law