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Climate change refugees out on a limb  

14 July 20151 comment

People displaced from their homes by the effects of global warming will not enjoy protection under current international or Australian refugee law, according to a leading expert on the subject.

Professor Jane McAdam says that current international and national legal frameworks “neither facilitate nor support cross-border movement” in circumstances where people have been displaced because of natural catastrophes.

“Legally, there are cogent reasons why, in most cases, international refugee law will not assist people whose homes are rendered unsafe by natural disasters or the impacts if climate change, such as erosion, drought or salt water intrusion,” said Professor McAdam, of the University of New South Wales.

“Refugee law requires persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group,” she said.

“In general, the impacts of climate change or disasters will not satisfy these criteria. However, if people are adversely affected by policies adopted in the aftermath of disasters – for instance, discriminatory government policies restricting access to humanitarian assistance – then a refugee claim may succeed,” Professor McAdam said, writing in the World Economic Forum’s journal ‘Agenda’.

Her comments came as more attention is focusing on the potential consequences of climate change and just weeks after 70 per cent of the population of Vanuatu was displaced as a result of the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam.

A study in 2013 by the UN’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre showed about 22 million people were newly displaced by disasters.

However, human rights law might offer protection against the forcible return of people displaced by the effects of climate change, Professor McAdam said.

She said these laws could apply to people suffering cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

“If conditions in a country cumulatively reach a sufficient level of severity – for instance, if fresh water supplies are limited, crops cannot grow, and shelter and healthcare are compromised – then people may be eligible for protection on these grounds,” Professor McAdam said.

“But while humanitarian protection is very important, it tends to be a remedial response. It therefore makes sense to identify proactive strategies that governments can pursue now, in order to try to avoid future displacement altogether and thereby create greater security and choice for affected communities.”

Professor McAdam said a toolbox of responses was needed at local, national, regional and international levels, including facilitating climate change adaptation to enable people to remain in their homes for as long as possible, and migration strategies to help those wanting to move.

She said countries needed to enhance disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation to build resilience in communities; and that temporary forms of protection mechanisms, such as humanitarian visas or extended stay arrangements, may provide short-term relief to people who are displaced by a disaster, or who are abroad when a disaster strikes and cannot return home.

Countries should also enhance voluntary migration opportunities so that people can move before disaster strikes or slow-onset climate processes render land uninhabitable, she said.

But she said the extent to which migration and relocation can function as positive forms of adaptation, rather than signs of vulnerability, will depend largely on the laws and policies put in place.

“Well-planned strategies, developed in consultation with affected communities, can lessen the likelihood of later humanitarian emergencies and displacement. In the long run, the costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of implementing the measures discussed above – both in financial and human terms,” Professor McAdam said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist