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Climate refugees: a new concept on the move

Published on 03 April 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Allow me to paraphrase John F. Kennedy in my way and say: My fellow Diplo lecturers, praise not what you can ask the students, praise what the students can ask you!

The magic of Diplo’s courses on multilateral diplomacy is not about what the basic texts tell initially, but about what reflections students can trigger, if they ask the right questions.

One such question was raised when we were discussing humanitarian issues. I mentioned en passant the emergence of a new concept in the humanitarian area: climate change refugees. One of the participants asked me whether the legal status of those forcibly displaced due to climate change was not highly questionable. She was right. But so was I!

At the end of 2011, I noticed that high officials of both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies invoked, on a few occasions, the existence of a new category of refugees: climate (change) refugees or environmental refugees.

Was that just a figure of speech or a rhetorical expression? Can this turn into a legal term one day?

Well, admittedly, ‘no man is a prophet in his own land, but I cannot refrain from observing that many political and legal concepts that are now currently used in the United Nations system have been at the beginning just simple enunciations or associations of existing independent terms. Sustainable development, human development, human security, or responsibility to protect were just intellectual constructs trying to marry into a single expression notions that have not been associated as such before.

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It seems that climate refugees falls into the same category of novel ideas, fragile and vulnerable to criticism about their meaning, be they legal, political or operational. But many of these ideas have the bad habit of making their own way and adapting and developing the same way as the surviving species in Darwin’s theory.

This is obviously happening with the concept of climate refugees. One year after I had heard about it in official meetings, Norway and Switzerland launched the so-called Nansen Initiative. The naked terminology of climate refugees put on new and sophisticated attire. The stage name of the improved version of climate refugees under the chapeau of the Nansen Initiative is A Protection Agenda for Disaster-induced Cross-border Displacement.

As the new ID indicates, the initiative is designed to be an inter-governmental process facilitating the exchange of experiences regarding the assistance and protection of people displaced due to natural disasters. The initiators address the need for a more coherent approach to the people displaced externally by natural disasters, including but not limited to those triggered by climate change.

The immediate objective of the Nansen Initiative was to get a better understanding of cross-border movements caused by natural disasters and to develop international consensus on how best to assist and protect those affected.

The initiators made clear that they do not envisage drafting a new convention or soft law, but rather activating a protection agenda. The world faces a problem on which there is not only a protection gap but also a knowledge gap, in view of the lack of consensus among researchers and of sufficient relevant data. The contents of the Nansen Initiative shows how much and how fast a concept presented in a multilateral framework can evolve in a short time.

Unlike the initial concept, which suggested a too broad and at the same time unclear category of victims (climate refugees) by bringing a definition that is broader and clearer at the same time (disaster-induced cross-border displaced persons), the Nansen Initiative solves a number of problems of perception:

  • Avoids the apparent exclusivity of the climate change’s victims, which is still controversial on both political and scientific grounds.
  • Avoids confusion re the term ‘refugee’ which has a clear and universally accepted meaning in international law.
  • Brings the necessary precision with respect to the term ‘internally displaced persons’ which has also an already acquired significance in the UN work.
  • Clarifies the relationship with existing UN entities (UNHCR and UNISDR) or other international organisations (IOM and IFRC) whose mandates cover partially the nature of the emerging specific category of victims.
  • Dissipates reluctance to the creation of new, legally binding instruments.

The game is not over, as some countries still require more precision and detail. Yet, it is obvious that the Nansen Initiative is now a new concept dealing with a very complex and still unchartered global problem.

A new seed has been planted in the fertile soil of the United Nations. Mark my words! We will hear more about the victims-of-disaster-induced-cross-border-displacement, or climate refugees.

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2 replies
  1. Petru Dumitriu
    Petru Dumitriu says:

    Thank you, Molly, for your
    Thank you, Molly, for your comments. As you mentioned Tuvalu, I note that the climate change issue has a specific weight for some small island countries. The issue is for them not just an international affairs issue, or a diplomatic or a political problem, among others. It is a matter of survival. These countries might not have time for long campaigns and wait for decades until treaties and protocols are concluded, when the scientific community finds consensus.

  2. Molly Conisbee
    Molly Conisbee says:

    A very interesting post by Mr
    A very interesting post by Mr Demetriu; this is indeed an issue that will increase in visibility, particularly as man-made climate change begins to really impact on island and coastal dwellers (Tuvalu for example). Although some commentators object to the idea of environmental ‘refugees’ as they think it essentialises the individuals involved, we also have to look at the plight of communities who are the victims of active (government) environmental degradation – displaced by dam building or other projects, for example. So a live debate and a timely contribution to it!

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