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Is it misleading to speak about climate refugees? Of legal concepts, metaphors, and human suffering …

Published on 02 May 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Who is a refugee? Who should be offered protection from human suffering? Much depends on how we define legal concepts.

A recent topic that emerged in Diplo’s blogsphere is the question of climate refugees. Petru Dumitriu, senior Diplo fellow and Diplo lecturer on Multilateral Diplomacy, reflected on the Nansen Initiative which aims at developing a definition by suggesting a new terminology:  disaster-induced cross-border displaced persons. Petru sees this as an emerging concept in the realm of humanitarian issues.

Aldo Matteucci, Diplo’s resident contrarian, argues that this represents a misleading analogy. It is a mere metaphor that is based on the current fashionable issue, climate change, and is able to steer the emotion, but ultimately one that is unhelpful. What follows is a reply to Aldo.

Aldo, you seem to take considerable issue with the idea of climate refugees. And while this kind of critically engagement with new concepts is crucial, I disagree with your conclusions. I disagree that “climate refugee” is a metaphor and I disagree that it is an expression mainly designed to steer the emotions.

Let me start on a consensual note. I agree with your observation that climate change is “the flavour of the decade,” a kind of fashionable lens applied to all kinds of problems. We should ask whether or not this frame is the most productive one. This is a question you raise and indeed, we need to raise it.

However, I disagree on two crucial points.

Firstly, I, for once, would argue that we do not encounter analogy/ metaphor in this case. What we have with regards to climate refugees is a (potential) widening of the concept of refugee. Speaking of climate refugees, if it is aimed at the broadening of the definition of refugee, is not an argument by analogy but an instance of deduction.

What is a refugee? A refugee is a person who “[a]s a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” (United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR), 1 A (2))

The concept of climate refugees, if accepted in international law is a widening of this definition to include persons who cross national borders due to the impacts of climate change. To paraphrase the above definition, they are “outside the country of their nationality and unable to avail themselves of the protection of that country or are unable to return to that country” due to disastrous environmental impacts of climate change.

Note, how this is not an argument by metaphor or analogy. A metaphor brings two different entities, ideas, themes, or disciplines into contact with each other and through an interanimation of thoughts new insights are created that are then expressed in the metaphor.

Potentially, when we are talking about climate change refugees, we are adding one criterion to the list of reasons for falling under the refugee convention. The definition is widened and is then applied deductively to a specific case.

Secondly, I find your reply to Petru astonishingly devoid of a “human dimension.” You argue that the concept of climate refugees is useful in steering the emotions. It reminds me of the argument one often encounters when discussing metaphors: metaphors are not to be taking seriously because they are only rhetorical tools for persuasion and propaganda; in other words, they are emotional and not rational. While, I don’t think the term climate refugee is a metaphor, I agree that using this term is well suited in creating an emotional response.  But why is this a bad thing? There is no such thing as pure rationality. Why shouldn’t we be emotional in looking at and addressing the plights of fellow humans? The rational-emotional dichotomy predominant is Western thought is unhelpful and is very easily used in legitimising politics that are dehumanising.

The list of points you provide does not contribute to seeing the issue more clearly in my opinion. Points like number four about the “true” refugee (you argue that it is hard to know people’s true intentions and whether or not they are really persecuted) and number six (everyone contributes) and seven (some aspects of climate change will lead to benefits (for some)) seem rational but conveniently black out the single most important aspect when we talk about refugees: human suffering. 

Why should the definition of refugee be limited to those fleeing from war and ethnic cleansing? In light of new dangers to a dignified human existence we should think hard about widening the definition of refugee and the responsibility of the international community that go with it.

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3 replies
  1. william
    william says:

    The critical point in the
    The critical point in the sustainability of human nature is optimum environment.
    Therefore the concept of climatic refugees is complete sure ,in the aspect of industry revolution and population explosion .

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this post. I think
    Thanks for this post. I think changing the Refugee Convention so it helps people who move because of climate change might not actually be the best way of helping those people. First, because the Refugee Convention specifies clear things a person must be fleeing in order to gain refugee status. “Climate Change” is too vague and difficult to specify as a push factor for people crossing a border. This could leave this new category of “refugees” actually without the protection hoped for, because the definition would be so open to challenge and interpretation. I think it is problematic using the “climate refugee” frame to evoke powerful emotions. So in this count I disagree with both Katharina and Aldo. It is a convenient way of fitting people who move in the context of climate change into an existing box. The trouble is this is not how people who actually move in this context see themselves, or want to be seen by others. A growing number of people see moving as a dignified and empowering way of adapting to climate change. For example by moving to find work in a city and sending money home to their community. This is quite a long way from the images of people walking to refugee camps – which is what is evoked by the “climate refugee” phrase. People facing the prospect of reloaction tend to dislike the “climate refugee” frame as it suggests they will move to camps, be impoverished and dependent on aid. When in fact they would prefer to move and be seen as useful and welcome citizens of the place they move to. It’s great that Diplo is looking at these issues. We run a blog that explore much of this in more depth: http://www.climatemigration.org.uk

    • Katharina Hone
      Katharina Hone says:

      Dear Alex, Thank you very
      Dear Alex, Thank you very much for this reply. I find it extremely helpful in further clarifying things. Petru Dumitriu from Diplo published an earlier post on the Nansen Initiative. The definition envisaged here would be: “A Protection Agenda for Disaster-induced Cross-border Displacement”. In this post that was in the back of my head when writing about climate refugees: sudden response to disaster not a gradual adaptation. International law should provide better for these instances of environmental disaster and the resulting massive relocation of people. However, I also think that you make a very important point: maybe it is more helpful to focus on relocation as adaptation and the provisions countries’ immigration systems provide in these cases. I agree, the term refugee would be most unsuitable in this case. Also, thanks for pointing to your organisation. PS: I am currently based at Aberystwyth University, Department of International Politics. We will be having Prof Richard Black speaking on “Migration in a Warmer World” next week. I will keep you updated.

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