Human Rights Monitor
Person 'on move' due to climate change: refugee, migrant, or displaced?
Mostafa M Naser
Bangladesh is considered as one of the most vulnerable and exposed countries to climate change. According to Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index 2012, Bangladesh is identified as the most affected country due to the impacts of climate change in the last 20 year period (1990-2010). The geographic location, flat and low-lying topography, high population density, poverty incidence, and dependence on natural resources and services render this country particularly vulnerable to climatic changes. Over the next decade, a considerable number of people could be affected by hydrological and meteorological events in Bangladesh. People affected by these intensifying hazards will come under substantial pressure to migrate (temporarily or permanently, and internally or across borders) due to perceived threat to their life and livelihood. The existing density of population would make such mass human movement as one of the most severe on earth.
The academics and policymakers use different terminologies such as 'refugees', 'migrants' or 'displaced persons' to identify the persons move for environmental reasons. Without a precise definition, policymakers are not easily able to establish plans for protection of these potential large numbers of displaced people.
It is confirmed by various studies that most of the movement related to climatic impacts will be internal. Only very few individuals who have money, education, and networks abroad will succeed to cross international borders for safe refuge. In such case, those international migrant will not get protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention since there is wide agreement that the persons moved for environmental reasons do not fit so well in the refugee definition, and hence do not qualify for refugee status. So, it is inappropriate and misleading to characterise those 'environmentally displaced people' as 'refugee'. (See, detail in Law & Our Rights, Issue: 259; This author received many queries from readers asking 'what should be the appropriate terminology then to identify these people')
Taking this notion into consideration some scholars, notably IOM, on the contrary, use the terms 'environmental migrant' or 'climate change migrant'. The term 'migrant' means 'any person who changes his or her country of usual residence'. Traditionally, it implies the 'people who have left their communities because they are poor or in search of other livelihoods'. It is mostly reserved for an opportunity seeker who left home to find a work. For example, the term 'economic migrant' or 'migrant worker' is widely used to mean the person who left home for better living conditions. Whereas refugees are compelled to flee and leave their homes without any choice, migrants make a voluntary, rational choice to leave their country. The UNHCR Handbook distinguishes refugees from economic migrants defining them as 'people who moved exclusively by economic considerations' to 'voluntarily' leave their country in order to 'take up residence elsewhere'. So, if the human movement due to climate change is termed as environmental/climate change migrants, it would characterise them as 'primarily voluntary migrants' and imply that those people though apparently moved for environmental reasons; their decision to move is guided by economic incentives. Such notion is opposite to reality. Evidently, thousands of people in the face of severe natural disasters such as flood, storms and cyclone, are compelled to leave their home in search of food, shelter and livelihood. So, characterising those people as 'migrant' bears the risk of treating them as 'opportunity seeker' or 'economic migrant' by the policy makers.
Notably, problem with the terms 'refugee' and 'migrant' is that they imply that a person has crossed an internationally recognised border. But it is evident that people displaced by climate change generally do not cross the state borders. Since most of them are likely to stay within national borders and therefore, internally displaced persons (IDP), using the terminology 'refugee' or 'migrant' may weaken their legal status. It makes a big difference whether people are perceived as refugees, other types of forced migrants or voluntary migrants for the purpose of legal protection. Conversely, the term 'displacement' has no such limitation attached with the extent of movement. The term implies both internal and cross border movement. So, the term 'climate change displaced persons' seems more appropriate to refer those forced migrants who are compelled to leave their habitat as that becomes unliveable due to sudden or progressive environmental degradations.
The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Law, University of Chittagong.