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Climate migration: a growing human rights emergency without definition?

Posted on 5 October 2021

A few weeks ago the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, arrived in New York, where a series of high-level talks took place with other world leaders at the 76th UN General Assembly.  The talks took place across the backdrop of the global climate crisis. Mr Johnson addressed COP 26 as the "turning point for humanity", pushing for action on coal, climate, cars and trees, as well as on support for developing nations to mitigate the impact of the climate crisis.

However, whilst climate change has never been higher on the political agenda, the specific issue of climate migration continues to receive a worrying lack of engagement from policy makers.

Climate change induced weather events, such as heavy rainfall and flooding, are increasingly forcing people to leave their homes and obliging other communities to accept them, as well as causing the loss of livelihoods and lives around the world. Yet, the questions of how to properly identify the effects of climate change which lead to migration, how to protect and accommodate climate-displaced individuals and how to clearly articulate what it means to be a climate migrant are not being sufficiently addressed. There is no commonly accepted understanding of what it means to be a climate displaced person and, therefore, such individuals fall through the cracks of international refugee and immigration policy. Yet, we know that the issue of climate migration is growing, and the number of people being displaced continues to increase.  

On 13 September 2021, the World Bank published its updated ''Groundswell'' report which noted that climate change is ''an increasingly potent driver of migration'', and that it could ''force 216 million people across six world regions to move within their countries by 2050.'' This prediction is based on a study of three regions: East Asia and the Pacific, North Africa, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and builds upon the findings of other bodies, such as the UN International Organisation for Migration and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (''IPCC''). The IPCC, as early as 1990, noted that the greatest single impact of climate change might be on human migration—with hundreds of millions of people displaced due to  shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption by 2050. The estimate of 200 million climate migrants by 2050 appears to be the most widely accepted, and indeed has been predicted since 2005, some 16 years ago (Myers, N., “Environmental Refugees: An emergent security issue”, 13th Economic Forum, Prague, May 2005). Other estimates range up to 1 billion by 2050. To take the more conservative figure of 200 million, this would mean that by 2050, approximately one in every 45 people in the world will have been displaced by climate change (Migration and Climate Change - IPCC). Clearly, this is an issue which requires urgent attention. In the words of the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, at COP21:

"Small steps will no longer do. The biggest steps need to be taken by those with the biggest boots."

Our roundtable on climate migration

  1. Given the scale and the increasing urgency of this issue, Mishcon de Reya launched its Climate Migration Project (''CMP'') earlier this year. Following numerous meetings and discussions with interest groups, academics, and individuals who are active in the climate and migration spheres, on 10 August 2021, Mishcon de Reya hosted a roundtable event, where individuals from an impressive and diverse range of backgrounds came together to discuss the issue of climate migration ahead of COP26.
  2. The discussion was energetic and broad, with participants acknowledging the complexities and scale of the issues. The key areas of the debate and the complexities discussed at the roundtable can be summarised as follows:
  3. Climate migration is not currently sufficiently in the public discourse or on the UK's political agenda. This is despite the fact that many bodies and individuals have been raising concerns about climate migration for years.
  4. Climate migration touches on many different policy points, including economic and social matters, access to public services and widespread poverty. Participants were keen to support a framework in which all states, including in particular Global North states, could effectively be held to account for actions detrimental to the world's climate.
  5. Some participants noted that people are now focused on climate change in a way that they were not before, and that this may present an opportunity to advance the debate. However, care should be taken before deciding on a particular path, particularly in relation to making the debate part of the existing refugee rubric.
  6. The idea of broadening the rights of refugees may ultimately provide more ammunition to opponents in this area. To this end, participants were keen to take a multi-pronged approach and one which could encapsulate campaigns, general lobbying and strategic litigation.
  7. Some participants were wary of attempts to aggregate separate groups of displaced persons and were of the view that a broader approach to advocacy based on human rights and existing inequalities could prove more effective and realistic in the long run. These issues are inherent to the climate migration debate as:
    1. There is no one clear hook to demarcate climate migrants from other migrants or refugees;
    2. Those who might possibly be labelled as "climate migrants" often reject labelling or ring-fencing.  They want to move with dignity and, where relevant, free will when migration eventually happens;
    3. It is important that internally displaced people (who form the vast majority of climate migrants) are not secondary. Any solution must begin with understanding the reality on the ground and with the knowledge that the vast majority of climate driven mobility is inland, and across short distances. Protection must therefore be broad and flexible; and
    4. Climate change and migration, as separate topics, are already fervent and sometimes vitriolic breeding grounds for debate. Combining the two together may be inflammatory, at least in some corners/to some groups, and so building on existing protocols and rules is likely to be less polarising.
  8. Despite the above complexities, there is more work to be done to define the interrelationship between climate change and the movement of people. Defining this interrelationship is often cited as too difficult. However, being able to properly identify the effects of climate change on people which lead them to move could be a crucial part of advancing the debate, and a clearer coordination of the science and accompanying social science may be required.

Recent developments

Just prior to and following last month's climate migration roundtable, there have been further concerning developments across the globe, highlighting the need for immediate action:

  • Heavy rainfall and flooding in Sudan have caused considerable devastation as livestock, infrastructure and homes have been destroyed, affecting an estimated 88,000 people. More than 12,700 homes were damaged and over 4,800 homes destroyed. Most of the families affected by the heavy rain and flooding were forced to shelter with relatives and move to government buildings - Sudan flash flood update, Relief web.
  • There was also unprecedented flooding in the western hemisphere in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Netherlands in July 2021, causing widespread devastation and claiming hundreds of lives. The floods caused entire towns to be almost totally destroyed as rainfall which was six times the heaviest rainfall recorded for the month of July fell in some areas. In excess of 200 people died during these floods, which were made considerably more likely by climate change, according to the World Weather Attribution - Heavy rainfall which led to severe flooding in Western Europe made more likely by climate change – World Weather Attribution. It is clearer than ever that climate change and the effects of global warming are not limited in effect to those in the Global South and that governments from around the globe must now act with urgency to tackle this issue from a local and national level.
  • As stated above, the World Bank's updated Groundswell report was released on 13 September. It found that climate change could force 216 million people across six world regions to be internally displaced by 2050. It also found that immediate action to reduce global emissions and support green development could reduce the scale of this imminent crisis by as much as 80 percent. The UK Government should seek to take charge of the UK's response to this crisis by investing more heavily in green development and committing to reducing global emissions by reforming transport, power, building regulations and, perhaps most importantly, holding UK companies to account in respect of corporate emissions.
  • The IPCC's report, released in the days before our roundtable event, gave a stark warning on the impact and effects of climate change across the globe. Prepared by over 200 scientists from over 60 countries and standing at over 4,000 pages, the report was dense and detailed, but its findings could not have been clearer. Labelled a "code red for humanity" by the UN Secretary General António Guterres, it made headlines across the world. It confirmed that unless rapid and considerable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades, achieving the goals as set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement will be "beyond reach". The report recognises the multi-causal nature of climate migration and the difficulties in producing accurate quantitative projections for the future of those likely to be displaced, whether internally or internationally, by the effects of global warming. It is clear that without decisive and concrete action, forced climate migration will consider to rise exponentially.
  • On 4 February 2021, President Biden issued an Executive Order on planning for the impact of climate migration,  which set out to consider the "options for protection and resettlement of individuals displaced directly or indirectly from climate change". The Task Force Report from Refugees International, released on 14 July 2021, was designed to inform President Biden's report and recommends a number of actions to urgently be taken as follows:
    • Substantially increasing the administration's climate change adaption programs and the disaster risk reduction commitments to $4 and $1 billion respectively;
    • Introducing new measures to protect and resettle refugees coming from climate-impacted regions;
    • Strengthening the existing Temporary Protected Status and enacting further legislation to provide a pathway to permanent residence for those who have held this status for more than five years;
    • Strengthening protections for those displaced internally due to climate change; and
    • Promoting enhanced global coordination on climate-related migration and displacement.

The Task Force Report notes that President Biden's Executive Order is "a potentially ground-breaking development" as it "presents a historic opportunity to advance U.S. policy on these critical issues" as "comprehensive measures" are yet to be developed "that effectively target at-risk communities that may want to stay and adapt, ensure that those on the move do so safely and with dignity, and enable those who need to cross borders to obtain adequate protection and respect for their basic rights".

While it is laudable that President Biden has clearly earmarked climate migration as an issue which requires swift and thorough action, the extent to which the Task Force's wide-ranging recommendations are to be put into place remains to be seen, particularly in relation to the contentious issues of immigration and refugee status in the US.

Where to next?

Following the roundtable:

  1. We are looking into the possibility of creating a legal definition of climate migration and are in the process of collaborating with other interested legal experts to explore this aim. One of the main difficulties in tackling climate migration is that it is not easily defined. There is, in our view, a lack of cohesive action to tackle the challenges of defining the concept and therefore to address the issue from a practical, policy-making and legal standpoint. Current legal frameworks both nationally and internationally struggle to recognise the concept of climate migration because of its multifaceted causes and effects. However, that is not to say that a definition could not be promoted or harnessed, providing a focal point for action going forward and forcing politicians and legislators to take note of the need to act now at both a national and international level;
  2. We recognise the important role litigation can play, and will work to identify and pursue opportunities to bring strategic litigation to push the climate migration agenda forward. Our legal expertise and experience could be effective in advancing the interests and raising awareness of the issues surrounding climate migration. We are also eager to discuss the potential for strategic litigation with organisations who already undertake work in this space and consider how best the firm's strengths and resources may be best utilised;
  3. We will also assist by providing appropriate platforms to those already working to promote the issue of climate migration and by linking organisations, lobbyists and government groups, thereby supporting experts already operating in the space;
  4. We will focus on communication with the general public, which will be incredibly important as the public are and can be a driver for change. There is a lot of misinformation in the migration/refugee space which presents an opportunity to provide education and resources to individuals, so that public support can be garnered for this project. Our aim is to work to raise awareness of the issue prior to and after COP to dispel current misinformation;
  5. We will work with youth activist groups to further raise awareness in this area;
  6. We are working on the delivery of a Global Youth Climate Inquiry, in the context of youth activation around COP26. The Inquiry will receive written submissions from young people from around the world, with the youth then delivering a statement which will be handed over to the world leaders attending COP26. We have partnered with One Young World and The Democracy and Culture Foundation on the project and we have commitments from over 30 respondents to take part. The submissions received to date have been powerful; and
  7. We are in communication with individuals in the UK political sphere in order to feed into an All Party Parliamentary Group inquiry into climate migration.

The UK's hosting of COP26 means that now is a pivotal moment to engage with our shifting climate. Mishcon de Reya is committed to facilitating the continued international conversation on climate migration, putting this firmly on the agenda at COP26 and beyond. We are exploring the need for key action to be taken to further the cause of climate migration and warmly welcome any thoughts, comments or proposed partnerships from individuals already operating in this space.

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