Climate refugees – why the language the media uses matters
Since 2008, around 26.4 million people have been forced to leave their homes, not for political reasons, but because of environmental disasters. Natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and droughts have been hitting humanity without prejudice; displacing millions of men, women and children all across the globe.
The label ‘Climate Refugee’ has been commonly attributed to those individuals forced out of their home countries for disturbances relating to nature and is used across mainstream media platforms. Worryingly, however, despite having to leave their nations, they do not fall under the ‘traditional refugee’ model; meaning they are not offered the same protection or rights. This is because the 1951 Refugee Convention states that a person must be fleeing direct persecution, which threatens their life or safety, to be defined as a refugee. This persecution often relates to religion, political belief, race, sexuality, and gender identity. Obviously, a climate refugee cannot claim to be persecuted by nature – at least not in any sense beyond metaphorical – and so therein lies the issue.
As climate change continues to displace more and more people every day, it is important to consider how the mainstream media addresses the topic. Dina Ionesco, the Head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) Division at the UN Migration Agency, feels that the term climate refugee is perhaps a harmful one for many reasons. She suggests, instead, that it should be replaced with the term ‘climate migrant’.
In an article for the UN, Ionesco reasons that, while using the term refugee resonates symbolically, it is not an accurate label. This is because climate migration is mainly internal. Individuals largely do not cross borders and therefore don’t need to seek protection from a third country, or at an international level, as refugees do. She also explains that migration is not necessarily forced, because the onset of climate change often occurs at a slow pace; therefore movement is, to a degree, a matter of choice. She suggests that countries think first of migration management and agreements rather than refugee protection. She also warns that opening the 1951 Refugee Convention, as to include climate migrants, might weaken the refugee status which would be tragic given that so many people severely need protection.
Instead of creating new terms and notions, Ionesco encourages the use of already existing laws. She suggests that human rights-based approaches are vital for addressing climate migration, pointing out that the governments of these countries must hold the primary responsibility for their citizens’ protection. She states that many migration management solutions are available to provide a status for those who move in the context of climate change impacts. These solutions could come in the form of humanitarian visas, temporary protection, authorization to stay, and regional and bilateral free movements’ agreements.
Although the matter of how the media defines climate migrants is a question that still needs to be answered with more clarity, one thing is clear: the issue of climate change is not going anywhere. In 2018, there were a recorded 17.2 million new displacements associated with disasters in 148 countries and territories. Figures such as this prove just how monumental the problem is. However, there remains no set definition within global or national law and policy to protect these environmentally displaced individuals. The sooner these groups can be fairly categorised, the sooner they can receive the right legal treatment and consequent protection. But until such a time, perhaps the mainstream media should reconsider its blanket use of the term ‘climate refugee’.
This article has been written by Hal Fish who is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of UK immigration solicitors.