Written by BBC
After hours of debate, the UNHCR is preparing to vote on a definition for environmental refugees and accompanying measures to assist those that fall under the new definition. The UN has not updated their definition since it was first established in the 1950s, before there was a solid understanding of climate change or its implications.
Those that are most vulnerable to climate change tend to be communities on the edge of deserts and those that are located on small islands. Rising temperatures influence weather patterns and increase the speed of desertification. Small islands are especially vulnerable, since rising sea levels threaten their very existence. Many of these communities simply will not be able to adapt to impending climate change, and will become climate refugees.
Over the course of debate, five blocs have formed with different approaches to this issue. Though many delegates have proposed unique solutions to various problems associated with climate change, the main differentiating factor between working papers at this time and the element with the most far reaching effects is their definitions of environmental refugees. The BBC was able to obtain copies of these working drafts and analyse the key differences between them.
The RAIN working paper leverages the existing infrastructure and legislation on refugees by simply classifying environmental refugees as refugees. Notably, the paper also considers those affected by natural disasters, not just permanent flooding, food shortages, or desertification, to be environmental refugees.
The DDRIP working paper defines “climate-disaster migrants” as individuals who have been “been internally displaced, as a result of urgent, systemic, and irreversible damage done to their environment caused by extreme weather events or natural disasters which have posed an immediate risk to their wellbeing” It is curious that the working paper has not included people who have been forced to leave their home nation. Additionally, the language states “urgent, systemic and irreversible damage.” This could be problematic, since it means a person would only qualify for refugee status by meeting all 3 requirements.
The RISE(ing) TIDE working paper defines Environmental Refugees similarly, with the exception of a clause which states, “as well as those with the scientifically substantiated fear of being displaced by such [climate caused disasters.]” By this definition, persons would be able to apply for refugee status and the associated benefits before such a disaster has struck.
The TIER DROP working paper includes a relatively standard definition with the exception of a sentence which allows persons to apply for refugee status owing to “fear of significant harm to the individual’s life or living conditions.” Neither fear nor significant harm have been further elaborated.
The Comrades working paper allows regional subcommittees to establish their own local definitions for environmental refugees.
The implications of this decision are enormous by any measure. Millions of people will either be included or excluded from refugee status and the potentially life saving benefits it affords depending on what definition the committee chooses. The decision should be announced by the end of the day.