Legal definition needed to ensure protection for climate refugees | Addressing the Climate Crisis

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During last year’s UN Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai, discussions around “climate migrants” and “climate refugees” were prominent among high-ranking UN officials, stakeholders, scholars, and activists. However, the legal weight of these terms came into question during a panel discussion when I inquired about the need for specific legal protections for those affected by climate-induced displacement. Surprisingly, my question was shut down by the panel organisers.

My mind wandered to the countless individuals displaced by climate change, such as the Ecuadoran refugees in New York, women in the Sundarban islands of West Bengal, and my own neighbors in Brooklyn. None of them have international legal protections guaranteeing them a dignified life.

The dismissive response at COP28 reflects a larger pattern of denial. The debate over legally defining “climate refugees” has been fierce, with critics arguing that attributing migration solely to climate change oversimplifies a complex issue. As predictions estimate 1.2 billion people could be displaced by 2050 due to climate change, the lack of legal recognition poses challenges for those seeking migration status.

While initiatives like the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration aim to address migration challenges, they fall short in offering robust legal recognition and protections to those facing climate crises. Establishing international legal frameworks for environmental migration has been met with resistance, as some fear it may impact existing refugee rights.

Despite these concerns, we cannot let the complexities of diplomacy paralyze our response to climate-induced humanitarian crises. It is urgent to rethink international agreements to address the needs of populations affected by climate change while safeguarding existing refugee rights.

While negotiating binding conventions for climate refugees may not happen immediately, it is essential to start considering them now. A collective effort is needed to reframe the way we approach climate-induced displacement, incorporating human rights-based approaches and explicit legal frameworks to ensure access to sustainable environmental justice.

We must navigate the complexities of slow-onset climate change, intertwining migration management, refugee protection, and environmental solutions to prevent involuntary displacement and uphold the human rights of those who are forced to leave their homes. Upholding human rights should guide us through this intricate political and climate landscape.

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