Environmental Migrants: Are They Refugees?

123 Pages Posted: 23 May 2013

See all articles by Adèle de Mesnard

Adèle de Mesnard

Charles University in Prague - Faculty of Law

Date Written: January 17, 2013


In recent years, the frequency and intensity of environmental disasters raised awareness among the international community that the impact of environmental degradation on migration could be acutely exacerbated in the future. There have been many international calls to take steps for an international regime of protection of the affected populations.

However, current works on environmental migrations demonstrate that it is still a very controversial and highly political issue.

As follows, we criticize the analogy made between traditional refugees and environmental migrants. From a legal and practical perspective, the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol is not appropriate to address the plight of environmentally induced migrants. Combining the protection of affected populations to other regional refugee protection regimes is also misleading. The term “environmental refugees” cannot adequately capture the diversity of migrations induced by environmental degradation. Besides, given the current States migration policies, extending the status of refugees to affected people could threaten the effectiveness of the Convention protection regime. In this way, through the detailed study of draft conventions and recommendations already made, we consider the possibility of drawing up a universal status specifically dedicated to the environmentally-induced migrants.

However, our work also highlights all along the great difficulty of directly linking environmental degradations and migration. Addressing these closely inter-linked environmental, socio-economic and cultural factors lead us to consider alternative approaches for perceiving migration. We also must think of environmental migrations according to the different and local contexts in which environmental degradations may occur and affect population displacements. It appears therefore necessary to take into account the highest vulnerability of the poorest and above all, of indigenous peoples. In the view of their unique characteristics and their claims on the international scene, we question how the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights must be connected to the issue of protecting environmental migrants. Studying the particular case of Tuvalu and how the terms “environmental refugee” and “migration” are perceived by Tuvaluan also illustrate how the more flexible regional and bilateral agreements could be more effective to respect and protect the link with their community.

Keywords: environmental refugees, environmental migrations, indigenous peoples, Tuvalu

Suggested Citation

de Mesnard, Adèle, Environmental Migrants: Are They Refugees? (January 17, 2013). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2264717 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2264717

Adèle De Mesnard (Contact Author)

Charles University in Prague - Faculty of Law ( email )

Nam. Curieovych 7
Praha, 11640
Czech Republic

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