December 4, 2023

Climate refugees: A new reality for Caribbean Small States?

Alicia Nicholls

For many people, the decision to leave one’s place of birth, family, friends and possessions for lands unknown is not one that is lightly taken. But this is a decision an increasing number of people will be forced to make. In 2018, a groundbreaking World Bank report entitled ‘Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration estimated that in three regions of the world (Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America), just over 143 million people – or 2.8 percent of these regions’ population – could be internally displaced due to the effects of climate change by 2050. The year 2050 may seem like a long time away, but already in the Caribbean, we bear witness to the impact of displacement due to climate change.

How climate change causes displacement

Climate change is, without doubt, one of the biggest threats facing the planet and mankind. The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that over the period 2008-2018, approximately 265.3 million people worldwide were internally displaced due to disasters. The IMDC further noted that Small Island Developing States (SIDS) were disproportionately affected by natural hazards. As climate change worsens, this number is increasing.

Climate change causes displacement in several ways. Firstly, rising sea levels cause coastal erosion. Kiribati, an archipelagic nation in the Pacific comprising some thirty low-lying atolls, is on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Rising sea levels have already claimed some of its land area and it is estimated that the island nation will be uninhabitable within decades as whole islands could disappear.

Secondly, hurricane damage can displace entire populations. The whole island of Barbuda (part of the island nation of Antigua & Barbuda) had to be temporarily evacuated following Hurricane Irma in 2017. A reported 130,000 Puerto Ricans (4% of the population) have left that US island territory in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, according to the US Census Bureau.

In September this year, the island of Abaco in the Bahamas was rendered virtually ‘uninhabitable’ due to category-five Hurricane Dorian which lingered above the island for hours unleashing torrential rain and storm surges. Thousands of Abaco residents had to be evacuated to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas.

Thirdly, changes in weather patterns can make some places uninhabitable due to drought, declining water supply and falling crop yields which force residents to move to more inhabitable and productive places. Sea level rise can also lead to saltwater infusion into natural aquifers, rendering the water undrinkable.

Displacement due to climate change can affect any country. But the problem is exacerbated in SIDS like those in the Caribbean, the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, some of which are either low-lying and/or have small land areas. Even in some SIDS with larger land areas and/or more mountainous land topographies, the population and major infrastructure tend to be concentrated primarily along coastal areas putting them at risk to storm surges during storms and sea level rise.

Whereas in a larger country like the US, for example, displaced populations can move to another State, inhabitants of small islands have no such luxury. For many SIDS, the threat of their homeland being rendered uninhabitable and eventually disappearing is a real one.

What can be done?

Firstly, it is important to tackle the root cause of climate-caused displacement – climate change. From individuals, to households, to businesses, to municipalities, to countries, we all have to make cutting our emissions and adopting environmentally friendly habits our imperative.

We must pressure our leaders to honour the commitments they made upon signing the historic Paris Agreement in 2015. It is incumbent on SIDS to hold the international community to account, to not just aim for limiting global average temperature increases to no greater than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but the more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees. The previously mentioned World Bank Report noted that global action now could reduce the number of people forced to move due to climate change by as much as 80 percent.

Secondly, while the term ‘climate refugee’ is used to describe natural persons who are displaced from their homelands by the adverse impacts of climate change, it is not a recognized term in international law. It also should be noted that while used interchangeably, ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ are two different concepts.

The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 (Geneva Convention on Refugees), ratified by over 140 countries worldwide, only recognizes as a ‘refugee’ a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence and who is unable or unwilling to return because of a wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. Therefore, only persons falling under this definition are regarded under international law as ‘refugees’ and are entitled to the rights and protections under the Convention.

Refugees have several rights and protections under the Geneva Convention on Refugees and other international conventions. These include the right of non-refoulement (not to be returned to the place where his/her life or freedom would be threatened due to any of the reasons listed in the Convention), right to education, employment, housing, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, inter alia.

The UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, signed by over 160 countries in 2018, was the international community’s first step towards recognising the concept of climate migrants for the first time. In light of growing numbers of displaced persons due to armed conflicts, political crises and natural disasters, this international agreement sought to create a global response for better managing migration. However, not only is the agreement non-binding, but several major countries have opted not to ratify it due to immigration concerns. The agreement is also limited to migrants, and does not explicitly recognise ‘climate refugees’.

Countries’ asylum laws also do not currently recognize or protect ‘climate refugees’. It is, therefore, of interest to see one Democratic candidate, Julian Castro, in the current US Presidential election in 2020 commit to expanding US immigration law to provide recognition and protection for ‘climate refugees’.  In a report it was noted that “while the EU has so far not recognised climate refugees formally, it has expressed growing concern and has taken action to support and develop resilience in the countries potentially affected by climate-related stress”.

The battle will not be easy. Climate-caused displacement is coinciding with a global migration crisis and a groundswell of nationalism, xenophobic sentiment and closing borders across the world, particularly in the US and western Europe. Just this week, in a sad but unsurprising move, the Trump Administration refused to grant temporary protection to Bahamians fleeing the post- Hurricane Dorian devastation in their homeland. However, as the countries most responsible for anthropogenic (manmade) climate change, the ‘Global North’ has a moral obligation to assist those poorer countries which are the most affected and least culpable for climate change, not only in terms of facilitating our mitigation and adaptation, but assisting our displaced people.

The reality is that unless urgent action is taken to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit climate change, we all may become climate refugees one day. Caribbean countries should join with other sympathetic nations to lobby for increased global action and lasting solutions to climate change, and the climate migration crisis. This includes calling for the explicit recognition of, and protections for, climate-displaced persons both in international law and the domestic law of countries.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed herein are her personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may be affiliated from time to time.


The Caribbean Trade Law and Development Blog is owned and was founded by Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc. (Hons), M.Sc. (Dist.), LL.B. (Hons), a Caribbean-based trade and development consultant. She writes and presents regularly on trade and development matters affecting the Caribbean and other small states. You can follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw. All views expressed on this Blog are Alicia's personal views and do NOT necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may from time to time be affiliated.

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