January 15, 2018
Should environmental refugees be accorded refugee status?
When we think of a refugee, the image that comes to mind is an individual who is forced to flee her or his country of origin due to violence and needs protection. Rarely do we think of a refugee as someone who has been displaced because of climate change – natural or human-triggered.
The United Nations convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees describes a refugee as:
– a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group,
– is out of their country of nationality and due to fear is unable or unwilling to return.
In Canada, this definition is incorporated in sections 96 and 97 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) and does not encompass refugees or migrants who are forced to leave their homelands because of environmental disruptions that jeopardize their very existence. According to Cornell researchers, by 2060 approximately 1.4 billion people could become climate change refugees, and that number is expected to rise.
So far, there are no legal precedents from any common-law jurisdiction recognizing refugee claims on the grounds of climate change. In 2015, for example, the Supreme Court of New Zealand refused to grant leave for an appeal where the applicant’s claim was on the basis of severe environmental conditions in his home country [AF (Kiribati)  NZSC 107]. In this case, the Immigration and Refugee Tribunal of New Zealand upheld the Refugee Protection Officer’s decision stating that while situations of natural disaster and environmental risks entail significant human rights concerns, the claimant must establish that they meet the legal requirements contained in the Refugee Convention.
Now, the question is what happens if the claimant’s country of origin is failing or unable to protect its citizens from dire effects of climate change due to rising sea levels that wipe out entire villages and communities. In the future, there will be significant numbers of refugees fleeing their home countries because of climate change. The issue of whether refugee accepting-countries should recognize and protect environmental refugees under international humanitarian law remains to be addressed.