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Climate change and displacement: protecting ‘climate refugees’ within a framework of justice and human rights

Sumudu Atapattu

Keywords: climate refugees; small island states; Task Force on Climate Displacement; Nansen Initiative; Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction; Geneva Convention on Refugees; dignity rights

One of the far-reaching consequences of climate change relates to the forced displacement of people. Climate-induced migration is a very complex issue. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants noted the varied reasons for migration as being armed conflict, poverty, food insecurity, persecution, terrorism, human rights violations, climate change and natural disasters. Despite the recognition in the very first IPCC report in 1990 that the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration, it took climate negotiators over two decades to include displacement in climate documents. This article discusses complexity, scale and displacement scenarios, paying particular attention to the plight of small island states and to the climate-conflict-displacement nexus. It analyses the legal regime applicable to political refugees under international law and the current legal lacuna with regard to climate refugees. It surveys recent developments including the Global Compact on Migration, and the Task Force on Climate Displacement. This article argues that while current human rights law provides some protection, it is insufficient, and that the international community should take urgent action to design a legal regime to protect the rights of climate displacees. This is especially true of inhabitants of small island states who will be forced to move because their states are ‘disappearing’. The article argues that major emitters owe a legal duty to help climate displacees and especially the inhabitants of small island states.

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