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World leaders at COP26 urged to plan for climate refugees

COP 26 is taking place in Glasgow this week as leaders from around the world attend to tackle the issue of climate change. They have been urged to make robust policies to plan for future climate refugees.

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Call to COP26 delegates to prioritise climate refugees

The UK is host to the 26th United Nations Conference of Parties (COP26) climate change summit.

This conference’s aim is to accelerate progress on the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Grassroots climate change organisations have urged leaders to act to establish policies for managing the climate refugees.

According to the UNHCR, there were over 24 million people displaced as a result of climate change in 2019.

Similarly, the worst food resource crises in 2019 occurred as a result of climate shocks and conflict.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has stated that if climate change continues unchecked, there will be a potential 200 million people displaced every year.

This is predicted to occur as a result of people being forced to abandon their homes due to unstable weather conditions and a serious risk to life.

A growing plant placed upon the palm of a hand

How will climate change affect migration?

Not all countries will be affected equally by the effects of climate change. It has been estimated that less developed countries where conflict is widespread will face the worse effects.

recent report published by the World Bank found that Bangladesh is at particular risk.

Currently projected to have almost 20 million internal climate migrants by 2050, the country has just under half of the projected number of internally displaced people across the whole of South Asia.

The policy recommendations within the report included:

  • Immediately reduce greenhouse gases to reduce climate events that drive migration
  • Countries must plan for long-term environmentally friendly, resilient and inclusive approaches to climate displacement
  • Plan for all phases of the migration process to achieve positive development outcomes
  • Improve the understanding of internal migration

What is the legal status of climate refugees?

Unsurprisingly, there are many countries who have already set out a path towards managing this crisis before it becomes unsustainable.

The current legal definition of a ‘refugee’ as it is accepted internationally is a person who:

“… owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

In some instances, this has been interpreted in legal judgements to extend to individuals fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order.”

Despite the fact the term has not yet been endorsed by the UNHCR, a ground-breaking asylum case in 2020 resulted in the UNHCR ruling that governments must recognise climate-caused human rights violations.

It was a result of a man from the Pacific nation of Kiribati who took a case against New Zealand following his failed asylum application in that country.

The UNHRC stated that although his life was not in immediate danger, they recognised that climate change is a serious threat to life which countries must consider as part of future deportation decisions.

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