Securing Climate Migration in International Law

No binding international convention or compact subsequent to 1951 has explicitly expanded or addressed climate change migrants’ status or afforded any special protections.

By Emma Schaechter-Santander

The world hears President Donald Trump denounce migrants from Central America fleeing the intertwined crises of poverty, violence, and climate as an “invasion.” This rhetoric has spawned nativist sentiment across the United States, and a fear of the “other.” In the near future, increased environmental pressures will not only risk increased migration from Central America, but also worsen the nationalist political rhetoric surrounding the topic of migration. It will highlight how the drivers and consequences of migration can lead to both international and domestic insecurity. 

The Absence of Climate in International Migration Law

Migration broadly includes people who move for reasons including family, work, environment, or persecution, both domestically and internationally. An important subset of migrants are refugees, who are afforded special privileges by customary international law. Among the most important of these protections is non-refoulement, which mandates that no refugee should be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.

Landmark international laws governing migration include the 1951 Refugee Convention, and its associated 1967 Refugee Protocol. The Refugee Convention and Protocol defines refugees as those who migrate outside their country of origin due to “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” As significant as this statement was in the post-World War II era, it omitted an essential factor: the climate.

Broadly speaking, a climate migrant is a person who has been displaced by climate change. No binding international convention or compact subsequent to 1951 has explicitly expanded or addressed climate change migrants’ status or afforded any special protections. As agreed upon regionally in Latin America, the 1986 Cartagena Declaration expanded the previous definition of refugee to include those threatened by “…massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” Some have argued that through this expansion, climate change could be included as one of those circumstances which have disturbed public order. Still, whether such protections are afforded to climate migrants depends on the will of the sovereign host government.

More recently, the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration recognized climate change as a cause of migration but did not actionably propose affording climate migrants any special protections. This is partly due to persistent disputation regarding the phrase “climate refugee,” a term which is not codified in international law.

Arguments Supporting and Opposing Climate Change Protections into Refugee Law

Advocates for the inclusion of climate as a reason for refugee status argue that climate migrants deserve the right to non-refoulement, given their homes may be overwhelmed by sea level rise, drought, natural disaster, or fires that mean they are categorically unsafe for return. While land may remain, the conditions may be uninhabitable or unsustainable for climate migrant families, justifying their protest to repatriation. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has projected that between 25 million and one billion people could migrate due to climate-related factors by 2050.

Arguments against the promulgation of the term climate refugee are proffered by intergovernmental organizations and developed nations. Some argue that in the current period of nationalistic sentiment, opening up the Refugee Convention might lead to constriction, rather than expansion of the definition, jeopardizing existing groups. Further, definitional expansion may pit a newly recognized group of climate refugees against the currently included “persecuted” refugees. Given that many countries set a quota for refugees, competition among an expanded pool of refugees is a legitimate concern. Thirdly, others argue that the term climate refugee focuses solely on international instead of internally displaced peoples, which are by far the largest proportion of those displaced by climate and environmental events. A 2018 World Bank report predicts that by 2050, climate change will internally displace over 143 million people across Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America. Meaningful and systemic attention to climate migration must include action steps and protections for the internally displaced.  

The Security Loophole in International Migration Law

Potential security concerns related to climate migration underscore the need for a categorical definition, which results in special protections. Internationally, leaving the term undefined risks heightened tension between countries of origin and receiving countries, mistreatment of migrants, and the propagation of rebel or insurgent groups, given that migrant camps are fertile ground for combatant recruitment. It is almost certain that irregular migration will increase and in response, receiving states will perceive that their sovereignty is being threatened. There is already evidence that this dynamic leads to increased human trafficking and smuggling, placing at risk migrant health, safety, and sanctity, and increasing associated criminal activities, such as drug smuggling.

Ignoring climate migrants can lead to lack of aid or action in the developing nations predicted to feel climate effects first, particularly among those of the lowest socioeconomic status. As migrants flee to big cities, poverty and instability in overflowing population centers will increase, as employment opportunities decrease. Anger and dissatisfaction with the government may lead to internal conflict between factions, and ultimately lead to further scarcity of resources.

Latin America: Showcasing the Legal and Security Complexities of Climate Migration

Though sparse, empirical evidence on climate migration and security indicates significant reasons for concern surrounding climate migration. One such example is the experience of migrants in the Central American Dry Corridor. Severe drought alternating with overwhelming rains in 2018 plunged millions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras into food insecurity, as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that hundreds of thousands of hectares where staple crops were planted were lost. The FAO found that in the Dry Corridor, the incomes of over one quarter of families, mostly subsistence farmers, were not enough to afford basic foods, driving many to consider migrating elsewhere. 

Many migrants escaping Central America flee to Mexico, or through Mexico to the United States. Both nations have seen asylum claims skyrocket, propelled by Central American migrants. Despite a decline in immigration from Mexico, the overall increase in immigration to the United States has resulted in a scapegoating of Mexican immigrants for frustrations about immigrants. The Trump Administration has continued its border wall initiative, nativists have cheered family separation at the border and have targeted communities of Latin descent, as exemplified by the El Paso Walmart shooting

Despite the fact that climate pressures in Central American nations necessitate aid, Trump has threatened to decrease support if the United States’ southern neighbors do not unilaterally reduce the flow of migrants. Given the increasing occurrences of drought, natural disasters, and food insecurity in these countries, reducing support will likely aggravate the situation and ultimately increase overall migration-flows – particularly within countries. Strained access to resources exacerbates the already present risk of poverty, which then increases the likelihood of crime and violence, one of the key reasons why Central American migrants seek asylum internationally. These situations are incubators for anti-government groups and criminal activities, as indigent city dwellers are driven to their last resort in overwhelmed cities, while governments struggle to manage both socioeconomic and environmental challenges.

Here, the gaps in international migration law become apparent. The drivers of northward migration from Central America are not monolithic. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, increasing the likelihood of migration, violence, exacerbation of environmental damage, and security risks. The futures of climate migration and global security are intertwined. Without proper recognition and support for climate migrants both inside and outside national borders, and the requisite international cooperation, climate migration will present far reaching problematic security conditions.

Moving Forward

First, appropriate and binding legal terminology for climate migrants is needed. This is probably best executed outside of the 1951 Refugee Definition, so as to define this unique migration situation, and to grant suitable privileges, inclusive of non-refoulement. Defining climate migrants outside of the refugee definition allows for greater specificity, less confusion, and precludes the weakening of the Refugee Convention.

A second imperative is that the international system, particularly developed countries with large contributions to climate change, promote development, sustainability, and adaptation in countries that are highly vulnerable. New programs and increased aid can usher in food security by introducing new crops, climate forward agricultural practices, and subsidizing industries likely to suffer the effects of climate change.

Support should also flow towards helping countries address socioeconomic factors that interact with climate change impacts. For receiving countries hoping to limit international migration, aid spent bolstering a developing country’s climate resistance is a proven measure. The European Union uses this approach in the African Sahel region, where it donates millions of euros annually to promote stability, aid displaced people and their hosts, and help to combat local insurgencies. Such a strategy, already accepted in the international community, should be used elsewhere to prevent the security risks presented by the increasing volumes of climate migration. 

Migration is one of the most cited national security implications of climate change, but nothing will be done about it if our fundamental guides for managing it lack enough instruction to mandate genuine action. Only once climate and other factors are included in the legal terminology can we say that perceptions of migration worldwide are starting to change to be more inclusive. Only then can we ensure aid and capacity building are successful. Though not a complete solution, these initial steps are necessary to better position us for the expansion of climate migration in coming decades.

Emma Schaechter-Santander is an Environmental Security Analyst for the Center of Development and Strategy. Based in Geneva, she is currently completing her Master’s degree in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Switzerland. She previously interned for the US Department of State, the Panamanian Mission to the UN, the University of Miami’s Office of Hemispheric and Global Affairs, and the Miami Herald. Contact: