NCILJ Symposium 2019: Panel on Environmental Migration

The North Carolina Journal of International Law’s annual symposium on February 1, 2019 featured a panel discussion on environmental migration, moderated by UNC School of Law’s Professor Deborah Weissman. The speakers for the environmental migration panel included Elizabeth Ferris, who serves as a research professor with the Institute for the Study of Internal Migration at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and Brianna Castro, a PhD student in sociology at Harvard University. Professor Weissman presented the work of Elizabeth Keyes, the Director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore. The panelists discussed the empirical factors surrounding environmental displacement, as well and the challenge of incorporating environmental migration within the existing legal and policy framework developed to deal with refugees.

There is widespread agreement that global climate change will lead to growing numbers of migrants displaced from their homes and livelihoods due to environmental stressors and natural disasters. However, there are wide-ranging estimates about how high this figure will be. Professor Ferris cited estimates ranging from 50 million to 1 billion people displaced by climate-related stressors by the year 2050. While populations have responded to environmental stressors through migration for millennia, there is still much we do not understand about the particular causal mechanisms and migration patterns of people who are displaced due to climate-related environmental stressors.

Ms. Castro shed light on these questions in discussing her field research of families responding to El Nino drought conditions in the agrarian regions around El Carmen de Bolivar, Colombia. She suggested that migration as a response to environmental stressors is a high-risk option for families, and thereby tends not to be the first option that most people pursue. Rather, many people suffering through the El Nino drought pursued strategies to resist migration, such as reduced consumption, asset liquidation, collaborative community support, and activating social ties to help procure supplemental resources and employment.

Families possessing greater social and economic resources would often internally migrate on a temporary basis to urban areas in order to make a livelihood while the drought conditions were especially dire. However, those with less resources and social capital often sought to weather the dire climate conditions because they felt like they had nowhere else to go, and feared losing their land holdings if they moved away. Ms. Castro explained that these families were more vulnerable to “distressed migration,” where dismal conditions eventually force them to have to migrate domestically or trans-nationally, often without any secure plans or hope of ever returning to their home community.

In our current milieu, marked by diminished multilateralism in responding to global humanitarian problems, no comprehensive international legal framework exists that addresses how nations should deal with environmental migrants. Although most environmental migration is likely to occur internally within national borders, there will still be significant numbers of people forced to seek safe havens across international borders.

The prospect of people being forced to move from regions that they cannot feasibly return raises the question of how to legally conceptualize people who have been displaced due to climate-induced environmental stressors. Should they be treated as “refugees” who are fleeing their homes due to plausible threats against their life, who cannot return without facing risk of persecution? Or should they be treated as “migrants” who are moving away from their home in order to pursue better social and economic wellbeing, but who are not necessarily seeking to escape persecution? Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the international community affords stronger legal protections to refugees fleeing persecution than it does economic migrants. Accordingly, immigrants-rights advocates may be tempted to argue that climate expatriates should be considered refugees, rather than economic migrants.

However, Professor Ferris explained that climate expatriates do not fall comfortably within the recognized legal categories for refugee classification. Under the 1951 Convention, a refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted based on his or her conspicuous identity as being a member of a particular race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. It is not evident that climate expatriates would even fall under the catchall “membership in a particular social group,” since they may not be considered to suffer persecution by a discernable state or non-state actor based on their conspicuous group identity. Nevertheless, it may be the case that climate-induced environmental stressors may lend towards fiercer competition for limited natural resources in certain parts of the world, thereby exacerbating pre-existing conflict and leading to persecution of people who would fall under the traditionally-defined categories of groups classifiable as refugees. Still yet, Professor Keyes expressed concerns that broadening the scope of refugee protection to cover people displaced by climate change may lead to political pushback against an already vulnerable system of protections for refugees and asylum seekers.

In the coming years the international community will inevitably have to come to terms with how to deal with the unprecedented scale of human displacement and the profound humanitarian consequences that accompany this phenomenon. This entails working with climate-distressed regions of the world in developing programs that anticipate environmental stressors and foster community resiliency in the face of these challenges. In destination countries, immigration advocates face the difficult task of persuading the body politic to be more accepting and tolerant of migrants, in general.