December 19, 2017 | By Vicky Stavropoulos

Developing Protections for Climate Change’s Forced Migrants: Creating a Legal Definition and Framework for Action

In 2009, Ioane Teitiota became the first person to apply for refugee status due to climate change. He and his family moved to New Zealand from the low-lying Pacific Islands of Kiribati, stating that rising sea levels had made it dangerous for his family to return home. Mr. Teitiota eventually lost his asylum appeal, when the New Zealand Court ruled that while climate change is a significant concern for the international community, its “effect on countries like Kiribati is not appropriately addressed under the Refugee Convention.”

Mr. Teitiota’s case is not alone; since 2000, 17 cases in the Pacific have been lodged in New Zealand and Australia, citing climate change in their claims in efforts to gain “environmental refugee” status. Every claim has been rejected by New Zealand’s Courts, which draw on the 1951 [Refugee] Convention that defines a refugee as a person who has “fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group of political opinion” and the Convention does not consider environmental threats.

Today, environmental migrants are not protected by international law. As a result, they may face greater uncertainty than refugees who leave their homes due to conflict or political oppression; individuals who are forced to flee from climate change may be sent back to their devastated homeland, like in the case of Ioane, or forced into a refugee camp. This legal protection gap essentially leaves millions of people in limbo - with no basic international protection or even a framework to begin discussions on what policies would best serve them.

The international community should create a legal definition for migrants who are forced to flee their homes due to climate change and consistent guidelines for assessing the severity of their case to better protect populations vulnerable to climate change. Along with this category of climate migrants, a framework should be created to guide support and mobilize resources for these populations. Although it is not a panacea, a solid legal definition of climate migrants would create the foundation to develop solutions for climate change related displacement.

Rising Sea-Levels, Prolonged Droughts and Climate Change’s threats to Homelands

The effects that climate change and related environmental disasters have on human migration are massive. Researchers estimate mean sea levels could rise by 1 meter or more by 2100, displacing 1.4 billion people by 2060 and 2 billion by 2100. As oceans swell from melting sea ice, coastlines are pushed inwards and the saltwater destroys fertile land and water supply, making it more difficult for nations to feed their populations and maintain their well-being.

This is already happening. Entire island nations, like Kiribati, are facing the stark reality that their homeland may not exist at the end of this century. Kiribati’s highest point is only 10 meters above sea level, and people’s homes are already close to breaking waves. In high tides or during storms, the waves can wash over entire islands, flooding communities and contaminating drinking water supplies for months. Children’s deaths from diarrhea due to contaminated drinking water are not uncommon on the island. Consistent droughts have caused extreme water shortages, decimating the subsistence-community’s food supply for weeks.

It is not just small island nations that face these threats. The risks associated with climate change migration have only been exacerbated by the growing population concentrations in low-elevation coastal cities in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, China and Vietnam. Studies have found through the next century, more than 70% of population growth in low-elevation coastal cities will be in cities throughout Asia. As sea levels rise, coastal infrastructure will be compromised and landmass available to live on will be diminished, which can generate conflicts over resources and property. How we deal with these millions of people who are forced to migrate across boundaries requires a legal basis and framework, where there currently is none.

Moreover, policymakers must become more aware of mass migrations resulting from natural disasters linked to climate change. There is scientific evidence that climate change contributes directly to increasing sea levels, warmer oceans, and shifts in maximum intensity, which is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of storms into the future. High-impact coastal hazards, like tsunamis or hurricanes, can devastate entire regions in a matter of minutes.

This is also already happening. In Barbuda and Antigua in the Caribbean, after hurricane Irma, there was not a single person left living on Barbuda for the first time in 300 years. The Great Earthquake and Tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 created over 22,000 casualties from the initial tsunami and the after-effects of the disaster. How countries deal with mass migrations after natural disaster events is a relevant and important question that also needs to be addressed.

Establishing a solution for climate migrants

Current international law leaves a wide protection gap where hundreds of millions of people are vulnerable. Establishing a legal definition for this class of migrants would create the foundation for policymakers and governments to be able to develop adequate protections to fill the existing gap in international law related to climate-change displacement.

Creating international legal frameworks related to climate-event migration has been garnering more attention  from academic and policy circles. One proposal has been to expand the definition of refugees according to the 1951 Convention to consider environmental threats; however, this solution is limited and unlikely due to the overstraining of resources directed towards refugees and already ineffective resettlement schemes.

A different and more effective solution is to create a distinct protected status for climate migrants. Legal scholars have already begun to propose definitions on climate migrants, and typically include a narrow definition of climate migrants who are forced to flee their homes due to at least one of three adverse climate effects: sea level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.  The protected status would create the foundation for a framework of legal protections and would be drawn upon to mobilize resources for support. Based on host country policies, the protected status may give migrants the opportunity to stay and work in a receiving country. Looking at Ioane’s case, the New Zealand government could leverage the protected status for climate migrants to allow the stay of him and his family and other I-Kiribati whose homes are on the verge of being washed away.

A crucial part of the process in creating a protected status for climate migrants is distinguishing those who are forced to migrate and those who migrate voluntarily. One potential solution is to create multiple definitions   based on the type of displacement and the level of threat presented in the individual’s homeland. Governments or international aid organizations could leverage the guidelines to create a strict set of criteria for providing relief, which would establish a predictable and neutral process to assess climate migrants’ status. Through this process, the legal definition and guidelines would be effective at distinguishing migrants with immediate needs.

In September of 2015, Ioane was deported to Kiribati when he lost his appeal for stay in New Zealand. Clean drinking water is difficult to come by and his children have become ill from the contaminated groundwater. Absent an international legal standard to deal with the hundreds of millions of people facing imminent threats to their homes and communities, surely cases like Ioane will not be alone. The effect of climate change on mass migrations requires immediate and resolute action, including a more precise definition of climate migration and greater initiative to mobilize resources in support of these migrants. These actions, taken together, would mitigate the challenges related to mass migrations due to climate change. 


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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