In recent years, immigration and emigration have become some of the most discussed challenges at the international level. Italy is no exception and often makes headlines not only for some unfortunate statements by some ministers but also for being one of the countries most involved in maritime trafficking undertaken by men, women, and children seeking life and freedom.
It is the most widely used definition of emigration. Since ancient times, our society has developed on periodic movements defined by “Nomadism.” The subsistence economy depended on vegetative cycles and animals to be raised and hunted, which is crucial for survival and reproduction. In addition, between 1900 and 1915, more than 3.5 million Italians emigrated in search of more lucrative jobs and better economic opportunities. In short, all people have always been seeking better living conditions. But what does this phenomenon have to do with climate change?
What Is the Connection Between Refugees and Climate Change?
Climate refugees represent one of climate change’s most evident and dramatic consequences.
This globally recognized definition contains an inconsistency: from a formal point of view, international law does not recognize either “migrants” or so-called “climate refugees” or “displaced persons.” These expressions are not based on any norms present in international law. This results in a complete absence of international agreements on specific protection measures for climate refugees.
But How Many Climate Refugees Are We Talking About?
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since 2008, there have been 21.5 million climate migrants every year, which is expected to grow due to the worsening of climate change. These migrants represent a challenge for the international community, as most do not have a recognized legal status and are often forced to face situations of vulnerability and discrimination.
It is estimated that every minute, 41 people, primarily women, the elderly, and children, are forced to leave their homes due to climate change. These groups are also more exposed to risks during their movements, such as violence, exploitation, and human trafficking.
But Which Countries Are Exposed The Most?
According to several studies, the countries most exposed to climate change are those in tropical and subtropical regions, particularly Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The main factors contributing to their exposure are:
- Natural Vulnerability: Many developing countries already have extreme climates and are located in earthquake-prone areas, vulnerable to floods, cyclones, droughts, and other extreme weather events, which may be exacerbated by climate change.
- Dependency on Natural Resources: The economies of many developing countries heavily depend on natural resources obtained from agriculture, fishing, and extractive industries, activities that can be impacted by climate change.
- Population Growth: Many of these countries have rapid population growth; an increase in population can intensify pressure on food and water systems influenced by climate change.
- Poverty and Lack of Infrastructure: These can increase the vulnerability of countries to climate change, limiting their ability to cope with impacts and adapt to new conditions.
According to the Climate Risk Index 2021, Myanmar, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Haiti and Dominica islands are the most exposed countries to climate change. However, even industrialized countries like Japan, Germany, and the United States can be exposed to some impacts of climate change, such as natural disasters or sea level rise.
Why Does International Law Not Recognize Climate Refugees?
Currently, climate refugees are not recognized by international law as a distinct legal category. This is because the definition of climate migrant has not yet been accepted internationally, and no specific international treaty recognizes their rights. Additionally, the issue of climate migrants is complex and overlaps with other immigration-related topics such as asylum law and international protection. There are also different opinions on the causes of migration movements and whether they should be considered climate migrants.
The term “climate refugee” is formally incorrect as it cannot be traced back to the definition of the Geneva Convention on Refugees (1951), which states that a refugee is “Anyone who is outside the country of his nationality or habitual residence due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” No persecution due to climate change can be demonstrated.
Arguing that climate change is “responsible” for a migratory phenomenon is a significant legal challenge: the cause-effect link is hardly arguable before a jury. Therefore, an entire legal framework is missing to protect victims of climate change-related disasters. Furthermore, climate migrants often move within their borders before being forced to abandon their country altogether.
No European country – except for Finland, Italy, and Sweden – recognizes the climate element in its protection system. This makes it very difficult to create a common legal framework for protecting “climate victims.Jean-Christophe Dumont, Head of the OECD
The African Union, on the other hand, is more advanced in this matter: it has adopted the Kampala Convention, which is legally binding for the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons. It recognizes climate change as a “man-made” disaster capable of causing displacement.
The territories most exposed to climate are those where conflicts often erupt and racial, cultural, and political persecution occurs. Based on this observation, the international community should act, regardless of the identification of a cause-effect relationship between climate and wars.
What Could Our Governments Do to Help Climate Refugees?
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre recommends that European countries develop policies in five key areas.
- Effective monitoring systems are needed to understand better which segments of the population will be most affected by weather events and climate-related disasters to help and support the most vulnerable people.
- Better warning mechanisms are required to give people enough time to evacuate safely. An alert issued 24 hours before a disaster can save many lives and reduce damage by 30%. However, only a third of countries have an effective warning system.
- Evacuation plans must be adapted to new risk levels and be as efficient and dignified as possible, developed in consultation with residents.
- Improved communication between local and national authorities is needed to monitor what happens to displaced people long-term and share data with institutions and internationally.
- Better information is available to citizens, learning from non-European countries accustomed to extreme weather events like Japan.
Developing policies and programs to prevent climate change and mitigate its effects is also necessary. It is crucial to improve the adaptive capacity of vulnerable communities to climate change to better cope with the negative impacts of climate change and minimize the need to move.
It is equally essential to develop policies that recognize and protect the rights of climate migrants, protecting them from abuse, discrimination, and human rights violations. Technical and legal support is needed to develop national and international laws.
Promoting greater international solidarity and cooperation is therefore vital to addressing the phenomenon of climate migrants. This means providing financial and technical support to the most vulnerable countries and promoting the sharing of knowledge and best practices to address the global challenges of climate change. This includes supporting field activities for prevention, impact reduction, and ensuring good responses for displaced persons.
Launching the Loss and Damage Fund can address many of these issues.
What is the Loss and Damage Fund?
The Loss and Damage Fund is a financial fund created by the United Nations to help the most vulnerable countries address the consequences of climate change, particularly the losses and damages that cannot be prevented or avoided through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or adaptation.
The fund was established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during the 2013 Conference of the Parties (COP19) in Warsaw, Poland. However, approval of the fund required unanimous consent, which only came nine years later due to opposition from the world’s two largest polluters, China and the United States. Finally, at the last COP27 held in Egypt last November 2022, Loss and Damage was approved. Many details still need to be defined, such as the amount of the fund, who will pay, and who will benefit, but the path is the right one.
How can the Loss and Damage Fund Help Climate Refugees?
The fund was created in response to the requests of developing countries, which have emphasized the need for financial support to address the irreversible effects of climate change. In particular, the Loss and Damage Fund aims to provide resources for:
- The restoration of essential infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and buildings destroyed by climate disasters.
- The reconstruction of communities affected by extreme climate events.
- Adaptation to new climate conditions, such as sea level rise and desertification.
- The risk of extreme climate events is reduced through prevention and mitigation measures.
These factors would help reduce the number of climate refugees, supporting entire populations in mitigation, adaptation, and response activities to environmental disasters in their territories.
Could Italians be among Climate Refugees?
Some Italian regions have already been affected by extreme weather events such as floods, landslides, wildfires, and heat waves, which have caused significant damage and forced some communities to evacuate their homes.
Furthermore, climate change could negatively affect our country’s agricultural production and water systems, reducing food and water resources and potentially leading to social and economic conflicts.
In Europe, there are already hundreds of thousands of climate refugees who are forced to leave their homes due to environmental disasters. However, these migrations are often invisible and internal to their borders, making their recognition difficult. Rural areas are indeed more at risk than urban areas, favoring an exodus of climate migrants toward the main cities of their countries.
However, it is essential to emphasize that Italians, like other citizens of European and high-income countries such as Japan, have more excellent resources and adaptation capabilities than climate refugees from more vulnerable countries. This does not mean climate change is not a significant threat to Italy and industrialized countries, but instead that the challenge of climate migration requires global solutions and a coordinated international response. Mitigation and adaptation plans are currently more effective and feasible in developed countries thanks to favorable policies and funding, supported by fundamental infrastructure and research and development activities for implementing innovative and high-performance technological solutions.
Cover Image: Members of the Pacific Climate Warriors in Papua New Guinea pose during an event. (Courtesy of Pacific Climate Warriors)