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Towards recognition of environmental refugees by the European Union

Aurélie Sgro
Aurélie Sgro est en doctorant à l’Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis, à l’Institut du Droit de la Paix et le développement.


Aurélie Sgro, "Towards recognition of environmental refugees by the European Union ", REVUE Asylon(s), N°6, novembre 2008

ISBN : 979-10-95908-10-4 9791095908104, Exodes écologiques, url de référence: http://www.reseau-terra.eu/article844.html


At the beginning of the 90’s the link between environment and migration was raised. Now the international community has to take drastic and reliable actions recognising and creating support to environmental refugees. Indeed environmental disasters and global warming threaten to severely destabilise the planet, rendering perhaps a fifth of its population homeless.

The European Union now needs to brace itself for a new wave of migration with this different cause. Some politicians have become aware of this problem. My presentation focuses on the European level where there is no specific protection for such refugees. It attempts to prepare people to embrace change and to highlight new challenges and contentious questions in order to deal with this looming crisis.

How should the European Union reply to this growing problem ? New tools and concepts should be developed to protect environmental refugees. Different options are possible here. This presentation seeks to inform on the ongoing works in the European Union and the future perspectives.

“By recognising environmental refugees you recognise the problem. By recognising the problem you start on the road to accepting responsibility and implementing solutions.” (Jean Lambert, Green MEP - UK)

Introduction [1]

Migrations increase and factors that force people to move change.

Damages to environment have important repercussions on human security and economic and human sustainable development. Environmental disruptions are more and more distressed by climate change that indeed leads to both incremental and rapid ecological change and disruption.

The nexus between environment and migration leads to exploratory researches. Legal support is now necessary. The complex nature of these questions calls for a multidisciplinary perspective linking different fields of lex specialist of public international law : international refugee law, international environmental law, human rights and humanitarian law. Scientific views will also be inevitably taken into consideration.

The notion of “environmental refugee” has emerged but remains vague and controversial.

It appears for the first time in a report of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1985 (UNEP, El-Hinnawi 1985). It has been discussed on several occasions at international level but it is still unrecognised. During the last years the debate about climate change has become public and a political stake. Environmental refugees now catch the general public attention and broad media coverage. There has been a flurry in the media about international environmental issues and a looming global catastrophe that could result from inaction on climate change.

Despite the difficulties relating to the notion, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) proposed in November 2007 the following broader working definition : “Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons, who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or chose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” (IOM 2007 : 2).

This notion covers all the persons compelled to move from their places of residence because of environmental disruptions. The vast spectrum of environmental degradations can be classified in three categories. First, environmental disruptions can be due to climate change. The narrower category of “climate refugees” encompasses victims of three climate change impacts : sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity (Biermann and Boas 2007 : 4). Second, they can result of disasters with natural origin (earthquake, flooding, storm...) or finally be of human origin (industrial catastrophe, oil slick...).

The term “refugee” will be used throughout this paper for reasons of convenience even if environmentally displaced persons are not defined as refugees in the narrow legal sense. Anyway some authors argue that this concept is not reserved to the Geneva Convention which is fifty years old and expresses well the forced nature of the departure unlike the term “migrant”.

The overwhelming of statistic ranges about the number of environmental refugees can get twice as high depending on the definition and the source of the data. Alarmist scholars estimate to 25 million the number of environmental refugees today. The economist Sir Nicholas Stern considers that this number will reach 200 million in 2050 in his report on economic consequences of climate change commissioned by the UK government (Stern 2006 : 56). According to the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Christian AID it will be one billion (Christian Aid 2007 : 1).

Craig Johnstone, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Deputy High Commissioner, said at a conference organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in London on 29 April 2008 that humanity is facing a “global-scale emergency” whose effects would accumulate over the next four decades. He said it was impossible to forecast with confidence the numbers of people who would lose their homes through climate change. But he pointed to assessments of between 250 million and one billion people losing their homes by 2050.

Therefore, environmental change would become the first factor of forced migrations and it would threaten to trigger the biggest refugee crisis in human history. It would supplant religious, ethnical and political reasons.

To date, however, environmental refugees are protected neither for their assistance nor for their reception or safeguard of their rights. Their protection does not have any legal basis in international refugee law. The 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees refers only to those fleeing persecutions. Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence ; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion ; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution. Someone forced to move for environmental reasons is not encompassed.

The international community deeply needs to recognise and to create support and new tools in order to protect environmental refugees in an effective manner. They should be granted with the same rights as the refugees covered by the Geneva Convention.

Europe will not be immune from this phenomenon and will bear unavoidable consequences.

These consequences might appear in the form of mass migration, increased urbanisation, destabilisation of parts of the world vital to European security, radicalisation of politics and populations and European industrial activities could be affected. Regional stability could be disrupted and North-South conflicts will increase because of the perceived injustice of the causes and effects of global warming, famines caused by arable land loss, wars over water, energy and other natural resources.

However, it is most probably the region where evolution can be expected the most even if we should not be too optimistic for now. The European Union (EU) has already been taking many significant steps to get onto the matter.

On one hand, this presentation aims to map the situation today in the European Union concerning the issue (1). On the other hand, it will try to assess the capacity of the current tools to face this kind of migration and to define from an ambitious point of view new concepts and instruments which could be developed (2).

1. The current situation

This section aims at shedding some light on the works and debates’ status.

The debate has just been opened within the European Union. According to its underlying values and just as the Union is building a migration and asylum policy, environmental migrations cannot be rejected.

As pointed out above, even if all the member states are Parties to the 1951 Geneva Convention they have not an international responsibility or liability towards such refugees.

At this day no EU instrument makes mention of environmental refugees (or migrants).

In 2001, Green Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) tried unsuccessfully to insert a reference to environmental refugees into a European Parliament report on the common European asylum policy. In 2004, two Green MEPs, Marie Anne Isler Beguin (Greens – France) and Jean Lambert (Greens – UK), asked for a community status of ecological refugee in a written declaration. In another written declaration Marie Anne Isler Beguin asked for the inscription of the principle of ecological interference in community prerogatives. These documents demand development of innovative concepts. Unfortunately they have not been followed by a resolution and thus remained dead letters. Nevertheless, they have value of having introduced the question for the first time.

Some MEPs, lead by Ms Hélène Flautre (Greens – France), are currently still very active on this matter.

A one-day seminar on climate refugees organised by the Greens / European Free Alliance (EFA) Group took place on the 11th of June 2008. It aimed to draw again the attention of the European institutions on the recognition of climate migrations through the adoption of a declaration. This document should be a strategic base for future actions. The participants invited the European and international institutions to “organize legal protection for the victims of climate disruptions and of possible displaced persons (current or future) who do not benefit today from any recognition” (Declaration on Climate migrations 2008 : 4).

As for the fight against climate change the European Parliament wants to play an important role and decided in April 2007 to set up a Temporary Committee on Climate Change (CLIM) composed by 60 MEPs and chaired by Mr Guido Sacconi (PSE – Italy). It aims to formulate proposals on the EU’s future integrated policy on climate change and to coordinate the Parliament’s position in the negotiations regarding the international framework for climate policy after 2012. The CLIM interim report was adopted during the May plenary session of the European Parliament. 87% of the Members of the European Parliament participating in the vote supported the report. This is rather significant because it shows a substantial political consensus. The final report prepared by the Rapporteur Karl-Heinz Florenz (EPP-ED, Germany) should be voted in plenary session by the end of CLIM’s mandate in February 2009. The first exchange of views on the final report was held at a meeting on 24 June 2008.

On the 12th and the 13th of June 2008 the Agora on climate change was held by the European Parliament. 500 European civil society organisations were present in order to discuss the topic and to put forward their proposals. Many representatives from different sectors expressed their worries about environmental migrations. The Workshop “Solidarity” ended up with conclusions calling the European institutions to develop a European strategy on climate forced migration and to launch a debate within the UN on the status of climate migrants and on a protocol to the UNFCCC on climate forced migration.

We can regret than only few MEPs attended those meetings. Green MEPs are well implicated but too isolated.

The European Commission took hold of the matter through the financing of the EACH-FOR (“Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios”) project within the frames of FP6 (Priority 8.1- Policy-oriented research) from January 2007 onwards. This project distinguishes itself by its widened approach. It will draw its conclusions in December 2008. It will be of course a good occasion for new discussions.

On January 2008, the IOM and the UNEP organised a common meeting called “Migration and Environment” in order to make the European Commission sensitive to those issues. Several representatives of different General Directions attended the discussion and showed a high interest.

Besides that the European Commission just begins to be aware of this problem. Mr Marc Richir (European Commission - DG External Relations) explained on the 11th of June that his institution senses that environmental refugees become important but talks have not really started. This is not a priority at the moment.

On the 17th of June 2008, the European Commission adopted a Communication on "A Common immigration policy for Europe : principles, actions and tools" (COM(2008)359final) and a Policy Plan "Asylum – an integrated approach to protection across the EU". The Communication proposes ten Common Principles on which the common immigration policy will build upon. They have been grouped under the three main strands of the EU policies : prosperity, solidarity and security. In parallel, but in a separate document, the Policy Plan on Asylum provides options for shaping the second phase of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). This Plan proposes to improve the definition at EU level of standards for protection by amending in the course of 2009 the existing legal instruments such as the directive on standards for qualification as refugees or persons needing international protection [2]. There is no reference to environmental refugees or to environmentally induced migrations but a window of opportunity has been open. An important trend identified in the Policy plan is that “an ever-growing percentage of applicants are granted subsidiary protection or other kinds of protection status based on national law, rather than refugee status according to the Geneva Convention. This is probably due to the fact that an increasing share of today’s conflicts and persecutions are not covered by the Convention. It will therefore be important during the second phase of the CEAS to pay particular attention to subsidiary and other forms of protection” (Policy Plan 2008 : 3). One of the overarching objectives of the CEAS is “to ensure access to those in need of protection”. This might be a start to the Commission’s work on the issue of environmental refugees. Those proposals should be endorsed by the European Council of 15 October 2008 leading first to the adoption of a European Pact on Immigration in view of the new five-year Programme in the Justice, Freedom and Security area, to be adopted in the second half of 2009.

In the same manner the publication of the White Paper on the adaptation to climate change in the autumn of 2008 could be the beginning of a process. This White Paper is a follow up of the European Commission Green Paper of 29 June 2007 on adaptation to climate change in Europe.

At the Council of the European Union in March 2008 Mr Javier Solana predicted “there will be millions of environmental migrants, with climate change as one of the major drivers of this phenomenon” (Commission and the Secretary-General/High Representative 2008 : 5). His intervention linked the matter with security considerations. Therefore he invited the Council to formulate recommendations before December 2008.

The Presidency conclusions of the last Brussels European Council of the 19th and the 20th of June 2008 highlighted that “The EU is determined to provide an effective collective response to the new challenges to development posed in particular by climate change and high food prices. With regard to climate change, the EU is determined, where relevant, to help developing countries, particularly poor developing countries most vulnerable to climate change, to move towards sustainable economic growth and to adapt to climate change, in line with the agreement reached in Bali to launch negotiations aimed at securing a global agreement on climate change in Copenhagen in 2009. It will work for the effective implementation of the 2007 "Global Climate Change Alliance" and will explore ways to mobilize new financial resources to tackle climate change and combat its negative impact. In this context, the EU will work, inter alia, on the basis of the Commission proposal for a global financing mechanism.” (European Council Presidency conclusions 2008 : 18).

The pressure on the EU for moving towards the recognition of environmental refugees is growing. NGOs push more and more to reply to this problem.

The Council of Europe is quite active. It is important to recall however that this organisation works through forty-seven member States.

Several Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in October 2006 invited the Committee of Ministers to adopt a recommendation that recognises the existence and the scale of the problem of ecological refugees. A report is currently studied by the Committee on migration, refugees and population. It will be voted in December 2008 or in January 2009. The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) progressively integrates environmental problems into human rights.

Some European countries have considered the matter. The Committee of external relations and defense of the Belgian Senate adopted in 2006 a Resolution that calls for the promotion of the recognition of the status of environmental refugees in the relevant international conventions.

Some Member States have already set up a mechanism of protection for persons who flee an ecological disaster. Under Swedish (Aliens Act Chapter 3 Section 3) and Finnish (Aliens Act Chapter 6 Section 88) laws a person who has left his native country because of an environmental disaster may also be qualified for asylum. This category is described as persons in “need for protection”.

Nevertheless, most of the Member States are unwilling and miss the point.

2. Future perspectives

This part will try to put forward proposals for the evolution of EU’s action.

Chances to reach an outcome are more important in Europe than elsewhere. Three distinct points strengthen this theory.

First, the issue of migration and asylum is at present riding high on the European political agenda even if this policy becomes more and more restrictive with the emphasis on the security discourse. A Common European Asylum System with a view to its realisation by 2010 is currently analysed by the European Commission.

Second, it is possible to draw a parallel with the leadership taken by the European Union in the fight against climate change. The EU was a key actor in developing and implementing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and has been one of the major supporters of the Kyoto Protocol. Furthermore, the EU was already pressing for a roadmap for a global and comprehensive climate change agreement for the post-2012 period in December 2007 as well as offering to commit to a 30% reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 if other countries would commit to similar efforts.

Finally, its position as the world’s largest donor of aid reinforces the idea. The individual contributions of the 27 Member States plus the joint development cooperation through the EU correspond to more than half the world’s total aid.

Besides, while environmental disasters rather rage in developing countries, developed countries are almost solely responsible for the deterioration of the environment. Indeed, Sir Nicholas Stern highlighted that “the poorest developing countries will be hit earliest and hardest by climate change, even though they have contributed little to causing the problem. Their low incomes make it difficult to finance adaptation” (Stern 2006 : Executive Summary). Concepts of “environmental responsibility or liability” and “climate justice” are worth thinking about. Those problems are the heart of the 2007/2008 report of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) called “Fighting climate change : human solidarity in a divided world” published intentionally ten days before the start of the Bali conference on climate.

It should be pointed out that the division of competences between the EU and its Member States is a basic guide to EU policy making. Legislation for the recognition, protection and support to environmental refugees would affect different fields such as environment, migration, human rights, humanitarian aid or development cooperation. The limits of competence of the European Union become clear only by analysing the articles regulating a particular issue.

The European Community Treaty (EC Treaty) gives the Union shared competences in environment and the area of freedom, security and justice. In these fields the Member States lose the right to legislate when the EU legislates. For development cooperation and humanitarian aid the EU will have the competence to take action and conduct a common policy without preventing the Member States from exercising their competence.

As for the choice of a consistent protection it is determined by several parameters.

Terminology and classification are primary in the legal field because they imply different protections. Assistance and protection systems in national and regional tools in Europe will depend on different factors as the migration’s destination, the nature of the environmental disruption with a distinction between gradual processes of degradation versus sudden environmental disruptions as well as the degree of the migration (mass migration or individual) which is essential for the prevention. People mostly face temporary and intern migrations. In any case, the diversity of possible scenarios induces to wonder whether one or more protections are to be offered.

Many alternatives can already be analysed alternately or cumulatively at European level. Soft law and/or hard law can be used. We can operate a distinction between completing actions for the support to environmental refugees on one hand and the development and implementation of a specific instrument for their recognition and protection on another hand.

- Preventive and completing actions

Such actions can be developed more quickly at an early stage before new measures are enacted.

More researches based on the nexus migration / environment in order to know and to understand better the causes of the situation are essential. There is a paucity of information about how environment can trigger migration. High-quality climate information and tools for risk management will help to drive efficient markets. It was pointed out during the last debates at the European Parliament in June 2008 that a worldwide cartography could map the different aspects of the climate disruptions.

The declaration of the 11th of June pleads for the creation of a specific high-level working group. It would be better to put this working group under the responsibility of a Member of the European Commission and to link its work with all the EU policies.

Another important way of action is the strengthening of humanitarian aid. The European Union’s mandate to ECHO is to provide emergency assistance and relief to the victims of natural disasters or armed conflicts outside the European Union. The EU system of aid and intervention for urgent situations should be enhanced. This point was particularly highlighted after the choc in Burma. The primary emergency procedure under which the Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO)’s actions have been performed should be improved.

It will also be consequential to take preventive measures and to better control environmental disruptions, in other words to deal with the roots of the causes of environmental migrations. To improve monitoring is necessary. The program on disaster preparedness (DIPECHO) could be enhanced. “The community based approach” should be widened. Only six disaster-prone regions are covered and they do not include Africa. The budget (around € 20 million now) should be extended.

The European Union should mainstream and support adaptation along with mitigation across its assistance to developing countries because it is “the only response available for the impacts that will occur over the next several decades before mitigation measures can have an effect” (Stern 2006 Executive Summary). Adaptation is about finding and implementing manners of adjusting to climate change. It induces an augmentation of the public aid to development and the EU has to show the way. EU aids could depend on the acknowledgement of the problem by local governments.

First of all, traditional knowledge and strategies of adaptation already developed by local people for achieving stable livelihoods in their environment may be a trump card and should be supported. The UNEP has recently incorporated a database on indigenous knowledge in Africa into its website in order to ensure the largest possible circulation.

It shall be underlined that to favour migrations could be a legitimate coping strategy and a way to assure adaptation.

It should also support adaptation through investment in global public goods, including improved monitoring and prediction of climate change, better modelling of regional impacts, and the development and deployment of drought- and flood resistant crops. Partnerships should be implemented” (Stern 2006 Executive Summary ).

The European institutions are aware that adaptation has to be strengthened. The European Commission will publish its white paper on the adaptation to climate change in October 2008. Governance will be an important topic within this document as well as the integration of climate constraints in humanitarian and development policies.

The financial aspect is a vital element but it is also the most contentious regarding the problem of its management and supplying. Some principles already existing, such as “the ability-to-pay” principle or “the polluter pays”, could the base of such mechanism. Even if it is impossible to evaluate the cost it is clear, however, that it must be a long-range plan. One can imagine the creation of a special European fund as the one existing for refugees. It would finance three sectors : the research, the development of policies and a practical support (to organisations working on the ground for example).

Lastly, development of cooperation and political dialogue with third countries will be crucial. This action should be particularly focused on the good governance, management of natural resources, technology transfers, technical assistance and management of crises.

- An instrument of protection strictly speaking

Given the weaknesses of the existing law to protect environmental refugees and the fact that only a little fraction of those victims can be granted international protection on an individual basis new instruments must be developed (Cournil 2007). Some of the proposals below could not be implemented by the European Union alone but require larger international support. The following section comes up with a range of suggestions underlying the forces and weaknesses of each of them. The content of the protection that should be offered remains to be studied as well as the obligations and duties of States.

The possibilities of protection based on a development of current tools will be analysed at first. Second, there will be an overview of different options offering a framework for the creation of new instruments at the European and international levels. Lastly the proposals of the Council of Europe will be presented.

Possibilities of protection using existing tools

The 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees is rooted in the notion of persecution, which excludes the new reality of enforced flight of civilians due to environmental degradation, exacerbated by climate change. After assessing the criteria of article 1, a majority of authors conclude that environmental refugees do not meet the requisite requirements. “The two criteria seen as preventing such a qualification are, for the majority, the recognized grounds of persecution and the notion of environmental disruption as amounting to persecution” (Lafontaine 2007 : 25). However, environmental refugees can find themselves in the same excruciating situation as asylum seekers. In any case, the mechanism does not fit with environmental refugees because of the individual recognition that mainly funds this system. Furthermore, the Convention is not adapted to situations of crises and urgency. European institutions and experts agree that this Convention should not be modified as otherwise the status could be weakened.

A protocol to the Geneva Convention would permit to benefit from the experience of the Convention and of the actual host authorities (this idea has been developed in June 2005 in a seminar in Limoges (France)). However, a refusal of Member States is quite evidential in this climate of closure of the boarders. Internal displaced persons (IDPs) would be left aside and the right of asylum would risk imploding.

The existing category of IDPs could be considered. A person who moves around within one State benefits from the national protection. International support is required if this protection is inadequate. The Guiding Principles on internal displacement published by the Commission for Human rights in 1998 provide guidance covering all phases of displacement : providing protection against arbitrary displacement, protection and assistance during displacement and for safe and dignified return or resettlement and reintegration. In the introduction IDPs are defined as “[…] persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border”. There are nonetheless a number of significant gaps and grey areas needing to be addressed resulting in a severe protection deficit. The Guidelines Principles are not themselves legally binding and are far from being implemented. The term IDPs should be developed and become a concept in international law with legal implications. Such protection could be consistent for environmental refugees as most of them migrate internally after a natural disaster. But even if the list of persons covered is not exhaustive (“in particular”) it is not clear whether those who migrate due to gradual processes of degradation can be included. It could be a good way to skip the problem of the definition but the protection of environmental refugees would be diluted and the questions of responsibility would be set aside. Nevertheless, they can be taken as a model for the creation for the environmental refugees of a synthesis of existing international law in the form of principles.

Some argue that the enlargement of subsidiary protection could be the most probable solution at EU level (Magniny 1999). The Council Directive of 20 July 2001 on minimum standards for giving temporary protection can protect environmental refugees under certain conditions. This protection was created for an event of a mass influx of displaced persons. In such cases measures promoting a balance of efforts between Member States in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences are expected. But it is governed by an activation of this protection by the Council. The other solution would be to modify the directive by inserting a reference to environmental refugees. Even if this is not considered at the moment this option is worth thinking about especially because many Member States already have systems of temporary protection.

The development of the EU Regional Protection Programmes (RPPs) that reinforce the external asylum dimension could be a solution for specific regions of the world (COM(2005)388final). They aim to focus funding on relief, rehabilitation and regional development. RPPs provide support to such measures as the provision of registration and protection services, cooperation on legal migration matters and agreements on returns of failed asylum seekers or illegal immigrants to countries outside the EU. The current RPPs, which are carried out in Tanzania (as part of the Great Lakes region) and Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, will be further developed in 2009. The European Commission should make proposals in order to extend the RPPs in other regions such as northern Africa, the horn of Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Bilateral protections (like the Pacific Access Category (PAC) between Tuvalu and New Zealand) could be a pragmatic and immediate solution when risks are known. In such agreements a country accepts to receive an annual quota of immigrants. It has to be underlined that the term environmental or climate refugees is not employed in the PAC, nor does it refer the threat of climate change or state any responsibility for the displacement of the Tuvaluan population [3]. Two negative aspects show up : the unfairness of the burden and the privation of the place of destination for the victims.

Different frameworks for a new instrument

An alternative at EU level could be the creation of a community status of environmental refugees that could be integrated in the EU migration and asylum policy under construction. Though this option is not envisaged yet it has been asked in a written declaration to the European Parliament in 2004.

Following the idea of the Global Governance Project (GGP) of 2007 (Biermann and Boas 2007) a protocol could be added to the UNFCCC on climate forced migration. It would be a protection sui generis but only for climate migrants. The UNFCCC is a non-binding agreement focused at reducing the consequences of climate change [4]. The link with the responsibility of developed countries would be highlighted. Five principles underlie this blueprint : planned re-location and resettlement, resettlement instead of temporary asylum, collective rights for local populations, international assistance for domestic measures and international burden sharing in accordance with article 3 of the Convention. This project proposes at the same time the creation of a Climate Refugee Protection and Resettlement Fund (CRPRF). This separate fund “could be coupled with novel income-raising mechanisms such as an international air travel levy or similar mechanisms” (Biermann and Boas 2007 : 29).

A third option could be the creation of a new specifically tailored international convention recognising the “environmental asylum” (Magniny 1999). An autonomous text could allow different protections according to the different categories of refugees. Thus, the drafters should avoid a circumscribing definition of environmental refugees. A mixed committee of qualification could be created and an approach prima facie (by group) could be included. The initiation of the procedure of protection could be made by one or more States or by a group of people within the shortest time possible after a disaster or after the seizure of the Committee. The concept of “environmental persecution” has been defined as occurring “when governments knowingly induce environmental degradation and that degradation harms people forcing them to migrate” (Cooper 1998). States do not seem ready in our context of tension. The problem of the efficacy has to be considered beforehand especially due to the costs.

The proposals of the Council of Europe

The draft report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called “The problem of environmental refugees” was presented by Mr Daniel Ducarme (Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population) on the 11th of June 2008 at the European Parliament. This report seems to be proactive. The PACE recommends adopting the definition of “environmental migrants” carried out by the IOM. The report follows this idea that a specific legal instrument should be created in order to protect the status of political refugees and to show the difference. It focuses towards the recommendation of the vote of a new convention within the framework of the United Nations. It also advises that Europe votes a specific European convention for the protection of environmental refugees. The report pleads for the inscription of this problem in the next agenda of the European Commission in cooperation with the Council of Europe. Mr Ducarme insisted on the fact that Europe has to be a pioneer in this field arguing that the European framework is consistent to welcome and to launch the debate.


Environmental refugees are currently seen de jure as a minor problem but that could become de facto a major global crisis.

A recognition and protection should be now set up and the EU could play a pioneering role that will deliver the necessary credibility and the impetus to find a global solution. It could be proactive and be a catalyser, a frontrunner.

Thus, the EU has to set an example and could begin by the adoption of a definition of environmental refugees. The absence of an agreed definition is a fundamental difficulty that hinders action.

By recognising environmental refugees you recognise the problem. By recognising the problem you start on the road to accepting responsibility and implementing solutions.” (Jean Lambert, Green MEP).

Thereafter, a holistic approach and new mechanisms of coordination are needed in order to take this truly crosscutting issue into consideration.

In sum, points of view vary between the European institutions, experts and the Council of Europe but there is a clear awareness of the problem and there is a will to show a common political approach.

However, the wait-and-see attitude of the European Commission is worrying. The political imposition of the Council holds back its action. The European Commission usually makes a move when its senses a positive feedback from the Council and the Member States.

The debate was launched again within the European Parliament last June with a certain improvement for the precision of the demands with respect to the declaration of 2004. It could be followed by the adoption of a resolution.

Hopefully, we will see if this approach will produce the strong and early actions required before bringing the situation at an unbearable level. In Copenhagen in December 2009 all those issues should be put on the agenda of the global and comprehensive climate agreement for the post-2012 era.

The EU cannot overcome this problem on its own. Nevertheless, it can try to control part of the problem and offer its readiness and political will to contribute to a global solution. No other region in the world is better suited to provide global leadership on this issue and to stimulate others by its own actions than the EU.


Agora on Climate Change (2008) : Final texts of the Workshops, 12th and 13th of June 2008

Appel de Limoges sur les réfugiés écologiques [et environnementaux], Adopted in Limoges (France), 23 June 2005

Belgian Senate (2006) : Proposition de résolution visant à promouvoir la reconnaissance dans les conventions internationales du statut de réfugié environnemental, Committee of external relations and defense, Author of the proposal : Mr Mahoux, Report prepared by Ms Hermans, 26 March 2006, Document n°3-1556

Biermann, F. and Boas, I. (2007) : Preparing for a Warmer World, Towards a Global Governance system to Protect Climate Refugees, Global Governance Project, n°33, Amsterdam

Burton, A. (ed.) (2007) : Human tide : the real migration crisis, A Christian Aid Report, London, Cambridge University Press

Commission for Human Rights (1998) : Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2. Geneva, 54th session

Cooper, J. (1998), “Environmental Refugees : Meeting the Requirements of the Refugee Definition” 6 N.Y.U. Envtl. L.J. 483 1997-1998

Council Directive 2001/55/EC of 20 July 2001 on minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons and on measures promoting a balance of efforts between Member States in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences thereof, OJEU L212/12 of 7 August 2001

Council Directive 2004/83/EC of 29 April 2004 on minimum standards for the qualification and status of third country nationals or stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection and the content of the protection granted, OJEU L 304 of 30 September 2004

Cournil, C. (2007) : Quelle protection juridique pour les “réfugiés écologiques” ?, Les Journées d’études du GISTI

Declaration on Climate Migration (2008), adopted at the conference on Climate migrations organized in the European Parliament, Brussels, on June 11th 2008 by the Greens/EFA group

El-Hinnawi, E. (1985) : Environmental Refugees. Nairobi, UNEP, New York

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[1] The author would like to thank Mr. Jukka Likitalo for helpful comments on a previous draft and for proofreading the paper in its entirety.

[2] The Commission will propose to (Policy Plan 2008 : 5 and 6) : – amend the criteria for qualifying for international protection. To this effect, it may be necessary inter alia to clarify further the eligibility conditions for subsidiary protection, to define with more precision when non-state parties may be considered as actors of protection, or when a person may be considered as not in need of international protection if he stays in a certain part of his country of origin ; and – reconsider the level of rights and benefits to be secured for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection (…). In addition, the possibility of establishing an effective transfer of protection mechanism will be explored, either as part of the amendment to the QD or as a separate instrument. Finally, a study will be launched on the possible alignment of national types of protection status which do not currently fall under the EU’s regime of international protection.

[3] Ms Kerry Nettle, an Australian Green Senator, went further proposing a migration (climate refugees) amendment bill in 2007. The climate refugees visa bill creates a new visa class in the Migration Act of 1958 to formally recognize and create mechanisms to deal with climate refugees. The Minister for Immigration would have the power to declare that a certain environmental disaster was the result of climate change and that a specified number of visas would be available to resettle displaced persons in Australia.

[4] The article 3 of the UNFCCC requires States Parties to be guided by five principles when implementing the Convention : a lead role for developed countries in tackling climate change ; complete consideration of the specific needs of developing countries ; precautionary measures to avert or minimize the causes of climate change and to ease its impacts ; policy development in line with each country’s special needs ; and cooperation to foster an open international economic system.