EU Law and Policy

‘Climate Refugees’ and the EU: A Silent Response of what to Come?


By Adam Reuben

Climate change threatens the most basic human needs and one of its major consequences will be the flow of people who will be compelled to leave their homes because of the impacts of a changing climate on their lives and livelihoods. They will, in other words, become ‘climate refugees’. ‘Climate change is one of the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly’. Those were the words by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission in his State of the Union 2015 speech. ‘Climate refugees’ are however not a new phenomenon but in the public discourse since 1985 when Essam El-Hinnawi defined ‘environmental refugees’ as:

… those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affect the quality of their life.

This definition is also used for the term ‘climate refugees’ and whether there is a practical difference between ‘environmental’ and ‘climate’ remains unclear. The definitional issue and other important aspects of ‘climate refugees’ is examined in a new report by Fores – Forum for Reforms, Entrepreneurship and Sustainability.

This post will consider the response – or lack thereof – from the European Union to ‘climate refugees’ and the silent response to the comprehensive study published by the European Parliament six years ago.

Legally Unrecognised by the European Union

‘Climate Refugees’, the study published by the European Parliament in 2011, noted that the term is not legally recognised by the EU and it is not possible to interpret existing legislation as incorporating ‘climate refugees’ within the protection regime. It was further held in the study that the EU would need to introduce provisions in the asylum legislation that considers displaced persons of both rapid- and slow-onset climate events. ‘Any policy’, the study continues in relation to the different impacts climate change will have on regions and migration patterns, ‘must be based on a clear understanding and a clear typology of the phenomenon of environmentally induced migration… to disentangle and reflect different dimensions’. Under the powers of the Lisbon Treaty and with a human rights approach, it would be possible to revise the Common European Asylum System to regulate the status of ‘climate refugees’. Such a move would provide ‘climate refugees’ with a legal status which they are currently lacking.

Since both migration and climate change are multi-causal, projections of the number of ‘climate refugees’ are difficult to make. Subsequently the predictions vary from 150 million to 1 billion ‘climate refugees’ by 2050. The most quoted estimation is by Norman Myers and suggests 200 million environmentally displaced by 2050.

The Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) could be applied in case of a massive influx of migrants to the EU. The TPD was created as a response to people fleeing armed conflict, persons at serious risk of, or victims of, systematic or generalised violations of human rights. Still, as noted by the Commission Staff Working Paper, the open definition of ‘mass influx’ means that the TPD could also apply to ‘climate refugees’. Alas, applying the TPD requires a decision by the European Council which would have a high political threshold and face difficulties in its implementation. A study on the TPD released in 2016 by the Commission does not mention climate change, disaster or the environment. And the TPD is not mentioned at all in the European Agenda for Migration which mentions climate change as a root cause of irregular and forced displacement in third countries and calls for the prevention and mitigation of this ‘threat’. The Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (GAMM) of 2011 also shows an overall absence of climate change ‘but addressing environmentally induced migration, also by means of adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change, should be considered part of the Global Approach’. It is therefore difficult to draw any solid conclusions from the main EU instruments on migration on the legal position of ‘climate refugees’.

The Future Response

Some guidance may nevertheless be provided by a Commission Staff Working Document, The Next Steps for a Sustainable European Future. In the report about the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, the EU makes references to migration in relation to goal 10: reducing the inequality within and among countries as a need to reduce the irregular migration to the Union and to ‘build dialogue and partnerships with countries of origin and transit, based on solidarity and shared responsibility’. Human development, one of the five priority areas in the 2014-2017 Roadmap of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy considers migration and it is stated that the EU will cooperate with the African nations in ‘the field of international protection and asylum’ and work on promoting respect of migrant’s human rights. A similar provision on partnership with non-EU states that have shared interest and concerns with the EU is featured in the GAMM. Africa is one of the regions that will be most negatively affected by climate change with threats to lives, livelihoods and access to food and water. This tends to show that the EU policy is one of support in non-EU States or, put negatively, containment of the influx of ‘climate refugees’ into the EU.

In this vein the 2013 Commission Staff Working Paper on Climate Change, Environmental Degradation and Migration suggested that ‘climate refugees’ will mostly be either internal or to neighbouring countries and therefore not a concern to the EU. This view was however not maintained as President Juncker in 2015 warned about the consequences of ‘climate refugees’ to the EU unless the Union acts swiftly.

Remarkably, one of the articles in Migration in Response to Environmental Change (published by the DG Environment) argued that migration patterns to the Union is already effected by climate change and raises the issue that ‘climate refugees’ may not just be individuals coming to the EU but also EU citizens moving within Member States. The point that ‘climate refugees’ might be EU citizens is an interesting one from a legal perspective, yet mainly regulated by free movement of persons according to EU law and to some extent by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The main challenge remains for those arriving to the Union externally. Climate change may be recognised as a migration trigger and its consequences to the EU known but the protection of ‘climate refugees’ as such is still absent from the legislation and policy of the European Union. The Union has thus far provided a silent response to the various available studies about ‘climate refugees’.