Child climate refugees

In recent years, the concept of climate refugees has gained new importance as the global climate emergency has threatened the livelihoods of millions of people, causing many to leave home. Climate refugees present one of the biggest humanitarian challenges of today (UNHCR, 2015). Children who are forced to leave their homes with their parents or by themselves due to the effects of climate change are left in vulnerable situations and must receive the necessary protection from the states. Unfortunately, as there is no internationally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes “climate refugees”, the much-needed protection for children in vulnerable situations is severely lacking.

Unclear Definition of Climate Refugees

The term “climate refugee” is often used in the media, however, this phrase can cause confusion as it does not exist in environmental rights (UNHCR, 2015).  A “refugee” is defined as a person who has crossed an international border “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (UNHCR, 2011).

Due to the lack of a clear definition of child climate refugees, perpetrators are more easily able to abuse and exploit children who are displaced. Part of the challenge is formulating an agreed definition for this category of refugees. The term “environmental refugees” was first coined by Lester Brown in 1976 since then there had been a proliferation in the use of the term (Brown, Lester R, McGarth, & Stoke, 1976). In 1986, United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) expert Essam El-Hinnawi describes “those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardizes their existence and/or seriously effects the quality of life” (UNEP, 1985).
This definition is also used for the term “climate refugees” but there is yet to be any clear indication whether there is a practical difference between the two terms. Furthermore, the absence of an agreed definition inevitably deprives children of their fundamental rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

How Is It Relevant to Children?

The lack of a clear definition to effectively categorize this form of refugee will lead to more forcibly displaced children bereft of any appropriate legal protection and assistance. Child climate refugees are left in a precarious state. Under international law, specifically the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, in order to apply for refugee status, an applicant must prove persecution one of the following grounds; race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Hence, displacement by climate change or environmental reasons are not regarded as a valid reason to apply for refugee status. 

The effects of climate change occur unevenly and children in vulnerable environments feel the effects more than the adults. For instance, children in Tuvalu, are facing the threat of rising sea levels due to climate change. As a result of rising sea levels this affects the accessibility to drinking water, food and land. Due to the fact that Tuvalu is a low-lying island, Tuvaluans are at risk of losing their country and it is estimated by experts by 2050 that Tuvalu will no longer exist (Humanium, 2020). With regards to the children of Tuvalu, it is clear that there is an infringement of several articles in the UNCRC as well as environmental rights principles in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Change Agreement 2015 (Paris Agreement, 2015). In a world increasingly shaped by climate change, poverty and conflict, the SDGs cannot be achieved without taking into account the rights and needs of refugees, internally displaced and stateless people (UNHCR, 2020).

“States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life. In addition States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.”

UNCRC Article 6 – life, survival and development

The lack of any formal recognition of child climate refugees may lead to the deprivation of essential services for children such as the right to education and access to adequate healthcare which is why children would not be achieving their full potential. If governments continue to fail to establish a definition of child climate refugees, subsequently this would reinforce social and economic barriers between children which would effectively lead to more inequality.

“States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee in accordance with applicable international or domestic law and procedures shall, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents or by any other person, receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the present Convention and in other international human rights or humanitarian instruments to which said States are parties”.  

UNCRC Article 22 – refugee children

The language of the 1951 Convention was drafted at the time when environmental issues were not yet considered to be a factor to cause migration. Unfortunately, the same language has been implemented into regional instruments such as the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees 1984 and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa 1969. The lack of legal safeguards can manifest into children being stateless, the knock on effect too often causing children to be victims of trafficking, exploitation in relation to the worst forms of labour, forced marriages and in some cases drug abuse

“Promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in least developed countries and small island developing States, including focusing on women, youth and local and marginalized communities”.

SDG 13.B – Climate Action.

Poor and developing countries, particularly least developed countries, will be among those most adversely affected and least able to cope with the anticipated shocks that the climate emergency will exact upon their social, economic and natural systems. (UNSD, 2020)  It is imperative to ensure the protection of vulnerable groups in society such as climate refugee children. However, without adequate planning and precautionary measures in place, the SDGs cannot be fully achieved.

“End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children”.

SDG 16.2 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

This SDG is a renewed impetus towards the realization of the right of every child to live free from fear, neglect, abuse and exploitation (UNSD, 2020). This particular objective should be applied in a broader sense to include climate refugee children as they are often regarded as easy targets by perpetrators. 

“Also requests the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism to establish, according to its procedures and mandate, a task force […] to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”

Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2015.

In practice, however, it is unclear whether such approaches only focus on sudden extreme weather events such as cyclones, or include slow gradual events like rising sea levels. The lack of direction regarding said approaches may lead to states adopting contrasting measures which, in turn, could lead to further misplacement of climate refugees and internally displaced people. In addition the ‘task force’ in question is operating in an advisory capacity it would not bind states to follow their recommendations (Wilkinson, Schipper, Simonet, & Kubik, 2016).

Devastating Climate Change Effects and Children

Every year, millions of people leave their homes because of natural disasters or other ramifications of the climate emergency. This number is expected to rise, with projections ranging from 25 million to 1 billion climate migrants by 2050 (Black, 2019).

Natural disasters displace 3 to 10 times more people than conflict or war:

  • As in all crises, children are the most at risk physically and emotionally. And when families are forced from their homes, children are more likely to become separated from their parents, increasing their susceptibility to violence, exploitation and abuse (Black, 2019).
  • According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), sudden onset disasters leave 14 million people homeless each year. Developing nations in the global south are the least likely to contribute to climate change, but the most likely to suffer its consequences. Those in developing nations are the most at risk because they often live in disaster-prone areas and have the most difficulty recovering and adapting to climate shock-related damage (Black, 2019).

Slow onset climate change can do far more damage than a single storm:

  • Natural disasters are dramatic proof of the rising perils of the climate emergency, but there are other devastating forces at work as well. Slow onset climate change, for instance desert expansion and sea-level rise, can do far more damage than a single storm (Black, 2019).
  • Slow onset climate change spurs conflict and corresponding displacements, often due to dwindling resources. In Syria, a series of severe droughts starting in the late 1990s was the initial driver, but political tensions and lack of opportunity ultimately led to today’s Syrian refugee crisis. Equally, in the Sahel region of Africa, conflict is intensifying as natural resources become scarcer (Black, 2019).

Migration is the greatest single consequence of climate change:

  • The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cited migration as the greatest single consequence of climate change as early as 1990. The predicted consequences look familiar: extreme drought, rising sea levels, wildfires and food shortages. All of this, conclusively, has caused and will prompt further forced migration (Black, 2019).
  • Droughts kill more people than any other single weather-related catastrophe and conflicts among communities over water scarcity are increasing. Over 1 billion people today have no access to safe water, and demand will increase by 30 percent by 2030. Desertification can be equally fatal and threatening – there are estimates that some 135 million people may be displaced by 2045 as a result of desertification (Black, 2019).

Internal displacement causes migration across borders:

  • In Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands are routinely uprooted by coastal flooding and river erosion. Desertification in West Africa has empowered terrorists and displaced more than 4 million people. Rising sea levels in the Pacific and Oceania islands, where 1 in 10 have migrated in the past decade, leave residents trapped or threaten their very statehood. In America, thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria still have no housing (Black, 2019).
  • Around the world, approximately 1 in 45 children are on the move. Nearly 50 million children have migrated across borders or been forcibly displaced within their own countries. Climate-related events and impacts already contribute to these staggering numbers and they are expected to grow (Black, 2019).

Solutions to Protect Child Climate Refugees

  • Forced migration will require international solutions and institutional arrangements to support those needing to move. It is necessary to ensure the rights of children and vulnerable families are protected and preserved.
  • Taking urgent action on climate change is required from states to preserve the environment in order for present and future generations to enjoy. 
  • Developing and issuing a special humanitarian visa would allow states to incorporate broader humanitarian grounds including climate related movement which will create a safe legal route for climate refugees (Climate News Network, 2017).
  • The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) can provide protection and assistance for many people forcibly displaced by the effects of climate change and disasters, among other drivers, and is working to increase their resilience (UNHCR , 2015).
  • UNICEF and its partners can provide guidelines to improve the care and protection of refugee and migrant children, whether they are travelling alone or with their parents or caregivers (UNICEF, 2020).
  • Ensuring that a well-trained guardian takes immediate responsibility for the child, engaging cultural mediators, and mobilizing members of host communities are critical measures that can help build a trusting relationship and protect children from smugglers, traffickers or the impact of severe pressures on a family (UNICEF, 2020).
  • At a national level, partnerships between states, international organizations and non-profit organizations should meet children’s immediate needs, including safety, protection, health care, adequate nutrition and education (UNICEF, 2020).

Psychosocial services and education for refugee and migrant children should be provided while strengthening national child protection systems to benefit all children who are vulnerable. (UNICEF, 2020)

Closing remarks

With the effects of climate change more evident it is clear that climate refugees will present one of the biggest humanitarian challenges. This is a phenomenon that all states will face, unless we act now and start the collaborative effort to protect our planet. 

Written by Igi Nderi
Last updated on June 24, 2020.