Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
Chaired by Elsa Nautsch (CH)
Climate change is currently one of the most pressing issues the world is facing. As such, it has many consequences we are only slowly beginning to understand. One of them is the influence climate change has on migration around the world. With 1.2 billion people being predicted to be displaced globally by 2050, it is an issue that will become more pressing over time if not tackled soon. On one hand, climate change will lead to more extreme weather and make a lot of land uninhabitable through processes such as a sea-level rise or desertification, thus forcing millions of people to migrate in order to simply survive. On the other hand, the effects of individuals fighting over resources and habitable land might lead to additional conflict that might act as an added factor in forcing people to search for refuge in other countries and regions, such as the European Union.
- Climate change leads to more extreme weather phenomena forcing people to leave their homes.
- The migration caused by climate change is a security threat, as the fight over resources and habitable land might lead to additional conflict.
- “Environmental refugees” are not legally recognised as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
- The European Union has had issues managing migration flows into Europe in the past, leaving the Mediterranean States under immense pressure and thousands of refugees dying while trying to reach Europe.
- Although it has been recognised that climate change will lead to additional refugees, all current legislation fails to combine the issues of climate change and migration efficiently.
In the years leading up to the civil war in Syria, the country had had its worst drought ever. This led to 85% of the livestock dying and hundreds of thousands of people losing their income. As a consequence, masses of people were left in poverty that resulted in 1.5 million people moving from rural areas to urban centres. Not only were the ones left in poverty easier targets for recruiters from the Islamic State but the existing inequalities within the country were reinforced. This is most likely also one of the factors that later led to the civil war in Syria. The civil war displaced millions of people, of which about a million fled to Europe in hopes of finding safety there.
Climate change has led to an increase in extreme weather phenomena, such as droughts, floods, and extreme wildfires. One of these phenomena, namely a drought, happened in Syria, pressuring Syrian people to leave their homes and look for safety elsewhere. Syria is certainly not the only country where this happened or still is happening. A report from the IEP has suggested that until 2050 up to 1.2 billion people are at risk of displacement. Most of this environmental migration1 happens within their own countries, but with climate change leading to more of these phenomena and making more land uninhabitable, people might look for refuge outside of their borders. As seen in Syria, environmental migration might also ignite or lead to more conflict. This is especially a problem as, out of the 19 countries facing the most ecological threats, ten are among the 40 least peaceful countries in the world. Although climate change has been acknowledged as one of the driving forces behind migration, the EU has so far failed to provide any specific legislation tackling this problem.
- The UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) main interest is to help and support refugees2 and safeguard their rights. It mostly conducts on-site missions helping refugees in the field. Not only does the UNHCR support the EU bodies in their policymaking processes regarding asylum, but since July 2000 the EU institutions specifically have to consult the UNHCR on matters regarding asylum. Thus, the UNHCR can have more influence on whether future EU laws work toward their objective of the protection of refugees.
- The European Commission is the executive branch of the EU with the power to propose new policies for the EU, and therefore one of the main stakeholders in this topic. As migration is a shared competence, the European Commission is responsible for drawing up the strategies for European asylum and migration processes. The Commission is interested in further regulating and improving migration processes and flows, and asylum strategies.
- The Court of Justice of the European Union is responsible for interpreting EU laws and ensuring they are properly applied in all Member States. Despite the CJEU not having a direct effect on refugee policymaking, as an actor, it can contribute to the interpretation of laws on asylum and refugees in light of climate change. It cannot, however, be forced to interpret laws by any EU body but rather has to do so in the context of court cases.
- The European Environment Agency (EEA) has the task to provide information on the environment that can help policymakers in achieving their goal of providing Europe with a better environment and informing the public about the current state of things regarding the environment, especially climate change. It acts on behalf of the European Commission but is also supposed to reflect the decisions made by the Commission based on current research.
- The European Agency on Asylum3’s goal is for Member States to implement the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) correctly. It acts as a resource for them to apply the CEAS properly, thus it simply helps Members States and does not replace national asylum agencies.
- As migration and environment are shared competencies within the EU, Member States still have the power to pass their own legislations and policies where the European Commission has not done so yet. Their interests in this matter are usually heavily influenced by their populations’ public opinion and the current government. Therefore, the initiatives taken might vary a lot from country to country.
- Different NGOs usually serve as a voice for “environmental refugees” and try to speak up on behalf of their interests in front of the EU institutions through position papers or actual legal complaints. Different examples of such NGOs would be the Green Europe Foundation, working specifically within a European Framework or Climate Refugees, an NGO that works on a more international scale.
Legal Framework/Measures already in place
1951 Refugee Convention
The 1951 Refugee Convention provides a single universal definition of what a refugee is. It states that a refugee is a person unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin due to well-founded fear of prosecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Up until today, the convention laid to groundwork for most asylum laws and the definition is being used by many countries and especially the EU.
Competences of the European Union
The EU has different competences in different areas. When it comes to the environment, justice or security, all areas this topic tackles, the EU operates under so-called shared competences. This essentially means that the EU is able to pass legislation and adopt legally binding policies for their Member States. Member States are still able to exercise their own competence in areas where the EU has not done so or decided not to do so.
So far the EU has not had any regulations specifically on “environmental refugees”. However, they do have different laws on migration and asylum in general. One of the main policy frameworks here is the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). It consists of different pieces of legislation that set out common standards within the EU for asylum decision-making and reception condition. For one, its main goal is to harmonise asylum laws in all Member States and thus make for fair asylum decisions. For another, it also ensures that asylum seekers are granted a dignified stay in the country their seeking asylum in, as they are also not allowed to leave the said country while their application is being processed.
European strategies to combat climate change
The European Commission introduced in the European Green Deal a set of policies with the aim to reduce the net greenhouse gases by 55% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Within the European Green Deal, the EU has identified climate change as a source of conflict and migration and proposed different strategies to combat climate change. However, the European Green Deal mainly tackles Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and not the subsequent climate migration. Together with Global Gateway, they also support partner countries in various manners, one of them being different investments towards greener energies and technologies. As climate change is the main driver behind environmental migration, combating it is the most important step when tackling the problem from the root.
As the European Union has acknowledged climate change being one of the drivers for migration, the European Parliament has called for more joint research on the link between climate change and migration. The results of these studies are supposed to help come up with new and more targeted responses to the issue. Additionally, they plan on sharing guidelines, technical assistance and information with affected countries. One such study requested by the LIBE Committee in the past has been published in July 2020, stating different recommendations such as the installment of a policy connecting climate change and migration issues and the development of a strategy that produces solutions on asylum and migration claims connected to climate change.
Extreme weather phenomena
Research has shown that extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change will worsen over the next years and push millions of people into migration. Among others, massive draughts, a rise in extreme storms and floods, and more frequent and intense wildfires will put more individuals at risk in the short term. Just last year, in the summer of 2021, we have seen immense flooding in parts of Germany and Belgium, killing 220 people and forcing 30000 more to leave their homes. Such events are predicted to be nine times more likely due to climate change. In the same summer, Algeria has been hit by wildfires that inflicted more damage than all wildfires combined in the last 12 years. In addition, several long-term effects of climate change will impact the habitability of certain regions. As such, the sea-level rise will put people living close to the coast in danger, the melting of glaciers will be putting mountainous regions at risk, and the change in the atmospheric chemistry will affect the growth of crops. Although climate change is a global issue, its impacts are unevenly distributed and affect poorer countries disproportionately. For one, poorer countries are often located in regions more exposed to the effects of climate change. They oftentimes heavily rely on agriculture for their livelihood and with the effects of climate change making land barren and livestock dying, they are left with no other chance than to migrate4.
Climate change as a driver of conflict
As more and more people will be displaced by the effects of climate change, concurrence over resources and habitable land will surge. Countries with existing unstable political systems might face additional security threats and armed conflict might ensue. These crises will not only be harsh on the individual countries themselves but most likely also spill over national borders and force people to leave their countries. With regions that are highly at risk, such as the Middle East and North Africa, being close to Europe, a lot of “environmental refugees” might seek refuge here. Another prominent example of climate change further driving conflict currently is Nigeria. More than 50% of its population makes their living from farming. As draughts and higher temperatures make agriculture more difficult and made them more vulnerable to being recruited by terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram. Since the group’s formation, they have been responsible for more than 40000 deaths and the displacement of 2.4 million people.
Definition of “environmental refugee”5
The term refugee has been defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention as a person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their country of origin because of their religion, race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion and thus cannot return to their home country. However, there is no mention of climate hazards as valid grounds for people to seek asylum and acquire refugee status. As such, the term and concept of an “environmental refugee” are still uncertain in the context of law and practice. As “environmental refugees” cannot get asylum, they would be simply considered irregular migrants, leaving them without proper protection and oftentimes at risk of being deported back to their country of origin.
Managing migration flows6
In the past, the EU has faced issues with managing migration flows into Europe. The huge influx of refugees in 2015, for example, has shown various issues within the asylum system. For one refugees not treated uniformly in all Member States under the current CEAS. Additionally, only very few Member States are responsible for all asylum seekers. Currently, the refugee status of an individual must be confirmed in the country of their arrival. In the past, this led to a lot of pressure on Member States, especially on Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece. As unsure predictions still are, some suggest, that future migration flows will intensify from the South, therefore potentially hitting Italy, Spain and Greece the hardest. In addition, a lot of the migration routes the refugees have been taking to get into Europe are extremely dangerous leaving thousands to die on their way here. Let alone in 2022, an estimated 1200 refugees died in the Mediterranean7.
New Pact on Migration and Asylum
The European Commission has recognised the issues with its past asylum and migration policies and has introduced the New Pact on Migration and Asylum in 2019 which is still to be approved by its Member States and the European Parliament. Some of the main goals presented in the Pact are to distribute clear responsibilities between Member States, ease the pressure on ones that have been dealing with the highest refugee numbers and stronger cooperation between the EU and partner countries. However, the Pact does not specifically tackle the issue of “environmental refugees” and their recognition in Europe.
The EU and its bodies have named climate change repeatedly as one of the main drivers behind future migration. Already in 2015 Jean-Claude Juncker, the predecessor to Ursula von der Leyen mentioned “climate refugees” as an upcoming pressing issue that needs to be addressed as swiftly as possible. Still, the EU fails to this day to provide concrete legislation or solutions to the issue.8
Although “environmental refugees” are not technically refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, there still is the principle of non-refoulment. The principle means that countries have an obligation to protect and welcome an individual if their life is in danger in their country of origin. In late 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Committee accepted that climate change does impose such a serious threat on people’s lives and that the principle of non-refoulment is applicable.
Some experts also state that a few EU Directives9, if interpreted very broadly, might already cover environmental causes of migration. For example, the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) grants Member States the right to extend temporary protection in additional categories to refugees, one of them possibly being environmental factors. In the end, the interpretation of these directives lies with the national competence of Member States. This means that protection for “environmental refugees” will vary across the EU. As of right now, Italy is the only one out of the Member States that offers explicit protection to “environmental refugees”.
- The great climate migration– an article by the New York Times on climate migration with examples from America.
- The unfairness of the climate crisis – a podcast with researcher and migration expert Yvonne Su about climate-induced migration.
- Migration is the movement of a person either across an international border or within a state, voluntarily or involuntarily for more than one year.
- A refugee is a person who is outside of the country of nationality because of a well-founded fear of prosecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group and thus is unwilling to or cannot return to said country.
- Asylum is a form of protection given by a state or territory to an internationally or nationally recognised refugee.
- What ways are there to mitigate the effects of climate change on migration?
- Is the usage of “environmental refugees” in this Topic Overview justified or would you use another term?
- Migration flow is the number of migrants crossing a certain boundary within a certain time period with the purpose to establish residence.
- What are the main issues within the EU when it comes to “environmental refugees”?
- What approach is the EU currently taking? Does it resonate with you?
- Directives are part of EU law. Once they have been established by the EU institutions they become part of the law in the Member States.