The UN Must Stop Saying Climate Refugees Aren’t Refugees

The world has a perfect tool to protect climate refugees — the 1951 Refugee Convention — so let’s start using it.

If you are a journalist, activist, or person concerned about climate change, you have probably been told at some point in your life that there is no such thing as a “climate refugee.” You have probably been told this by an international law “expert.” This expert probably explained to you that while there are climate migrants, climate displaced persons and victims of climate change, there are no “climate refugees” because climate change isn’t persecution and refugees have to show they have been persecuted.

I know how this works — I’m a refugee lawyer. I’ve prattled on about how climate change isn’t persecution to goodness-only-knows how many people, before I realized that mindlessly repeating what I had been taught was making me part of the problem.

Why does it matter if climate refugees exist? Because refugee status confers real benefits. A migrant can be deported at any time. A migrant can be detained, denied health care, education and a job. A refugee is a protected person, entitled to enter and stay in a foreign country and, often, to receive government support, to work, to go to school and to get health care. many countries actually give refugees all of these things. The Refugee Convention is an international law miracle.

Being a climate migrant, on the other hand, gets you nothing. It’s a totally meaningless phrase, like “VIP” or “dollar store”. Your house may burn down, your city may sink under the water, but no one is obligated to help you if you’re just a migrant.

But if climate refugees exist, why does the UN keep insisting that they don’t? Is it a horrible conspiracy? The short answer is money. The long answer is a bit more complicated, but ends up in the same place: money. Allow me to explain.

  1. Strip away the legal mumbo jumbo and persecution can be anything the UN says it is.

A refugee must be persecuted. UN lawyers will tell you that there are no “climate refugees” because climate change is not persecution. Ergo, no climate refugees. How many times have you read this in a newspaper or magazine? But what if I told you that there is no definition, in law, of persecution? That there are no limits on what it means. Persecution, in theory, can be anything we want it to be. House on fire? Persecution! Apartment building collapsing into the ocean? Persecution!

Here, a UN refugee lawyer would point out that climate change is not being done to you on purpose, though it may feel to you like it is, nor is being done on account of your race, religion, ethnicity, social group or political opinions. Nobody burned your house down because of these things. They allowed your house to burn down because they don’t care. Your house is just collateral damage on the fiery road to Exxon’s next shareholder meeting.

But remember, persecution can be anything we say it is! Does the US government, or Australian government, or Chinese government want to burn your house down? Maybe not. Do they care enough to lift one finger to help? No! If your neighbor runs over you with their car while driving drunk, we don’t tell your grieving family it’s ok, your neighbor didn’t mean it, we put your neighbor in jail. It’s called negligence, yet for some reason, refugee lawyers seem to have never heard of it. If negligently running over people like they are speed bumps isn’t persecution, than call the dictionary company, I want my money back.

Furthermore (to use a lawyer word), while your house didn’t burn down “on account” of your race or religion, it sure was on account of something — your poverty and powerlessness, your membership in the social group of people whose houses and lives and families and jobs just do not matter. A refugee lawyer would say that you can’t belong to a social group that’s as big as the 99%, but I say, why not? There’s no definition in the Refugee Convention for “social group.” The words are just there, left for us to define. I say we’re all together in a giant social group of people who don’t matter at all to petroleum companies.

In conclusion, we don’t need to write a new Refugee Convention, we can just use the one we already have. So why won’t the UN simply issue guidance to governments that climate change is persecution?

2. If climate change is persecution, it will crash the whole refugee system

Once we move away from obfuscating “legal arguments” like the ones above, we can dig into the real reason the UN keeps insisting there are no climate refugees. The most common is the argument that doing so will bring the entire refugee protection structure crashing down because there will simply be too many climate refugees. Because we are the 99%, we will swamp the system, destroying it for the people who “really need it” like those fleeing wars. I call this the “Pearl-Clutching Argument”. As in, let’s all clutch our pearls while people suffer so we can keep helping the 5% of refugees whose refugee claims are not in any way related to climate change. Because news flash — most wars in the future are going to be caused, at least in part, by fights over dwindling resources…resources that are dwindling because of, wait for it, climate change.

3. So why doesn’t the UN do the obvious thing and declare that climate change is persecution?

One word: Money. Climate change is already one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, cause of displacement. The UN is paid for by governments, and governments don’t want to accept any more refugees. Solution? Hire a bunch of lawyers to tell you that the law doesn’t actually apply to you. Problem solved.