Climate-Induced Displacement: Some Reflections on Contemporary Debates

Maria Marques/ October 27, 2023/

Maria Marques, Susana Brazão and Vittoria Moccia


This blogpost explores the issue of climate-induced displacement and the limits of legal protection, critically examining the main international and EU legal frameworks and policies. It advocates for recognising the protection needs arising from climate-induced displacement, as opposed to security-based approaches. Current international refugee and human rights regimes fall short of a satisfactory solution. Regionally, the EU leans more towards security than protection, hindering safe migration pathways. This, coupled with current climate uncertainties and their potential irreversibility, shows an increasing need for a more protective approach. 


Climate change, Climate-induced displaced persons, EU migration and asylum law, international refugee law, international human rights law.

1. Introduction

Climate change has become a global ‘threat multiplier’, due to effects that include temperature and sea-level rises, exacerbating pre-existing issues such as access to natural resources and marginalized livelihoods. This requires populations to adapt and even leave their homes in search of a safer place.[1] For instance, only in 2021, around 23.7 million people were internally displaced due to natural disasters in 141 countries.[2] Within the next few years, climate-induced displaced persons are expected to grow and become increasingly a cross-border phenomenon, due to rapidly changing environmental conditions, yet there is still no international or European agreement on whether and how these people should be protected.[3] Importantly, this blogpost warns against security-based approaches to climate-induced displacement and provides some reflections on protective possibilities.  

Different terms are used in policy and academic debates to refer to migration motivated by environmental reasons. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) uses the expression “climate-related human mobility”, but “climate-induced displacement” is also commonly used.[4]  In this blogpost, we use the expression “climate-induced displacement” to refer to situations in which environmental factors constrain persons to leave their residence and look for alternatives. The term ‘displacement’, as opposed to ‘mobility’, has the advantage of denoting constraining conditions and the related protection needs.

2. Varieties of Approaches to Climate Displacement 

Climate events produce different impacts on human displacement depending on whether we are facing “fast-onset events”, such as floods and earthquakes, which will produce short-term movement, or “slow-onset events”, for instance sea-level rise, that can often lead to permanent displacement due to the inhabitability of a specific environment.[5]

Authors more favourable to the protection of climate-induced displaced persons, such as Essam El-Hinnawi, employ the term “refugees”. They approach these persons as 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 jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life.[6]

Other scholars have developed a more restrictive approach. For instance, scholars from the “maximalist” school of thought, mainly focusing from a perspective of environmental sciences, have portrayed migration as a danger – among others – caused by climate change, approaching the number of people that would be affected by climate events as potentially excessive. This approach led to a concern over migration flows, legitimizing States to manage their migration policies based on security considerations, rather than on the protection needs of displaced persons.[7] Scholars from the so-called “minimalist” school have criticized this approach and have shown greater concerns over protection needs, pointing out that environmental factors are rarely stand-alone causes of displacement. Such factors are often intertwined with other reasons such as political instability, violence, and poverty.[8] The “minimalist” literature has supported the use of bilateral or multilateral agreements that would create legal routes for those in need of protection.

From a climate-justice approach, the reckless conduct of polluting countries makes these countries the primary actors expected to assume responsibility over the legal protection of victims of the effects of climate change, namely those from more vulnerable states that lack political power and conditions to overcome the consequences of other nations’ (in)actions.[9] Some scholars have argued that European countries especially, though not only, have an ecological debt as a result of their activities since the industrial revolution.[10] It is precisely in light of these considerations that it is important to examine EU’s approach to the issue of climate-induced displaced persons and question its limits. 

Moreover, while the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is an important objective, its implementation, as well as the reversibility of climate effects, remain highly uncertain today, raising the likelihood that climate-induced displacement will continue to increase. Building on the insights of the “minimalist” approach, most likely environmental factors will continue to be intertwined with other causes, such as political instability and poverty, and that existing international protection instruments are not sufficient for addressing the protection needs of these persons. However, this does not mean that climate-induced displacement does not require recognition tailored to its specific specificities, something that contemporary international and EU legal frameworks do not yet permit.

3. The Limits of the International Legal Framework

Climate-induced displaced people face at least two challenges: at first, they face climate adversities, often in conjunction with other factors, forcing them to leave their homes. Secondly, they must often face authorities’ reluctance to offer legal protection, and risk being returned to their place of origin.[11]

The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is often regarded as too narrow and problematic in view of climate-induced displacement.[12] Regarding the definition given in Article 1, we can identify at least two reasons why it cannot apply in the context of environmental phenomena: firstly, climate change as such cannot be related to an act of persecution, and, secondly, there are no discriminatory reasons causing displacement if it relates mainly to environmental phenomena. This creates important legal hurdles for climate-induced displacement, leading to a situation in which international protection depends on whether factors, other than climate change, satisfy the requirements of the refugee regime. 

Nevertheless, addressing climate change has been an increasing concern. Notable efforts by the UN began with the 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework, and the 2015 Paris Agreement. Concerns related to climate-induced displacement were first enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.[13]More recently, in 2021, the UN confirmed the need to tackle the issue of internal displacement in a systematic way as part of the climate change agenda.[14]However, the current international legal system lacks a specific regime for climate-induced displaced persons.[15]

Giving the limited effort of the international community to tackle climate-induced displacement, amendments have been proposed to the 1951 Refugee Convention to expand the scope of its protection to climate-induced displaced persons, by including climate change in the definition of the refugee.[16] However, given that the current international refugee legal framework is applied by many European countries in a restrictive manner, merely adding a new category in the list of possible grounds of international protection would most likely not be enough for ensuring an effective protection of climate-induced displaced persons. Other authors have emphasized that climate-induced displacement requires the creation of a sui generis framework of recognition, protection, and resettlement, based on the attributes specific to it.[17]  This is a promising solution, which should be taken seriously by the EU and contemporary governments, whose negative sentiments towards migration must be overcome in favour of a more protective and welcoming approach. 

In addition to international refugee law, it has been emphasized that international human rights law can also offer solutions to climate-induced displacement, especially through the right to life. Indeed, this has been confirmed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in the Teitiota v New Zealand case involving a citizen from Kiribati whose asylum application in New Zealand had been rejected.[18] However, this case also shows the limits of a human rights approach: the threshold for the recognition of the violation of the right to life is very high and such violation – if indeed recognized – does not as such amount to the recognition of a legal status. 

To conclude, a specific protective regime for climate-induced displaced persons is still lacking today and this can have major repercussions on displaced persons’ lives. Given the increasingly threatening repercussions of climate change, a protective solution must be worked out for climate-induced displaced persons. These issues must be taken seriously and should be related to climate justice perspectives, which stress the need for polluting countries to assume responsibilities over the legal protection of victims of climate change. 

4. The EU Response

Within the EU, climate change is portrayed as one of the main concerns of European institutions, through prevention, resilience, and adaptation, with the European Commission being the first to associate climate change with security concerns.[19] In this sense, the EU approach to climate-induced displacement has some affinities with the maximalist approach outlined above, in so far as security issues have been prioritized over protection needs. One of its first efforts to tackle climate-induced displacement can be traced back to the 2013 Commission Staff Working Document on “Climate change, environmental degradation, and migration” included within the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change.[20]More recently, the 2021 Communication on the EU’s humanitarian action highlighted the importance of identifying the root causes of displacement, focusing on prevention, preparedness, and response.[21] This approach is based on the idea that displacement must be deterred instead of being welcomed through protection. While the goal of mitigating the effects of climate change is important, the EU must also offer protective solutions in the likely scenario that some phenomena of climate change are irreversible. 

Although the link between environmental change and displacement has been increasingly addressed on the EU level, the EU has privileged border control and security concerns in its overall migration policy instead of developing safe migration pathways.[22] This approach  not only endangers displaced persons but also produces irregular migration by not offering viable legal alternatives.[23] The reluctance of Member States to offer regular pathways is reflected in the fact that most of them did not sign the 2018 UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

While the Common European Asylum System does offer possibilities of international protection through the refugee and the subsidiary protection statuses, it simultaneously creates more hurdles for those who require a visa to reach the EU, even though they might seek international protection if they manage to reach the EU. Moreover, EU refugee law suffers from the same limitations as the ones previously mentioned in relation to international refugee law: it does not accommodate the specificities of climate-induced displacement. When it comes to the subsidiary protection status, which deals with situations in which the applicants do not qualify as refugees, this regime also suffers from important weaknesses, at least because it requires the existence of a third party inflicting serious harm. 

5. Conclusion

As long as the specificities of climate-induced displacement are not recognized in a binding legal instrument that privileges a protective approach, the EU approach – stemming from an already flawed international regime – will remain deeply unsatisfactory. While the objective of mitigating climate change processes is important, the EU cannot limit itself to addressing the ‘root causes’ of climate-induced displacement. A more protective and welcoming approach is required in a context in which the implementation of mitigation policies, as well as the reversibility of climate effects, remain highly uncertain today. 

How to Cite This Blogpost: Marques M, Moccia V and Brazão S, ‘Climate-Induced Displacement: Some Reflections on Contemporary Debates’ (NOVA Refugee Clinic Blog, October 2023) <URL> 

[1] Cristina Cattaneo and others, ‘Human Migration in the Era of Climate Change’ (2019) 13 Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 189. 

[2] Commission, ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the EU’s humanitarian action: new challenges, same principles Communication on the EU’s humanitarian action: new challenges, same principles’ COM (2021) 110 final.

[3] Comprehensive and systematic data on cross-border displacement is however lacking. See Commission, ‘Commission staff working document – Addressing displacement and migration related to disasters, climate change and environmental degradation’ SWD (2022) 201 final.

[4] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ‘Legal considerations regarding claims for international protection made in the context of the adverse effects of climate change and disasters’ (1 October 2020) <> accessed 10 September 2023.

[5] Seda H. Bostanci and Seda Yildirim, ‘Sustainable Communities vs. Climate Refugees’ in Cristina Raluca Gh. Popescu (ed.),Handbook of Research on Novel Practices and Current Successes in Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals 298 (IGI Global 2021).

[6] Cattaneo and others (n 1). 

[7] Elena Piasentin, ‘Escaping Climate Change: Who Are the “Environmental Migrants” in International Law?’ (2016) 2016 Freedom from Fear 32.

[8] Giovanni Sciaccaluga, International Law and the Protection of Climate Refugees (Palgrave Macmillan 2021). 

[9] EU Member States are among the States most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution. Chiara Liguori, ‘The Response of the European Union to Human Mobility in the Context of Climate Change’ (2021) Refugee Law Initiative Working Paper54 <> accessed 10 September 2023; Bostanci and Yildirim (n 5). 

[10] Andrew Simms, Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations (Pluto Press 2009); Paul J. Govind and Robert R.M. Verchick, ‘Natural Disaster and Climate Change’ in Shawkat Alam and others (eds), International Environmental Law and the Global South (Cambridge University Press 2015).

[11] Denis Butros, Veronica B. Gyberg and Anna Kaijser, ‘Solidarity versus Security: Exploring Perspectives on Climate Induced Migration in UN and EU Policy’ (2021) 15 Environmental Communication 842. 

[12] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (adopted 28 July 1951, entered into force 22 April 1954) 189 UNTS 137 (Refugee Convention); Tracey Skillington, ‘Climate Justice without Freedom’ (2015) 18 European Journal of Social Theory 288.

[13] Issa Ibrahim Berchin and others, ‘Climate Change and Forced Migrations: An Effort towards Recognizing Climate Refugees’ (2017) 84 Geoforum 147.

[14] Commission (n 2).

[15] United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement, ‘Shining a Light on Internal Displacement: a Vision for the Future’ (29 September 2021) <> accessed 10 September 2023.

[16] Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas, ‘Preparing for a Warmer World: Towards a Global Governance System to Protect Climate Refugees’ (2010) 10 Global Environmental Politics 60.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid; Commission (n 2).

[20] Richard Youngs, ‘The EU’s Indirect and Defensive Approach to Climate Security’ in Olivia Lazard and Richard Youngs (eds), The EU and Climate Security: Toward Ecological Diplomacy (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2021).

[21] Commission, ‘Commission’s staff working document on Communication on Climate Change, Environmental Degradation, and Migration’ SWD (2013) 138 final; Commission (n 2).

[22] Commission (n 2).

[23] Maria Julia Trombetta, ‘Linking Climate-Induced Migration and Security within the EU: Insights from the Securitization Debate’ (2014) 2 Critical Studies on Security 131.


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