Literature Review
Climate refugees and Recognition at International scale
By Marie Courtais, 2018-04-18

Essam El-Hinnawi first introduced the concept of environmental refugees in the international academic arena in 1985 with his eponym book. El-Hinnawi (1985: 4) defined environmental refugees as "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 jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life" (Su 2016 : 24).

Nowadays that climate change had been proved by scientists and observed by all, the theme of climate refugees is the object of a flourishing literature in the academic international scene. Causes of displacement due to climate change can be generalized to three main factors: sea level rise, drought or desertification, and extreme weather. Numbers in 2015 were reaching 25 million people displaced because of climate change-induced reasons (Marshall 2015: 112), and if international climate change production goes on and arrive at a global +3 degrees celsius, previsions announce 800 millions of climate refugees for 2050. Climate change is thus seen as the first menace for international peace in being the first risk of conflict in the world. Nonetheless, there is an inherent problem of identification because displacement is scarcely exclusively induced by climate change: it is often a complex mix of factors that force people to get into motion. From that, the definition and frame of "climate refugees" are harshly assessable.

Despite these pieces of evidence, some scholars carry on pointing at the international community and the fact that thirty years after El-Hinnawi's Environmental refugees (1985), the debate on climate refugees is truly active but no any concrete decisions are taken for individuals in plight. According to the international community, the core problem is a lack of recognition at national, regional and global level.

In the following literature review based on four articles from 2008 to 2016, have been observed several topics shared by each of the papers when dealing with EDPs and recognition : problems of definition of the EDPs' status and the inadequacy of legal system at international, regional and domestic scale. In the last section, will be exposed the potential solutions addressed in each paper to remediate to the lack of recognition and action. Nevertheless, before going into details, the four papers will be briefly introduced.

Presentation of the texts

In her article Turning the Tide: Recognizing Climate Change Refugees in International Law (2008), Angela Williams assumes that literature and debates about climate change refugees have been lately very flourishing and displayed on the international scene. Notwithstanding, there are an increasing and terrifying amount of people concerned and each text of international and national law she examines is manifestly inadequate to situations known by people displaced due to environmental reasons.

In McNamara and Gibson's "We do not want to leave our land" : Pacific ambassadors at the United Nations resist the category of "Climate refugees" (2009), while basing on the most relevant case study, the low-lying Pacific Islands, also known under the acronym SIDS (Small Island Developing State), the authors draw a binary vision and frame of the notion climate refugees : in fact, they first give an analysis of the mass media discourse and officials from the "Western World" on the topic, that they contrast by the examination of the comprehension of climate refugee by seven SIDS ambassadors, representatives of the aforementioned victims. Resulting from this process, an explicit and strong resistance to the term climate refugees and the ideas of victimhood and passiveness: these ambassadors offer a testimony of vibrant and determined will of the inhabitants of the islands to get into action and prevent from further climate consequences instead of seeking for adaptation.

In Nicole Marshall's Politicizing Environmental Displacement: A Four-Category Approach to Defining Environmentally Displaced People (2015), problems of conceptualization are firstly enlightened to understand why environmentally displaced peoples are, still in 2015, not considered as a political and social issue worldwide that requires recognition and rights in International law. She assesses that a process of depoliticization, that she also named naturalization is enabling the international community to seize the real challenges of the conditions of EDPs and permits them to continue looking away.

In Should we bring back "Climate refugees"? (2016), Yvonne Su bases her argumentation on the analysis of Francois Gemenne's paper One good reason to speak of "climate refugees" (Forced Migration Review. May 2015), in which Gemenne suggests to utilize the concept of climate refugees in order not to forget its political dimension. In Su's item, she explores the evolution of labels through time and academic literature, debate and power relationships: "environmental refugees", "climate refugees", "climate migrants", or lately "environmentally displaced people" and comes to the conclusion that the International community try to avoid labels which imply some forms of responsibility for climate change-induced events forcing displacement of individuals, and so try to undermine the terms.

A controversial conceptualization

An issue aroused by this present corpus is a significant difficulty to concretely define EDPs. Text by text, it appears that this manner of conceptualization is coming from the implicit value of politicization/a-politicization of the term used and create some controversy in political, academic and mediatic arenas.

In Su's Should we bring back "Climate Refugees"?, which is the most recent work of the corpus, the issue of discourse is at the center of her argumentation. In fact, she's explaining how the difference of word can influence its meaning, by comparing climate refugees and climate migrants :

"The implications of a shift in discourse from "climate refugees" to "climate migrants", on both the policy and academic level, lie in the specific meanings ascribed to these concepts. The concept of "climate refugees" may better evoke victims of climate change-induced displacement that should be entitled to international protection, while "climate migrants" may instead signify self-maximizing entrepreneurs migrating out of difficult environments as a way to adapt to the changing climate (Felli 2013). The two labels and the individuals they describe bring along with it different ideas of what rights and protections each group should receive." (Su 2016: 25)

As following Su's argument, the problem of conceptualization is set by an issue of discourse.

In their article, McNamara & Gibson's based their research methodology on Michel Foucault's highly influential theory on discourse in purpose to examine the linguistic value of climate refugees label in Western World's media. Indeed, Foucauldian discourse analysis is based on the idea that language is a vector of power relationships and it is practiced through a manipulation of the discourse (Foucault, 1987). In their paper, it is explicit that discourse is vector of power relations in the mean of consideration of from which side you watch the concept climate refugees (McNamara & Gibson 2009: 477): from the "Western World", it defines victims of the climate change which cannot do anything except flee their land; from the "refugees" point of view, it is an offense and won't decline under this domination's term, because it is harming their culture, their sovereignty, their identity (ibid: 480).

In Williams' text section "Addressing climate change displacement through environmental refugee discourse", it is tried to naturalize the concept by dissecting it into categories. Certainly, it refers to El-Hinnawi's three-category-based classification coming with the unprecedented definition of environmental refugees in the late 1980s. According to this classification, it exists:

1) temporarily displaced people, such as victims of natural disasters as an instance;
2) permanently displaced people, like most of the cases caused by sea level rise;
3) migration in search for a better quality of life, meaning that the necessity to flee is less obvious and brutal that the two former sections, but are slowly tangible, such as in cases of drought or desertification (Williams 2008: 506). This categorization might be a facilitator-tool in the aim of conceptualizing this controversial type of migrants (El-Hinnawi, 1985).

Finally, Marshall highlights the fact that EDPs are facing real conceptual challenges (2015: 99). Of course, the more climate refugees is refused by the international community, the more their condition or treat regarding climate change-induced forced movement is seen as natural instead of consequences of the Anthropocene. Indeed, natural disasters such as droughts, desertification, hurricane are hardly considered as anthropogenic due to lack of proves. Marshall terms it as depoliticization or even naturalization of the concept. She also introduces problems of conceptualization encountered in the understanding of environmentally displacements as "persecution" in regards to the Refugee Convention of 1951, what will be explained furtherly in the section on legal systems inadequacy (Marshall 2015: 103).

Hence, comes the lack of recognition Environmentally Displaced Peoples have to face a lack of recognition due to the difficulty of fitting in an explicit frame. In the corpus, it is undermined that one of the reasons of the international community struggling in conceptualizing the status of EDP may partly be a consequence of their responsibility of action towards them and its denial. Indeed, in the newest article of the corpus, Su argues that scholars and policymakers have abandoned the climate refugees discourse; she adds that its replacement by a more neutral label such as climate migrants is the direct reflection of the political process itself. They blame the weak link and lack of evidence of causality between climate change and displacement in order to disregard their responsibility (Su 2016: 23).

The inadequacy of the legal system

The question of responsibility is a sensitive one that this article won't analyse into detail but it allows us to get to the second point: from the inability to frame the concept of EDPs comes the inadequacy of the laws dedicated to this specific public.

The most ancient text of law used in the corpus is the 1951 Refugee Convention (United Nation Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees). According to it, the definition of a refugee is:

"A person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

International community's argument is that EDPs are not victims of a persecution, then they can't be called refugees. At the opposite, Williams argues that although this category should fit in regards to "government-induced environmental degradation" because it is a persecution coming from the domestic state, the frames of "refugee" and "persecution" are too narrow and obsolete (Williams 2008: 507). Indeed, Marshall supports the argument of narrowness, defining the concept of refugee as too strict (Marshall 2015: 104) and obsolescence is explicitly formulate in Su's article as followed : "the 1951 Refugee Convention is still biased towards the type of political persecution it was designed to address during the Cold War (...)." (Su 2016: 23).

At domestic scale, Williams, a specialist in Law, examines the adequacy of EDPs with The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, established in 1998 by the Norwegian Refugee Council, and relatives to Internal Displaced Peoples (IDPs) policies and especially affected by conflict-induced internal displacement. Through Williams' analysis and argumentation, we can find some relevant guidelines in the IDPs convention, but they are only applicable at the national scale, while a wide percentage of EDP are obliged to cross borders. When in their country, they have some rights, but sometimes dispensed by the same entity that is harming them, namely the government (referring to government-induced environmental change and/or political-linked persecution), hence this legal tool's use is tricky within the state and EDPs lose all their rights when going out of their national delimitations. IDPs' framework remains controversial. Williams sees it as better than the 1951 Refugee Convention regarding the coverage of rights for EDPs but stays limited to domestic level. (Williams 2008: 509 - 513).

Related to the example Marshall gives on the US refusing to recognize survivors of Hurricane Katrina as IDPs, we can see that this legal frame is inefficient and used at national decision makers' discretion, what makes it even more contentious (Marshall 2015: 108).

Williams and McNamara & Gibson agree on the fact that the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty which extends the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a new space should have been open for EDPs recognition and creation of rights for them. Voted in 1997 and put in efficient circulation in 2005, the Kyoto Protocol envisioned a new optimistic and hopeful decision on climate change issues, constraining state-members to control and reduce their Greenhouse Gas Emissions. In her item, Marshall says "I believe the clearer calculus lies in economic and environmental policies emerging in a post-Kyoto era, where it cannot be argued that states were unaware of the climatic effects of their political choices." (Marshall 2015: 101). In interviews driven by McNamara & Gibson, Pacific Islands Ambassadors assess to be relying on the Kyoto Protocol, so do the academic interviewers, but its concrete efficiency is unsure to all (McNamara & Gibson 2009: 480). Williams cites the Climate Change Convention as well, which is in the same position: a great potential of coordination at international scale but not exploited yet.

As an alternative to deficient international and domestic legal tools, Williams suggests a regionally oriented regime; in theory, it is a suitable idea (exposed in the next section). Nevertheless, it is interesting to see Marshall's opinion on regional systems seven years after Williams' publication. Indeed, the Canadian Ph.D. candidate, as seen earlier, bases her theory on a depoliticization of the concepts around EDPs, a consequence of the neglect of the international community's responsibility towards these individuals, but she also argues that this effect occurs at a regional scale (Marshall 2015: 105). To illustrate it, she uses the example of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) Convention from 1969 and the Cartagena Declaration from 1984, which both seem to fail as potential protection documents. Indeed, Marshall addresses it, quoting her words, that both "seem to require evidence of an actual threat; protection is premised on having already been compelled to leave because of it. (...) therefore (...) their ability to offer pre-emptive migration protection is limited" (Marshal 2015: 105). Yet, it has to be noticed that these two regional documents had been released even before the creation of the notion of environmental refugees in 1985, so it isn't surprising that they do not cover its needs.

Solutions suggested

While it has been seen in the previous section that international, domestic laws but also regional alliance were failing at giving displaced people the attention they deserve, Williams was actually offering the regional scale as a frame of solution. In fact, from her international laws background, it is, in theory, a good solution because neighbor countries might be the more concerned by these displacements and maybe the more aware of the reality of the problem (Williams 2008: 518). Thus, a regional accordance between close-border country should be able to give more recognition and get into action more easily to solve the problem. In her article, the author assesses that it needs to do a fresh and contemporary analysis of the situation offers an alternative whereby a regional system of collaboration is favored over an international agreement. Notwithstanding, we have to take into account that Williams wrote the paper in 2008 and contemporary analysis was not the same as in the two newest papers.

As a solution, Marshall takes over the categorization found in Williams' item which goal was to naturalize the concept. With it, she rebuilt it and offers a four-category politicized approach with the aim to make room for the complexities without depoliticizing its rights-bearing capacity. Here are the four categories:

1) Imperative Environmentally Displaced Peoples: permanent. The necessity of another state accepting them as residents;
2) Pressured Environmentally Displaced Peoples: largest and most problematic category. A result of slow-moving but devastating anthropogenic climate change such as desertification or problems of food security;
3) Temporary Environmentally Displaced Peoples: as seen previously, due to disasters for instance;
4) Human-induced Environmentally displaced Peoples: the result of human conflict over environmental resources (conflicts over diamond extraction for example). The eventual implication for persons displaced as a result of conflicts over water and food.

As consequence of this depoliticization of the label, Yvonne Su argues that displaced individuals can face a real threat to human rights. Certainly, she builds her argumentation on the difference between "climate refugees" and "climate migrants" and assesses that by receiving the consideration as "migrants" EDPs are reduced to be commodities useful on the work market, as regular migrants can be. Nevertheless, in their situation they need to be seen as "refugees", meaning as persecuted individuals requesting their rights to basic capabilities as a human being on this planet. In short, Su's suggestion to solve the problem is to initiate a re-emphasis on human rights (Su 2016: 28).

From this latter argument, I would argue that it is linked to the suggested solution by McNamara & Gibson's text. Of course, by their bottom-up approach of the problem, it is assumed in their paper that the threat of human rights is not to be recognized as climate refugees, but not to be able to stay on their land. The true treat on human rights is the fact they are supposed to live and the whole international community took it for granted. For SIDS ambassadors (and for the writers I believe), their human rights reside in the expression of their identity, of their culture, their sovereignty, and the possibility to preserve them. Thus, the suggested solution to the international community is to reconsider SIDS residents' sovereignty and reduce global carbon outputs in order to help in mitigating climate change, in the aim to allow them to keep their livelihood in their own land (McNamara & Gibson 2009: 480).


As a conclusion to this literature review, we could observe that the four items go more or less in the same direction: they have the same attitude regarding the case of environmentally displaced people. Indeed, they all agree on addressing a critique to the international community, and more specifically to the "Western World", which according to them, remains in a state of denial; it is translated in a lack of effort in recognizing the case of EDPs and start getting into action to improve displaced people's conditions.


Dreher, J. and Voyer, M. 2014. Climate refugees or Migrants? Contesting Media Frames on Climate Justice in the Pacific, Environmental Communication, 9 (1) : 58-76.

Marshall, N. 2015. Politicizing Environmental Displacement: A Four-Category Approach to Defining Environmentally Displaced People, Refugee Review: Reconceptualizing Refugees and Forced Migration in the 21st Century, Volume 2 (1): 96-112.

McNamara, E. and Gibson, C. 2009. "We do not want to leave our land" : Pacific ambassadors at the United Nations resist the category of "Climate refugees", Geoforum, 40: 475-483.

Williams, A. 2008. Turning the Tide : Recognizing Climate Change Refugees in International Law, Law & Policy, 30 (4): 502-529.

Stojanov, R. 2004. Environmental Refugees - Introduction, Geographica, 38 : 77-84

Su, Y. 2016. Should we bring back "Climate refugees"?, Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, 6 (1): 22-33.
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