The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is the legal document that defines who is a refugee, spells out their rights and imposes legal obligations on states to assist them and grant asylum to bona fide refugees.
The Syrian refugees were fleeing the devastation and perils of the civil war in Syria. They were not climate change refugees, even though the long and devastating drought in Syria brought on by climate change was the trigger for this war.
Just as well, as persons attempting to escape from the ravages of climate change do not have refugee status. A New Zealand court so decided in an action brought by a Kiribati man trying to avoid deportation as his country was at risk of inundation from climate change. Kiribati, Tuvalu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands are all low-lying coral islands in the West Pacific where sea level is rising 1.2 Centimeters a year, four times faster than the global average.
A draft text for COP 21 – but not the one submitted at Paris – provided for a “climate change displacement coordination facility” that would provide “organized migration and planned relocation”, to people fleeing rising sea levels, extreme weather and devastation of agricultural
The draft text of COP 21 also included a more general right to compensation for damage caused by climate change. This right did not find acceptance among the developed countries, such as the EU countries, US and Canada.
Australia was also opposed to inclusion of a displacement coordination facility. Australia prefers to have the question of climate refugees dealt with by its government as an issue of policy, perhaps because the threatened West Pacific islanders will probably seek refuge in Australia.
Still, why was this provision dropped? Apart from edginess about compensation, perhaps the conclusion was that the issue is not as pressing now as it will be when the world crosses the1.5 degree Centigrade threshold
The Council of Canadians has been one of the most determined advocates for the establishment of a new category of persons who have rights under the Convention governing refugees. The Council marched at Copenhagen in support of climate refugees and also presented a very strong statement at COP 21:
“We believe it would be a travesty if the rights of climate-displaced peoples were not fully recognized in the COP21 agreement.”
Our reaction to the Council’s efforts: Keep it up!