"Environmental refugee" not accurate for Pacific | Pacific Beat

"Environmental refugee" not accurate for Pacific

"Environmental refugee" not accurate for Pacific

Updated 15 February 2012, 12:33 AEDT

The term Environmental Refugee is not a concept recognised in international law.

Environmental refugee status is also attracting its fare share of detractors particularly in the Pacific where the term is considered degrogatory and not an accurate description of their circumstances.

Presenter:Geraldine Coutts

Speaker:Professor Jane McAdam, Law Faculty, University of New South Wales

MCADAM: The concept is itself problematic for a number of reasons. There is no such thing in terms of international law as an environmental or a climate change refugee per se. Refugee law provides protection to people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, and who are outside their country of origin and who don't have the protection of their country. Now this is problematic in the sense that people who are displaced on account of environmental reasons or climate change because those sorts of things don't really constitute persecution in the way that that term is understood, in that you may have when it comes to climate change certainly we know that there is great certainty that there is human induced climate change, so that's certainly harm. And the impacts of that can constitute quite significant harm for people. But it's very difficult to filter that through the legal definition. So even if it is, if it were to be accepted as persecution, which is a long shot in itself, showing that that's on account of your race, or your religion or one of those other reasons I mentioned, will be almost impossible. And there are other reasons why it's problematic as well because the empirical studies that have been done about how people typically move and how people are likely to move in the future don't really fit within that refugee paradigm very well at all. So particularly if we look at the Pacific Islands, what we have there is more likely to be in the nature of planned and preemptive movement, and certainly that's what the Pacific Islanders I've interviewed would favour, the opportunity to move early rather than have to flee when it becomes absolutely dire. But it's going to be a lack of safe drinking water or in fact a lack of fresh water and the attendant effects of that that are likely to mean people have to go, as opposed to states suddenly disappearing under the sea, which is I think what sometimes been the sense portrayed in the media of so-called sinking islands. So refugee law really response to flight, that it's quite remedial in that sense, rather than being forward looking and anticipatory and enabling people to take charge of their own destiny if you like and to be able to move in a planned and rational manner.

COUTTS: So there's no category at all for humanitarian assistance in the international law?

MCADAM: Well look in international law you've got the refugee framework, which I just mentioned, and then there's also a principle of non-return to torture or to cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment, or to arbitrary depravation of life. Now that principle is contained in a number of human rights treaties, but it's not always reflected in a country's domestic law. So in Australia at the moment for example, we don't actually have protection in our migration act for non-return to those forms of harm. There's actually a bill before parliament that would bring that in, but even if it comes in, it's not clear that it would extend the kinds of circumstances that I've mentioned. A number of countries, virtually the whole of the European Union as well as Canada, the United States and New Zealand, all have that, it's known as complimentary protection, they have that human rights protection in their domestic law. But to my knowledge it's never been used to protect people from environmental harm or the impacts of climate change. And some countries also have humanitarian protection in place, which is often a more discretionary mechanism, and Australia does have that, although you do have to first demonstrate that you're not a refugee, so it's not an upfront procedure in that regard. But the humanitarian mechanisms are fairly ad hoc in nature, they may depend on a personal decision of an immigration minister. So it's not really a reliable fallback for the types of people that we're talking about.

COUTTS: Well once this conference gets underway at Colombia University, it brings all the meeting of the minds together to have a discussion on this environmental refugee status or lack thereof, can there be a one-size fits all, I mean how complex is it going to be? For instance will there be argument about well what is sea-level rise, global warming, as distinct from king tides, that a lot of the nations actually experience anyway?

MCADAM: Yeah look there have been actually many, many discussions at the international level on this, so this is one of a number of conferences that have dealt with this issue. And what each one of those shows very clearly is that this is a really complex issue, and for a start you've got people from a whole range of different disciplines and different institutions coming together to first of all ensure we speak the same language and understand the different concepts that the others are using, and then try and see well how can we move this forward. In terms of using the refugee law framework, as I said I think that's problematic for many reasons, and coming from the perspective which I do, which is from international law, I think it is important that we do try and come up with constructive solutions. But I think that we also need to take a step back and not instantly assume that we should try and fit people within existing paradigms that were actually developed for quite different contexts. And I think doing that could be in fact counterproductive. As I mentioned before having interviewed people in Pacific Islands, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, first of all people say don't use the refugee label, we don't want to be seen as refugees. For us that would give us a feeling that we are incapable of providing for our families, it would make us feel like helpless victims, and because of what is sometimes a failure of the refugee regime where you see refugees stuck in camps for many, many years at a time, Pacific Islanders I spoke to said we don't want to be seen like that, we also don't want to be seen as a burden on the international community. Instead we would like to have the opportunity to migrate with dignity and to be skilled people who can move to other countries, and perhaps over time build up pockets of community abroad. And that way it's an easier transition I think for all concerned, because the host community becomes accustomed to having new groups living there. Those people can go home from time to time and first of all send remittances back to their islands, and in that way assist with adaptation efforts there. One of the other things is that there's currently huge problems with overcrowding on Tuvalu and Kiribati, and so in fact if you can release the pressure valve if you like by enabling some of the population to move abroad, then it may enable the remaining population to stay there for longer. This links into lots of historical migration issues. Back in the 90s for example the prime minister of Tuvalu was seeking migration opportunities already for his people, and made a statement at the time that longer term we're not going to be able to accommodate or Tuvaluans in Tuvalu. Towards the early 2000s this issue then got linked up with climate change, and that's where this notion of climate change refugees came from. But in fact this is a much longer problem that is linked to as I mentioned problems in terms of overcrowding on very environmentally fragile atolls, problems with development policies, with questions surrounding foreign aid and certain dependency there given the lack of employment opportunities and educational opportunities. So I think it is really important to set this in a much more holistic context, otherwise there is a danger that we advocate for things like international treaties for climate displaced people, which really don't respond to the bigger picture, and which as you said risk prioritising something like climate change, which can in the end seem arbitrary if you look at the other underlying socio-economic conditions. For example in Bangladesh, if you go into urban slum areas as I have there and talk to people, there are some people who can say, I've moved into the slum areas because I felt forced from my home because of environmental issues. But another person might categorise that as I couldn't grow crops anymore and so I moved here for economic reasons. So people may characterise their movement in different ways, and in any event what's to say that people who are in the same, in those slum areas in the same really appalling conditions, that those who can somehow link their movement to a climate change reason get protection and those who can't, don't, particularly when climate change is really an overlaying factor. It is never the sole reason why people will move.

Contact the studio

Got something to say about what you're hearing on the radio right now?

Send your texts to +61 427 72 72 72

Add the hashtag #raonair to add your tweets to the conversation.

Email us your thoughts on an issue. Messages may be used on air.