Law change needed to cover climate exiles: lawyers

LONDON (Reuters) - International law is unfit to deal with the millions of people expected to flee their home countries to escape droughts and floods intensified by climate change, a group of lawyers said on Thursday.

Under existing laws, host countries must protect and care for cross-border refugees, who are defined as those forced to migrate because of violence or political, racial or religious persecution.

There are no such provisions for so-called climate refugees. Yet by 2050, between 200 million and 1 billion people could be forced to leave their homes because of global warming, said the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development, which advises vulnerable countries and communities.

“International refugee law ... was not designed for those who are left homeless by environmental pressures,” said the group’s director Joy Hyvarinen.

“The international legal framework needs to be adjusted to help climate exiles and deal with statelessness and compensation,” she said in a statement.


Climate change will hit small island states the hardest, the foundation said, adding rising seas might submerge Kiribati and the Marshall Islands or climate changes in other ways might make them uninhabitable.

Kiribati’s government has asked larger nations, including New Zealand and Australia, to open their doors to its citizens who might become, along with people in the Maldives and other Pacific islands, climate refugees.

Some in the Pacific say communities are already moving within nations because of climate change. Often-cited examples are the Carteret islands of Papua New Guinea, Tegua island in Vanuatu or Moala in Fiji.

But experts say there is no overall tracking of people moving or of the causes for their migration. Some leave outlying islands drawn by jobs in bigger centres.

What most experts agree on is that rising temperatures will leave an additional 200 million to 600 million people hungry by 2080 and cause critical water shortages in China and Australia, as well as in parts of Europe and the United States, according to a 2007 global climate report.

Coastal flooding will also hit another 7 million homes, the study by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted.

Moreover, last month a U.N. report said global warming was increasing the frequency and intensity of storms and otherwise altering weather patterns, so natural disasters were now “an extremely significant driver of forced displacement globally.”

Reporting by Olesya Dmitracova; Editing by Matthew Jones