What policies and laws recognise environmental migration?

Last House on Holland Island, USA. Photo credit: Bald Eagle Bluff
Last House on Holland Island, USA. Photo credit: Bald Eagle Bluff


Environmental migrants are in legal limbo when it comes to recognition (McAdam, 2009, 589). The reasons for this follow. Initially, the phenomenon was held under the heading “environmental refugees”. The term’s sense of urgency and displacement suited the interests of the early academics (see Essam El-Hinnawi (1985), Jodi Jacobson (1988) and Norman Myers 1997). Once the term was popularised by Essam El-Hinnawi in 1985, policy-makers and other academics dismissed the term as being legally unfounded. Some academics and lobbyists continue(d) to use the term based on the argument that the Refugee Convention should increase the scope of the definition of ‘refugee’ (McNamara, 2007; Biermann and Boas, 2008; Penz, 2010). The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has since released a statement on behalf of the UNHCR rejecting this as a potentiality (IASC, 2008).

Based on this background, there is little to no policy and legal recognition of environmental refugees. Given that international law and policy makers have rejected the term and replaced it with the term “environmental migration”, the people affected by this phenomenon remain unrecognised in law and policy (Meyer, forthcoming).

What limited recognition does exist? The abovementioned document released by the IASC in 2008 also details what existing laws may cover environmental migrants. The IASC acknowledges that no law recognises and assists those moving across international borders due to environmental events, such as a hazard or disaster. The IASC also recognises that there is a lacking of legal criteria that may distinguish between voluntary and forced displacement due to such environmental events.

For those moving internally, there is some incidental recognition. According to the IASC, International Human Rights law and/ or Guiding Principles on internal displacement may protect people moving within existing borders. It is concerning, however, that International Human Rights law is called upon to assist environmental migrants given that commenters dispute the applicability of these laws to do so. This is due to the inflexible definition of ‘refugee’ in international immigration law and that “environmental migration” is used to replace “environmental refugee” (for more information, see Brooke Harvard, 2007). Furthermore, any instrument that may assist environmental migrants only does so out of coincidence. The Guiding Principles “identify the rights and guarantees relevant to the protection of the internally displaced in all phases of displacement”. The Guiding Principles only recognise environmental migrants incidentally; it is disputable whether the assistance and recognition of the Guiding Principles would be attentive of the unique needs of environmental migrants.

A concise examination of the laws and policies that recognise environmental migrants result in the reflection that environmental migrants are politically and legally vulnerable.