Update International Law to Protect Climate Refugees

An overhead photo of a Vietnamese person in one boat handing a Vietnamese child to an American Navy crewperson in another boat

U.S. Navy crew members in the South China Sea take aboard Vietnamese refugees in 1975.

By Joel Wheeler

“One step at a time...one day at a time. Just today- just this day to get through…”

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

For many of us, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like to be forced from our homes due to persecution, trying to start a new life in a foreign country. There are also many other factors that contribute to forced migration, including armed conflict, economic instability, domestic violence, gang violence and recruitment, etc. These factors, coupled with governments’ being unwilling or unable to address these issues (or perpetuating them), force people to flee their homes. This World Refugee Day (observed on June 20) the UUA Office at the United Nations (UU@UN) encourages you and your community to consider the impact of climate change as a factor of forced migration. If our planet continues on its current trajectory of warming, irregular weather patterns, and rising sea levels, these issues will be magnified.

A number of conventions and treaties have established a legal framework pertaining to refugees and their rights. The 1951 Refugee Convention defined the term “refugee” as any person who “is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Further, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights codifies the right of every person to seek asylum protections in a safe country (Article 14). Still, these international legal frameworks do not grant refugee status to even half of the approximately 79.5 million people who are displaced globally. When the issue of climate refugees is raised, many world leaders find a lack of political will to expand the definition of refugee to include climate forced migration.

Let us pause to consider the reasons for which the United Nations and these treaties were established. The UN, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and relevant international laws were established following the displacement of millions during World War II. Addressing the crisis of mass displacement—and which countries would respond —required international cooperation and accountability through legal instruments. Even the United States, the supposed “nation of immigrants,” turned away entire ships of Jewish refugees, many of whom were killed when returned to Nazi Germany. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UNHCR were new and unprecedented legal protections and action, were established to prevent refugees’ being turned away from safe countries in the future.

Without urgent government action to protect our planet and those who experience forced migration now and in the coming years due to climate change, it is all but certain that we will see an unprecedented number of displaced people around the globe. Here in the Western Hemisphere, current rates of migration to the U.S.-Mexico border will likely be far surpassed. A projection from the New York Times predicts that more than 30 million migrants will head to the U.S.-Mexico border in the next 30 years without aggressive government response to reduce carbon emissions.

The pattern is familiar and is already occurring: Rural farmlands become too hot, the people there are unable to continue growing crops, and they are forced to migrate to already overcrowded urban centers. Imagine Mexico City, the most populated city in the Western Hemisphere, with millions more people who have insufficient housing and employment and whose basic living needs are unmet. Such circumstances predictably lead to more socio-economic inequalities, perpetuation of gang violence, and instability. These people will have few options but to attempt to migrate to safer harbors.

Grayscale drawing of Earth, where hotspots of climate-forced migration in Central America, northern South America, and Saharan Africa are illustrated in orange. Overlaid text reads "Billions of people call this land home."
Explore The New York Times Magazine interactive article "The Great Climate Migration"

Many Americans may not realize that residents of more northern climes might also see their homeland succumb to rising sea levels; entire Alaska Native villages are already being abandoned as the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth.

This issue is, of course, not unique to the Americas. The World Bank issued a report that predicts 140 million people could be internally displaced by climate change by 2050. The Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, is predicted by researchers to be completely underwater in a matter of decades given the trajectory of sea level rise. Without land to call home, will its citizens become stateless people?

As with many social justice and climate justice issues, those who are most marginalized—oppressed racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as those in poverty or living with disabilities—will suffer the most, while those with economic and social privilege will most easily relocate and avoid the effects of climate change, punting on being forced to deal with the problem as it relates to their own safety and rights.

This is why we must act swiftly and boldly. We must call on the member states of the United Nations to take up this issue, and for our nations to support new legal protections for those experiencing climate migration. The legal definitions and categories of refugees must be updated to protect these people now while we also work to turn the tide on global warming.

International law, just like action on climate change, can feel overwhelming, slow moving, and insurmountable. Solutions to the world's problems will not come easily. That’s why the UUA Office at the United Nations is committed to pursuing long-term solutions, centered on the inherent dignity and worth of every person. This means our processes, decisions, and policies must be centered on those most affected.

In that spirit, we share a few words from Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Marshallese poet and activist, and Aka Niviâna, Inuit Poet and activist from their poem, Rise:

My sister,

From one island to another

I give to you these rocks

as a reminder

that our lives matter more than their power

that life in all forms demands

the same respect we all give to money

that these issues affect each and everyone of us

None of us is immune

And that each and everyone of us has to decide

if we



The UUA Office at the UN encourages you to join us in our efforts. The 2022 Intergenerational Spring Seminar will address the theme of climate justice and climate-forced displacement. It is expected to take place in New York City, April 22-24, 2022. We invite youth and adults to consider applying to serve on the planning committee. Open positions include Youth Dean (apply by July 7), youth and adult Chaplains (apply by August 9) and Planning Committee Members (apply by August 9).

About the Author

Joel Wheeler

Joel A. Wheeler is a master of social work (MSW) intern at the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations during the 2021 Summer Term. Wheeler is a dual-degree graduate student at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He is a...


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