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Protecting Climate Refugees is Crucial for the Future

Suong Vong wrote “Protecting Climate Refugees is Crucial for the Future” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.


“For our people to survive, then they will have to migrate.  Either we can wait for the time when we have to move people en masse or we can prepare them – beginning from now…” (1) 

-Anote Tong, President of Kiribati (April 2013)

In recent years, human-induced climate change has become an increasingly bigger driver of international migration.  The food insecurity, drought, and unemployment wrought by climate change are giving people no choice but to flee their homelands.  The situation is even more dire for low-lying island nations.  Scientists predict that rising sea levels and increasingly damaging environmental disasters will make small island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans such as the Maldives, Tuvalu, and Kiribati uninhabitable,  creating climate-change refugees on a scale never before seen in modern history (2).

Climate refugees are not currently protected by Article 1(A)(2) of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which defines a refugee as “an individual who is outside his/her country of nationality…who is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on his/her race, religion, nationality, or member of a particular social group or political opinion…” (3) Individual nations may, however, adjust their interpretation to include climate refugees as a special group eligible for protections within their sovereign borders. In the early 1950s, when the policies around refugees were emerging, the international community could not predict that they would have to protect individuals from small island nations affected by climate change.  Since then, there has been much support for a definition to recognize climate refugees in international law (4) (5). However, while there has been increasing global resolve to combat the problem of climate change over time, most nations lack the political will or incentive to develop a plan to protect refugees impacted by climate change,  particularly if the issue does not appear to have a direct effect on them, and especially given the already high numbers of refugees created by war, conflict, and terrorism (6). 


Island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are particularly at risk. With greenhouse emissions contributing significantly to rising sea levels, these countries can be considered low-lying sinking nations. 

Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Maldives have been experiencing devastating impacts to their homelands, with experts predicting these countries will be underwater as early as 2050 (7). Despite the science behind these predictions, there has been a distinct lack of leadership and empathy emanating from wealthy, industrialized nations who have the resources and the political capital to properly protect these vulnerable populations. The emerging trend of nationalist and protectionist rhetoric and policies from many of these countries suggests a solution to this global crisis is not on the horizon. And one is needed. While most climate-impacted migrants can conceivably move elsewhere within the country until a problem or disaster subsides—also known as internal displacement—this is not an option for migrants from low-lying sinking nations, whose entire lands are disappearing, making relocation to other parts of the country unfeasible. Therefore, without a solution from the international community, entire cultures and peoples—as well as their irreplaceable skills and knowledge—will be at-risk of displacement and possibly even extinction.


Kiribati and Tuvalu are two Pacific island nations most susceptible to sea level rise, for which is:

“expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surges, erosion and other coast hazards, thus threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities that support the livelihood of island communities…there is strong evidence that under most climate change scenarios, water resources in small islands are likely to be seriously compromised…Climate change is likely to heavily impact coral reefs, fisheries and other marine-based resources.  It is very likely that subsistence and commercial agriculture on small islands will be adversely affected by climate change.” (8) 

Both island nations suffer similar problems relating to overpopulation, unemployment, high pollution, poor sanitation, and low-lying lands, with the average height of land in each country being less than two meters above sea level (9). The threat to Kiribati’s existence has forced the nation’s former President, Anote Tong, to make public pleas to the international community for relief, recognizing that the relocation of his country’s roughly 100,000 residents is inevitable (10). 

All the while, Tuvalu’s government has considered a lawsuit against Australia and the United States for their contribution to climate change (11). As one of the smallest, low-lying atoll nations in the world, Tuvalu is most susceptible to climate effects even though their contribution to greenhouse emissions is insignificant compared to these two wealthy nations (12). Given that most Tuvaluans live on the coastline, sea-level rises and storm surges would have dramatic effects on its population of 10,050 inhabitants (13).   

Over the years, the Tuvaluan government has voiced its challenges with climate change through its membership with the United Nations, while negotiating with Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand on migration options for its people. Due to its limited economy, Tuvalu has been heavily reliant on foreign aid from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand with some support in the past from the United States, Japan, South Korea, and others, for its survival (14).   

As for the Maldives, located in South Asia and the lowest-lying atoll in the world, a sea level rise of one meter could result in complete submersion. The Maldives President, Mohamed Nasheed, stated that he has considered looking to Australia, among other countries, as a relocation destination to address this impending problem (15). 


While the international community would need to come together to assist the migrants of these sinking island nations, it will likely be the advanced economies of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States—whose geographies are closest to these island nations—who will be relied upon for assistance. The United States and Australia should take the charge in providing protections to people in these sinking nations as they are two of the largest contributors to greenhouse emissions in the world (16). New Zealand would also be a valuable contributor, given its proximity to the suffering islands and its history as a popular destination for Pacific Islanders to settle.  

In recent years, Australia and New Zealand have faced legal challenges for not having policies in place to accept refugees impacted by climate change (17) (18). New Zealand’s high court famously rejected an asylum seeker from Kiribati, who argued that changes to his environment caused by sea-level-rise prevented him from returning to his home country, on the basis that his claims did not the meet the legal refugee criteria defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention (19).   

Currently, New Zealand provides a labor migration scheme to the Pacific island nations of Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kiribati through an agreement known as the Pacific Access Category (PAC). The PAC offers resettlement opportunities in New Zealand, although it has an annual cap of just 250 people each from Fiji and Tonga and 75 each from Tuvalu and Kiribati. In addition to the threshold limitations, the PAC requires applicants to have already secured a job offer in New Zealand; to have a good command of English; and to undergo a rigorous and costly medical check-up. Moreover, the PAC is discriminatory in nature in that applicants must be within 18-45 years of age, rendering the young and the elderly ineligible. Since island nations like Tuvalu are not yet ‘drowning,’ New Zealand AID noted that there is not an immediate need to establish a permanent scheme for special migrants (20). 

Australia offers short-term working visas, through the Pacific Seasonal Workers Program, to workers from ten island nations to fill labor shortages (21). There is no permanent resettlement opportunity through the program though. Beyond that, Australia does not offer any migration schemes to accept refugees affected by climate change, despite urgings from Philip Glendenning, the President of the Refugee Council of Australia.  

When referring to Kiribati’s imminent future, Mr. Glendenning stated, “...the worst-case scenario is that [Kiribati] may well be displaced by the impact of climate change. If that occurs, then the international community, including Australia, will need to respond to provide assistance with re-location. This would effectively represent a new form of international migration.” (22)  

Like its neighbor across the Tasman Sea, Australia’s government has indicated the present needs of climate refugees are not pressing enough, saying that its humanitarian obligations are only to people who require “assistance urgently.” (23) 

Unlike New Zealand and Australia, the United States offers people who have been displaced by environmental factors or natural disasters to be considered for Temporary Protective Status (TPS), whereby conditions in a foreign country temporarily prevent its “nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately.” (24) TPS allows beneficiaries to receive temporary protection in the United States and the ability to work, but it does not address migrants whose homelands are sinking and for whom repatriation will be impossible. It also does not allow for a path to citizenship (25). 

None of the migration schemes currently being offered by the three countries provide long-term sustainable solutions to addressing the problem of entire island nations disappearing and what to do with their remaining populations. Fiji is one of the few countries who are currently welcoming climate refugees on a permanent basis;  however as an island nation itself, it too has areas that may face a similar fate (26).


Despite the recent anti-refugee and anti-climate change rhetoric which has provided an alibi for wealthy nations to close the door on refugees fleeing from war and/or to refuse action on global warming, we must not forget the moral and ethical responsibilities that wealthy nations have toward humankind and to the planet. Wealthy nations have benefitted significantly from emitting greenhouse pollutants, which have become a virtual death sentence for low-lying sinking nations.  Because of their inevitable destiny, a safe passage needs to be established for migrants of sinking island nations in need of refuge due to their home countries disappearing.  Otherwise, in the next 20 to 50 years, there will be emergency mass migrations of people from their homelands or worse, mass extinctions of those who were unable to find refuge. This can be prevented by (1) recognizing climate change refugees as an independent group of displaced individuals; (2) establishing an effective, long-term migration scheme for disappearing nations; and then (3) redirecting funds towards resettlement. 

First, the international community needs to recognize “climate refugees” as a unique group of displaced individuals in need of special protections.  António Guterres from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has written that “UNHCR is actually of the opinion that the use of such terminology could potentially undermine the international legal regime for the protection of refugees whose rights and obligations are quite clearly defined and understood.” (27) However, to suggest that there are two different levels of importance between climate–impacted migrants and traditional refugees and that those impacted by climate change should be regarded in a lesser light than traditional refugees is a false dilemma since so much of the ethnic and social strife occurring in war-torn countries have been about access to scarce resources.

Dutch scholars Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas say that it is important that those displaced—either within their borders or beyond them—are classified as refugees. The authors once wrote, 

We support the use of the term “climate refugee” for two main reasons. First, the distinction between transboundary and internal flight that is a core element of the “traditional refugee” concept does not help much since climate change will cause both transnational and internal flight. Some island nations will effectively cease to exist, and some countries, especially those affected by drought, will be overburdened by the scope of the national predicament. These people will have to find refuge outside of their home country. Some climate refugees might thus cross borders while most will stay within their country. It seems difficult to argue that a global governance mechanism for their protection should bestow a different status, and a different term, depending on whether they have crossed a border. Second, we see no convincing reason to reserve the stronger term ‘refugee’ for a category of people that stood at the center of attention after 1945, and to invent less appropriate terms—such as ‘climate-related environmentally displaced persons’—for new categories of people who are forced to leave their homes now, with similar grim consequences. The term refugee has strong moral connotations of societal protection in most world cultures and religions. By using this term, the protection of climate refugees will receive the legitimacy and urgency it deserves (28).  

Without a clear definition of the term, it is difficult to recognize and provide proper assistance to the needs of these vulnerable populations. However, given the contentious nature of defining a new international term for “climate refugees,” and the dire need to protect inhabitants of low-lying sinking nations who do not have the time to wait on an international solution, it may be wise to create a different designation for this special group of migrants so as not to confuse the current definition for “refugee” and the protections for which the term grants.  Whatever term is agreed upon, those affected by rising oceans need strong protections as they settle into new lands and communities.

Second, the slow progression of climate change means that participating countries have time to create a well laid-out plan to assist those in need, which allows for a more effective solution. All affected countries—both island nations and those accepting refugees—should take advantage of this timeline to collaborate on a master plan.  

Based on the responses from New Zealand and Australia regarding a permanent scheme to address climate refugees, it appears that the international community is largely waiting for the problem to become more urgent before taking action. One of the distinctions—even advantages—between climate refugees and traditional refugees is that the flight of climate refugees can be predicted and planned out in advance, unlike traditional refugees, whose fates are typically chaotic and unpredictable. Whereas the persecution and/or protection of traditional refugees must be individually assessed, the protection needs of climate change refugees may be similar for entire nation-groups (29). Given this knowledge, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand have the time to collaborate with affected countries on a migration scheme over time. Proper planning and engagement with impacted countries would be most effective in creating long-term, sustainable solutions. 

That said, with their very countries facing extinction perhaps within a generation, policymakers in Tuvalu and Kiribati do not want an immediate mass exodus from their borders. Such a program would destabilize, and perhaps even annihilate, entire communities, ecosystems, and economies at a significant human cost (30) (31). 

“We want our people to have the option to migrate with dignity should the time come that migration is unavoidable,” said Kiribati President, Anote Tong, when he addressed the 67th Session of the UN General Assembly in 2012 (32). 

Therefore, effective collaborations with these governments could potentially mitigate the impact that climate change has on these countries, prolonging the island nations’ existence while providing a safe passage for migrants to relocate when the timing is right. This would allow for migrants to establish the necessary skillsets to successfully assimilate in their new countries, when ready, while reducing the burden that many refugees—as well as residents of the host countries—may feel that migrants bring to their new countries. This could also ensure that families stay together, instead of being separated or split up in cases of rapid displacement. 

Third, wealthy nations should identify potential funding streams that could be used to relocate affected refugees. There is a common argument that host countries do not have the resources to protect refugees, despite the fact that Western, industrialized countries have been funneling resources to developing countries in the form of foreign aid for years. Since foreign aid to sinking island nations cannot be sustainable, it would be more fruitful—perhaps even more cost effective—for wealthy nations to reallocate funding toward resettling migrants from these disappearing countries, which could be more helpful toward their success in the long run.


Climate change has the power to literally wipe entire countries off the face of the earth. And this threat will only accelerate as long as the international community continues to dillydally in the face of its greenhouse gas emissions. While this predicts significant upheaval around the globe, it is the world’s low-lying island nations who are at the highest risk of suffering the ultimate price. Wealthy, industrialized countries are the ones most responsible, and therefore, the ones who carry the moral and ethical obligation to protect the victims of climate change. Without the necessary action, the international community will have failed their fellow man and the very planet itself.

•     •     • 

About the Author 

Suong Vong  is the Deputy Chief with the Civil Liberties Division at the Office of Diversity and Civil Rights, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Washington, D.C.  She received her Master of Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin in 2016.  She previously worked as the Regional Civil Rights Director for USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, Southwest Region in Dallas, TX.  She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from UCLA, where she double-majored in East Asian Studies and Asian American Studies.



The author and editor thank Artur Wieczorek for his dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


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2. Wong, P. P., I. Losada, J.P. Gattuso, J. Hinkel, A. Khattabi, K.L. McInnes, Y. Saito, and A. Sallenger. “Coastal Systems and Low-Lying Areas.” Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom. 361-409. Accessed on January 6, 2017.  https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg2/WGIIAR5-Chap5_FINAL.pdf 

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21. “Participating Countries and Contact Points.”  Australia Department of Employment.  Accessed on January 6, 2017.  https://www.employment.gov.au/participating-countries-and-contact-points 

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25. “Temporary Protected Status.” 

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29. Biermann, Frank and Ingrid Boas. “Preparing for a Warmer World.” 75-76. 

30. Gemme, Francoise and Shawn Shen. “Tuvalu and New Zealand.” 17.

31. “Relocation.” Republic of Kiribati. Accessed on January 6, 2017.  http://www.climate.gov.ki/category/action/relocation/ 

32. “Statement by His Excellency, Anote Tong, at the 67th United Nations General Assembly.” United Nations General Assembly. September 26, 2012.  Accessed on January 2, 2017.  https://gadebate.un.org/sites/default/files/gastatements/67/KI_en.pdf 

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