Britain can transform the plight of climate refugees through its COP26 presidency

Tomos Owen

This blog post was originally published by Agora Think Tank on 19 January 2021. You can find the original here.

An estimated 70,000-80,000 Jewish refugees were accepted into Britain before and during World War Two . At the time, the idea of turning our backs on those fleeing atrocities in continental Europe was reprehensible. The depth of this feeling was so widespread that the United Nations gathered numerous states from across the globe to agree to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a monumental effort to ensure that individuals could flee oppression and find refuge across an international border.

The Convention placed legally binding obligations on states to process the claims of asylum seekers, outlined the rights afforded to refugees, and, most importantly, created the recognised status of a refugee. Britain was among those quick to agree to the Convention.

Almost 70 years since the Convention was signed, the situation is very different. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) around 1% of the world’s population are displaced, yet European sentiment towards refugees has seen a significant shift from compassion to assist those forced to migrate towards greater reluctance. This sentiment appears to be dictating the global response to climate refugees and could have devastating impacts as climate change worsens.

Climate Refugees

Although without official definition, a climate refugee can broadly be categorised as an individual who has fled their home nation due to the effects of climate change – such as extreme weather, drought, or rising sea levels – threatening their lives or livelihoods.

Despite decades of warnings from some scholars, the danger to climate refugees remains comparatively overlooked. They are not recognised under the law and they are not entitled to any rights in foreign states. The Refugee Convention was written following World War Two and, since its adoption, has not evolved beyond its focus on wartime. This has led the UNHCR to the stark conclusion that the Convention cannot protect climate refugees.

There have been numerous calls to address these inadequacies, though there remains a lack of appetite to expand the Convention’s current scope of protection. This is less about climate refugees being viewed as undeserving and more to do with a general atmosphere of anti-refugee sentiment. The UNHCR has stated that opening the Convention to encompass climate refugees in the current political climate could actually lead to restricted protection for all refugees. It is worrying that the UNHCR find themselves in this position, given their role as champion for all refugees. Protection must now be found elsewhere, and Britain should lead the drive to provide this.

COP26 is Britain’s opportunity

A major barrier to finding a solution for the future flow of climate refugees is the absence of international willingness. Since the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP21), many governments have exhibited greater hostility towards immigration and refugees, including in key nations such as Australia and the US. Equally, the UK’s 2016 Brexit campaign focused heavily on limiting future immigration. It is possible that, following this mandate, the British government may avoid seeking a global protection mechanism for climate refugees, both to appease their citizens and to retain favour with countries which they are now seeking trade deals with.

Nevertheless, as hosts of the delayed COP26, the UK should recognise that it has one of the key remaining opportunities to address the lack of protection for climate refugees by incorporating it into climate change agreements. Alok Sharma, who recently left his ministerial position to focus on his role as COP26 President, demonstrated in his address to UN nations that he is cognisant of climate change migration. It is now imperative that this be followed up with concrete action.

This action should take the form of an agreement between states whereby climate refugees can be identified, relocated equitably, and conferred with rights enabling them to begin a new life. This provides a response which would ensure climate refugees are protected whilst equally avoiding a burden on any one state.

This could be achieved and is not without precedent. During COP21 there were numerous proposals surrounding a coordination facility for those displaced by climate change; a plan which would have facilitated relocation for climate refugees. This gained traction, although talks were eventually discontinued following Australia’s opposition and the belief that a more efficient alternative could be found. A lack of progress since COP21 suggests that this may not be the case and with the effects of climate change showing no signs of slowing it is now time to resurrect this idea.

The UK government must recognise that, through their own hosting of a COP summit, they have a wonderful opportunity to provide lasting protection for climate refugees.

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