Small Wars Journal

“Refugees and Climate Change: A Cause for Hope?” - Part III: Climate Displacement and Economic Policy

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 4:42am

“Refugees and Climate Change: A Cause for Hope?” - Part III: Climate Displacement and Economic Policy


J. David Thompson


This is the third paper in a five-part series. Part I: Introduction can be found here. Part II: Case Studies can be found here.


When States agreed to the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Additional Protocol, few people knew about the effects of climate change. Now that people recognize climate change, some people wonder what term should be used for those displaced by climate change. Some people argue that the term “refugee” should be broadened to all those forcibly displaced—whether from conflict, climate, or some other cause. Others argue that the word “refugee” already has a legal definition, and there are already challenges assisting this community.


The 1951 Refugee Convention defines “refugee” as someone:

“[O]wing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country ; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”[i] (emphasis added)

This is the definition recognized under international law.


Black’s Law Dictionary has a broader definition. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “refugee” as: “[s]omeone who flees or is expelled from a place, esp. because of political or religious persecution or war, and seeks haven elsewhere; specifically one who flees to a foreign country to escape real or perceived danger.”[ii] Black’s Law Dictionary even provides a definition for “climate refugee” as: “[s]omeone who has been displaced as a result of severe weather events or climate change, such as flooding or drought.”[iii]


Currently, there are over 70 million forcibly displaced persons—more than the populations of California and Texas combined.[iv] When one adds the estimated 10 million stateless people, the total population nears that of Germany.[v] With these high numbers, UNHCR only received 50% funding. If one were to add people forcibly displaced by floods, lack of access to potable water, inability to farm crops, etc., then the numbers would soar. There are challenges enough assisting refugees under the current legal term. Adding more people into this population would not necessarily help those in need. It may actually damage assistance to refugees under the current definition.


Understanding nuance in legal definitions is challenging. It is even tougher in a social media age where facts do not matter. Many people do not have the attention span to understand the differences between migrant and refugee or asylum-seeker. The policy implications are not necessarily as challenging to understand, though. Getting the average person to understand the difference between a refugee and an economic or climate migrant already proves difficult. If the term “refugee” became diluted to mean “the world’s homeless,” numbers may increase from 70 million to 200 million. People, in a time where States question multilateralism, may become more jaded and untrusting of international institutions. Serious debate in the middle loses to the fringes that make the most noise.


Expanding the definition of “refugee” does not afford much protection to climate migrants. The three durable solutions available for a refugee include: voluntary re-patriotization, local integration, and third country resettlement. A climate migrant may have one of those solutions void from the start—voluntary re-patriotization. If, for example, rising sea levels cause a country to go underwater, the person has no place to repatriate. This leaves just local integration and third country resettlement as solutions. If, as per the previous example, one’s home country no longer exist, then conditions necessitate one of these solutions.


Stating that the term “refugee” probably is unsatisfactory for climate migrants still does not answer the question. What do States do when people arrive at their border because their home country is no longer on the planet? Unless States turn their militaries on the migrants, which is an abhorrent thought, they may have to provide refugee-like responses. This involves, at a minimum, legal protection through a recognized status and conditions to enable a better livelihood. Situations, that are complex enough, are further complicated by food shortages, desertification and deforestation, climate change, natural disasters, extreme poverty, and more.[vi] Adding more people to the pie only creates smaller slices, and the world is still left to deal with the underlying root causes.


The policy of how refugees and climate migrants integrate into a society will become self-fulfilling. One can think of these groups as either a rock or a spark. If either group is not allowed access into the formal labor force, then they simply consume space and resources—like a rock. If, on the other hand, they are allowed formal labor market access, then the policy enables the opportunity to grow into something bigger and more productive—like a spark.[vii] The politics are the tough part. No elected official wants their constituents to have to compete in low-skilled labor. Most officials welcome high-skilled labor, though, because it adds jobs. When speaking of low-skilled labor, though, automation threatens more jobs than refugees and migrants combined.


With a combined population of concern nearing that of Germany, it is no wonder that entrepreneurs make great strides in environmentally friendly innovation. As more and more people become forcibly displaced, businesses must look for ways to incorporate refugees and those forcibly displaced for other reasons as stakeholders. The narrative around refugees has been that of assistance. As situations are increasingly complex and protracted, businesses can view refugees as vital aspects to their business interests. Refugees do not only have to be recipients of aid. They can be consumers of products. They can serve in companies at different levels in the supply or production chain.


Governments can empower refugees and immigrants to be entrepreneurs. In the U.S., immigrants account for just 15% of the workforce.[viii] However, they account for a both a quarter of entrepreneurs and investors.[ix] [x] In Turkey, who hosts around 3.5 million Syrian refugees, Syrians found ways to be entrepreneurial.[xi] The average Syrian owned business employees 9.4 people—Syrians and Turks.[xii] In 2017, there was nearly 8,000 Syrian owned businesses in the formal market.[xiii] This means that Syrian refugees created over 75,000 jobs through entrepreneurship.


End Notes


[i] UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

[ii] Refugee, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).

[iii] Id.

[iv] Reynolds, M., at 13:33.

[v] Id. at 13:35.

[vi] Id. at 13:14.

[vii] See Betts, A. Government officials in Kenya used market-based solutions to promote interoperability and interdependence for refugees living in one of Kenya’s poorest regions. While there is still room for significant progress, Kenya’s eleventh largest city now has an economy of $56.2 million.

[viii] Bahar, D., Give me your tired, your poor . . . and they will create jobs for us.

[ix] Id.

[x] These numbers reflect immigrants, who choose to migrate. The rest of this paper primarily concerns refugees, who are forcibly displaced. While there are some differences, there are more similarities.

[xi] Karasapan, O., Syrian businesses in Turkey: The pathway to refugee integration?

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

About the Author(s)

J. David Thompson is a Civil Affairs Major. He has a Juris Doctorate from Washington Lee School of Law. He also holds a BS in Economics and MBA-Leadership from Liberty University. Outside the military, he's worked at the UN Refugee Agency, Department of Defense, and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel. Follow him on Twitter @jdthompson910