West indian countries

IIT Madras calls on countries to absorb people fleeing due to climate change impact

Researchers have developed a normative framework that emphasizes that existing international law is barely sufficient to protect the entire category of forcibly displaced persons.

Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras working with an independent researcher have suggested a normative framework to tackle cross-border migration due to climate change.

With climate change intensifying the push towards migration, the researchers have suggested that all asylum seekers should be absorbed into host countries under the principle of ‘non-refoulement’. This will ensure that refugees are not forced to return to their country of origin to face harm there.

Also, asylum seekers from vulnerable areas must be absorbed in the host countries in proportion to their greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers conclude that given the severity of the anticipated global environmental changes and associated damage, early and appropriate action is essential.

However, the question “did this person migrate because of climate change?” may never receive a full answer.

This question was addressed by Prof. Sudhir C. Rajan, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras and Dr. Sujatha Byravan, Independent Researcher, who published a research paper titled “Cross border migration on a warming planet: A policy framework.’

Migration – the result of multiple factors

The study highlights that the Internal Displacement Observatory reports that 40.5 million people were newly displaced in 2020 and 30 million of them were forcibly displaced due to weather-related disasters.

Usually migration is the result of compound factors. The multiple interconnections between the drivers of migration – a combination of ongoing global environmental changes (GECs) as they interact with social, economic and political conditions – make it difficult to identify GECs as the sole or proximate cause of migration .

Thus, the researchers have identified a normative framework which emphasizes that existing international law is barely sufficient to protect the entire category of forcibly displaced persons.

  • Refugee vs asylum seekers vs environmental migrant (The definition proposed by IIT Madras researchers):
  • Refugee – a person who is outside their country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted on the basis of race, religion, etc.; and is not in a position to claim the protection of this country or to return there, for fear of being persecuted”
  • Asylum seeker – a person outside their country of origin who has applied for protection under the Convention but is still awaiting the outcome of their refugee claim.
  • Climate or environmental migrant – a person who, mainly due to climate or environmental change, is forced to leave their home.

In the study, the researchers use the term “climate exiles” to refer to cross-border environmental migrants for whom the migratory surge is mainly due to climate change. There is the absence of a coherent institutional and legal framework at the international and national levels to protect the rights of climate exiles. This creates an urgent need to work on international law to protect climate exiles.
A sensible answer for climate exiles: It is difficult, if not impossible in most cases, to identify a specific climate-related event as being responsible for the migration. Waiting for clarification and classifying people according to whether or not they are migrating due to climate change can further worsen the scenario. Therefore, the researchers suggest ‘hard’ and ‘light’ versions of advocacy for restorative justice for climate migrants.

Strong approach:

It states that all asylum seekers must be considered worthy of asylum, even if they do not meet the stricter requirements of the Refugee Convention. Parties that want to protect climate exiles must honor all identifiable asylum seekers under a principle of non-refoulement. Host countries may choose to formulate a protocol to develop shares proportional to their cumulative emissions.

Gentle approach:

It emphasizes the identification of vulnerable areas based on scientific evidence. Low-lying states, countries with low-lying delta regions, areas facing desertification or flooding, and hill slopes prone to erosion are all vulnerable areas. Researchers say asylum seekers from vulnerable areas should be granted free movement rights and be absorbed into host countries, prorated to their greenhouse gas emissions or through a similar fair deal.


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