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Will climate change lead to a new definition of refugees?

Under international law, a person may claim refugee status is they are escaping a war zone in their home country or if they would face persecution (based on religion, race, political affiliation etc.) by returning to their home country. The United States follows the same guidelines in determining refugee status eligibility. But what does this mean for people displaced by climate change?

A recent report by the United National High Commission for Refugees indicates that more than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced in the last year. Only 22.5 million of them were classified as refugees. New research indicates that temperature spikes in agricultural regions of developing countries have made these areas uninhabitable and resulted in a parallel increase in asylum seekers in Europe. In addition, natural disasters displaced more than 24 million people in 2016. However, such migrants do not qualify for refugee protection under international law.

Time for a re-evaluation of refugee criteria?

The current international classification of refugee status was drafted in the 1940s—well before climate change became a known threat. Some say this classification is due to be updated. Academics from Columbia University have drafted a new Model International Mobility Convention, which would grant protections to those displaced by climate change. In New Zealand, a new visa category has been proposed that would provide entry for such displaced people. More countries still have created humanitarian visas for victims of natural disasters. Nonetheless, even advocates of “climate change refugees” are cautious to open the treat up for negotiation, for fear that anti-immigration policy makers will use the opportunity to further tighten immigration restrictions.

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