The identity of the environmentally displaced persons as a group has been socially formed and accepted by academics and intergovernmental organizations (IGO), which is reflected in the treatment of the affected persons in research, reports, and policies that reference the negative impact of environmental degradation on humans. A shared social identity allows to unify the expectations of the various individuals that are suffering the adverse consequences of environmental degradation, and it eases the understanding of the needs and interests of the members of the group. In the case of environmentally displaced persons, their expectations are centered on the standard level of protection to ensure that they can continue their livelihood after the displacement – without facing discrimination or arbitrary decisions (Zetter, 2017a). Further, their needs and interests are focused on the creation of resilient and adaptive measures to avoid further displacements (Methmann & Oels, 2015; Smith, 2021).
Scholars (notably, Myers, 2002; Myers & Ngo, 2005; Boano et al., 2008; Kälin, 2010; Renaud et al., 2011; McAdam, 2012; Goodwin-Gill & McAdam, 2017; Jayawardhan, 2017; Zetter, 2017;
Barnett & McMichael, 2018; Thornton et al., 2018; Anzellini et al., 2020; Bilak et al., 2021) have demonstrated the link between the environmental degradation and the patterns of human displacement, which validates the existence of environmentally displaced persons as a new and distinct social group. Nevertheless, there is not a clear delimitation of the group, as environmentally displaced individuals have heterogeneous characteristics. The displacements take different forms depending on the circumstances that the affected persons face: in terms of timing of the displacement (e.g., as a preventive measure, during an emergency evacuation, in the aftermath of a disaster, in the transition period from humanitarian relief aid or during the post-disaster reconstruction), duration (e.g., temporary placements, mid or long-term displacements with prospects of returning, or permanent displacements), direction (e.g., within national borders or abroad), and distance (e.g., within their region or outside), and degree of voluntariness, amongst other (Gonzalez Tejero et al., 2020, p. 5).
The degree of voluntariness is the referent characteristic used to determine the vulnerability of the affected individuals. Thus, some academics (amongst others, Boano et al., 2008; Dun & Gemenne, 2008; McAdam, 2012; DeJesus, 2018; Thornton et al., 2018) conceive the category of
environmentally displaced persons to include only the individuals forced to displace due to environmental degradation. However, others (e.g., McNamara & Gibson, 2009; Kälin, 2010;
Renaud et al., 2011; Methmann & Oels, 2015; Kraler et al., 2020) include the individuals induced or motivated to displace due to environmental disasters. But to determine when the displacement was induced or motivated by environmental degradation should not be characterized as mutually exclusive alternatives, because “voluntary and forced movements /…/ constitute two poles of a continuum” (Kälin & Schrepfer, 2012, p. 62), in which elements of choice and coercion co-exist.21 Furthermore, the discrepancy in the designation does not contradict the existence of environmentally displaced persons and their acceptance as a separate social group.
IGOs (amongst others, the European Union (EU), the UN, the WHO, the IOM, the IDMC, and the Global Environment Facility) refer to the people affected by environmental displacements as a social group in reports and policies (Dellmuth, 2019, p. 1). The UN (particularly the UNHCR and the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC)) has acknowledged the vulnerability of environmentally displaced persons, it has addressed climate-induced displacements, and the need to protect the affected persons (El-Hinnawi, 1985; Adelman, 2001;
Guterres, 2008; UNHCR, 2015; Tomuschat, 2016; News UN, 2021). The EU (particularly the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)) refers to environmentally displaced persons as a vulnerable group that has been “disproportionally affected by climate change” (Kraler et al., p. 18), and insists on seeing environmental displacements as a
“human rights issue and there should be a rights-based approach /that requires/ comprehensive framework” (Borges in EESC, 2020). Other organizations, such as the WHO and the IOM, have led environmental and health projects to prevent further environmental displacements (Schunz, 2012; Anzellini et al., 2020; IOM, 2020).
Regarding the perception of environmentally displaced persons by the IGOs, it is essential to understand their response to human mobility in the context of environmental degradation and climate change. Environmental displacement has prompted initiatives such as the Nansen Initiative in 2012, the Platform on Disaster Displacement in 2015,22 the Task Force on Displacement in
21 See Gonzalez Tejero, Guadagno and Nicoletti (2020, pp. 3–10) for more on how an overly simplistic and rigid determination of the voluntariness of environmental displacements may trigger perverse practical effects.
22 The Nansen Initiative is a “state-led consultative process to build consensus on a protection agenda addressing the needs of people displaced across borders in the context of disasters and the effects of climate change” (UNHCR, 2012).
2015,23 the Paris Agreement under the UNFCCC in 2015,24 the Global Compact on Migration in 2018,25 and the IOM’s Institutional Strategy on Migration, Environment and Climate Change 2021–2030 in 2021,26 and the UN Human Rights Council resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right in 202127.
These initiatives have different approaches in terms of their focus of support, the nature of aid and the procedures. However, the three policies have focused on reducing the need to displace, facilitating the adaptation to the environmentally damaged habitat, and providing solutions to the displaced individuals. With those initiatives, the policymakers sought to reduce the forced migration through preventive actions. In the cases in which precautionary actions failed and the displacement was unavoidable, these policies provided support to the affected persons in the adaptation by implementing disaster risk reduction measures and sought to facilitate the displacements with dignity (Kraler et al., 2020, p. 63). These measures were directed towards
“climate change adaptation and mitigation, resilience building and community stabilization”
(Ionesco et al., 2018, p. 6), with the purpose of reducing and/or avoiding forced and unmanaged migration as much as possible. Those initiatives are “aligned on the understanding that, despite the preventive actions described above, a certain amount of displacement will be inevitable, especially as the impacts of climate change intensify” (Liguori, 2021, p. 13).
It was established on 10 October 2012 by Norway and Switzerland. The Platform on Disaster Displacement was adopted during the Global Consultation that took place on 13–16 October 2015, and it was endorsed by 109 states (Nansen Initiative, 2015, pp. 4–7; Balk, 2017, p. 3).
23 The Task Force on Displacement was created under the UNFCCC Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage, held in Paris between 30 November and 12 December 2015. It was tasked to develop recommendations “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse effects of climate change” (UNFCCC, 2015, p. 1).
24 The Paris Agreement was signed on 22 April 2016 by 195 states, and it became effective on 4 November 2016. It is an international treaty that covers climate change mitigation, adaptation, and finance. The Paris Agreement aims to increase adaptability to climate change impacts of individuals and to organize funding and financing. As of 2021, there are 192 parties to the Paris Agreement.
25 The Global Compact on Migration was drafted on 13 July 2018, and it was adopted by the resolution A/RES/73/195 on 19 December 2018 during the Intergovernmental Conference in Marrakesh, Morocco (OHCHR, 2018). It sought to address “through preventative actions, measures aimed at facilitating movement in dignity and others aimed at providing solutions to those unable to return to their countries of origin” (Kälin, 2019, p. 665).
26 The IOM has presented the Institutional Strategy on Migration, Environment and Climate Change 2021–2030, on the COP26, in Glasgow, from 31 October 2021 to 12 November 2021. It explains the role of the IOM in supporting states “in their efforts to assist and protect those affected by the adverse impacts of climate change, environmental degradation, and disasters due to natural hazards, including migrants and the internally displaced” (IOM, 2021). And it showcases the IOM’s long-term commitment to solving the issue of environmental displacement.
27 The human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment was adopted by the A/HRC/RES/48/13 resolution during the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council on 18 October 2021.
The affected individuals, particularly those from the low-lying island states, have unified their efforts in advocating for their interests in the AOSIS. The alliance promotes and influences international climate action, prioritizes sustainable development (AOSIS, 2015, pp. 3–4).
Shameem (2021, p. 1)28 rose the importance of continuing to address the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, especially those that impact directly human rights – i.e., “poverty, food insecurity and displacement caused by climate disruption /which would contribute/ to sustaining peace and reducing the risk of conflict”. Black-Layne (2021a),29 in AOSIS Opening Statement at the UNFCCC Virtual Subsidiary Body Meetings, stated that their approach to environmental degradation and climate change is one of resilience and adaptation. In response to the G20’s dissent on climate change commitments, she asked for more ambitious goals in the topic of usage of fossil fuels and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (Black-Layne, 2021b). Young (2019),30 in the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP25) opening statement, called for action to mitigate the environmental degradation and to avert irreversible losses, and to aid the affected people in the process of adaptation to the environment – i.e., environmental displacement.
And Sapoaga (2019),31 during the COP25, called for action, engagement, and support to the environmental mechanisms. The different representatives of the affected states seek to address and reduce the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, and they seek aid during the adaptation process, in which they are forced to displace.
Therefore, environmentally displaced persons are “those who are impelled or induced to migrate because their livelihoods are rendered unsustainable by proliferating natural disasters or the irreversible degradation of environmental resources” (Zetter, 2017b, p. 23). The lack of the most basic resources interferes with the livelihood of the environmentally displaced persons, and it hinders economic development in the territory, which leads to their exodus towards more economically prosperous cities – within the state territory or abroad (Kraler et al., 2020, p. 27).
These conditions force individuals to leave their homes to seek an alternative escape from the
28 HE Ambassador Nazhat Shameem is a diplomat and a former judge who has been serving as the Permanent Representative of Fiji to the UN since 2014, and she was appointed as the President of the UN Human Rights Council in 2021.
29 HE Ambassador Diann Black-Layne is Antigua and Barbuda’s appointed Ambassador for Climate Change and director of the Department of the Environment of Antigua and Barbuda.
30 HE Ambassador Lois Young is the Permanent Representative of Belize to the UN.
31 Enele Sopoaga is a Tuvaluan diplomat and politician who served as Prime Minister of Tuvalu from 2013 to 2019 and as Chair of AOSIS from 2005 to 2006.
threats to their livelihood, life quality, and, in some extreme cases, their life (Zetter, 2014, p. 13;
Heslin et al., 2019). This definition of environmentally displaced persons is focused on those who are faced with a vulnerable situation due to the forcefulness of the environmental displacements, however, it might be open to including those individuals who are motivated or induced to displace by the effects of environmental degradation.32
Forced migration is often an indicator of the failure to safeguard basic human rights and it tends to cause subsequent failures in protection (Zetter, 2014, p. 17; Salcedo, 2017). In the case of environmentally displaced persons, the complexity of the combination of factors that lead to the displacements challenges the efficacy of the established protection mechanisms, and it can exclude forced migrants from well-established protection categories, increasing their vulnerability.
Nevertheless, states have a duty and a responsibility to uphold the fundamental human rights – including social, political, economic rights, and the right to life – and protect individuals from violations, given the obligations set in multiple international conventions, soft law documents, and customs, which conform to international human rights and humanitarian law (Anton & Shelton, 2011; Karp, 2015; Tomuschat, 2016).33 Therefore, states are responsible to protect environmentally displaced persons to safeguard their human rights by “/a/verting or removing the underlying factors that propel forced migration” (Zetter, 2014, p. 17). However, if the preventive measures fail, the state should protect the forcibly displaced population to prevent subsequent transgression of their human rights.
32 This thesis is only focused on legitimizing the protection of those who are forced to displace, due to the vulnerability and urgency of their situation. The reasoning behind the exclusion in the legitimization of the protection of the group of people who are motivated or induced to displace is because in those cases environmental degradation is not the central reason to displace, thus, the displacement falls under the category of economic migration. Some believe that the environmentally motivated displacements are a measure taken in advance to prevent future, more catastrophic events, which adds complexity to the ponderation of the reasons for displacement due to the subjectivity of the statement (Castles, 2002; Kälin, 2010; Salcedo, 2017; Ionesco, 2019). The possible inclusion of the people induced or motivated to displace in the social group of environmentally displaced person does not imply that all the persons who are included are automatically liable to the benefits of the group – rather each affected person will be evaluated individually to determine if they are eligible to receive protection.
33 For the most relevant mechanisms that ensure human rights see the 18 core International Human Rights Instruments compiled at the website of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) (2021).
4 INTERNATIONAL CATEGORIES AND LEGAL REGIMES FOR FORCED