Environmental Migrants in International Law. An assessment of protection gaps and solutions

Louise Olsson
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This study approaches the issue of environmental migration and examines to what extent contemporary international law provides protection to people migrating as a result of environmental factors. The research questions thus concerns to what extent current international law protect environmental migrants, and how the protection can be improved. The purpose of this study is to draw attention to the increasing issue of environmental induced migration, to reveal the protection gaps in contemporary international law, and to stress the urgent need to address this problem adequately. A framework for the theme issue is provided by exploring links between environmental change and cross-border human migration. Evidence is reviewed demonstrating that millions of people have migrated or are likely to migrate as a result of environmental risk and hazard. Environmental change might cause displacement in a variety of manners: For example, migration might result from intensified drought and desertification affecting livelihoods, rising sea levels or intensified acute natural disasters. Accordingly, the different forms of environmentally induced migration require different approaches and actions by the international community. Through a review of refugee law, environmental law, human rights law, the law on stateless persons and the system of Temporary Protected Status, it is concluded that none of these systems provides adequate protection to this particular group of people. However, these systems offer mixed potential to develop in this regard. Also, it is found that terminological and conceptual gaps exists and that it is crucial to provide a universal definition to this particular group of people in order to adequately address this issue. Finally, it is concluded that, due to the complexity of the issue, a combination of the solutions examined would most probably be the most effective way of filling the protection gaps. It is argued that international refugee law is an inappropriate forum of addressing environmental migration for several reasons. The system of Temporary Protected Status is instead proven to have the most potential of offering protection to people migrating due to rapid environmental factors. At the same time, it is found that people migrating due to slow onset climate events would be better served by regional conventions drafted for this purpose, which focuses on people’s unwillingness or impossibility to return to their state of origin, rather than focusing on the harm and impact already experienced.