The following has been adapted from a discussion Yumna Kamel LLM’20 and Stephanie Hader LLM’20 held with current Penn Law students on Tuesday, October 13, 2020.
Earth Refuge describes itself as the world’s first legal think tank dedicated to climate migrants. What led you to merge your respective passions for environmental law and refugee law to mobilize action and thought leadership on this global crisis?
Yumna’s passion has always been refugee and immigration law, and Steph’s interest is environmental law. Although the climate migration crisis seems to be the center point of these fields, we found that there wasn’t as much information surrounding the topic available as we had anticipated – both in the legal arena and in normal discourse. About half of total global migrants last year were climate migrants. Faced with such shocking figures, we put our heads together to found this think tank. Our soft launch was on 8th October, and our official launch will be on 14th December 2020.
Even for those familiar with climate migration, there seems to be a misconception that it largely relates to indigenous groups on islands in the Southern Hemisphere that are being slowly but surely submerged as the result of rising sea levels. Whereas in truth, climate migrants are also people fleeing the fires in California, people fleeing the wildfires in Australia, people escaping floods in the coastal regions of the UK. A huge number of climate migrants are Americans – for instance, in Alaska and in Louisiana as well.
One of our main aims is to attempt to get this into mainstream discourse. In general, the refugee crisis globally isn’t being spoken about enough. But it is spoken about to an extent, as are climate change and environmental issues. However, not many people seem to be talking about climate migrants. We’d really like to get people talking and realizing just how big an issue this is and just how close to home it is, too. The fact is that it could be any one of us; it’s not something that’s isolated to one place on earth.
The statistics are really shocking. Up to three times as many people are being displaced annually due to natural disasters than from conflicts or other forms of violence. For the latter, there are already refugee legal frameworks implemented internationally and regionally.
But for climate migrants, there is close to nothing in terms of legal protection, even though it is predicted that more than one billion people will face being displaced within the next 30 years – that’s in our lifetime. Thirty-one countries are also predicted to become uninhabitable by 2050. We want to be part of the solution to this very, very big problem.
As a research hub and educational platform, Earth Refuge seeks to avert, minimize and confront this crisis, by bringing together the voices of those directly affected and those with the means to help. Can you tell us more about your 3-Pronged Mission?
First, we want to put a human face to climate migration. We are reaching out and conducting interviews with anyone who has been a victim of climate change and has had to leave their home or their hometown. We are going to share their faces and interviews while also asking them what sort of legal recourse they’ve been privy to (if any) and if not, what would have helped. You will be able to find this under the ‘Faces’ tab on our website.
Second, we would really like to get this conversation going in the legal sphere—with law students and legal professionals and environmentalists. That is why we decided to do a soft launch in October, so that we could publish papers in our archive before our official launch in mid-December.
Finally, we want to provide legal toolkits that are accessible to everybody. We want these to be accessible legal toolkits that do just that– basically to frame the problem with a solution that works, and then put them directly in the hands of the people who need them. Picture ‘environmental climate migration practice guides’ that you can access and read through to see if you fall under any of these categories, and if there’s any legal recourse for you. In the future, toolkits will be organized by either region or environmental disaster (or both) and reference international frameworks as well as regional/national law. Eventually, the long-term goal would be to have a tool kit for each city or country that will outline a climate migration plan.
We aim to dispel the myth of lawyers as the gatekeepers of justice. If you picture these stakeholders on one pole of a spectrum, and lawyers at the other pole – Earth Refuge is in the middle. We want to attract lawyers and law students on the one end to engage in active discussion and problem-solving and tackling. On the other end, we want to empower people who are directly affected, to list what their needs are in real-time. Our goal is to merge the two, so that there is a conversation happening, and lawyers are not exclusive gatekeepers of the solutions.
Right now, is any legal recourse for climate migrants? What are some nations (if any) doing to address this problem proactively?
Very generally speaking, there is no legal definition describing the status of climate migrants, which means they don’t even fall under the Refugee Convention. In terms of international legal recourse, there is none. Regionally or domestically, there are a few countries starting to address this issue. New Zealand, for example, is hoping to implement policy on this issue by addressing climate migrants in and of themselves. But around the world, there is not much happening. It is important to call them ‘climate migrants’ rather than ‘climate refugees’, because, again, they are not covered under the Refugee Convention. The Convention specifies persecution based on specific categories, and climate change does not qualify as persecution.
This means that many people are left isolated and without any recourse. It will be difficult to define climate migrants legally on an international platform because the cause is different everywhere. Many places are quite isolationist or hostile, and do not want many people to enter. So, it will be very difficult to develop an accepted definition that is both wide enough to include people who are genuinely fleeing a location due to climate-related causes, while also narrow enough so as not include those relocating for economic or other reasons. This will be a true challenge.
On this note, we may never get to an international definition that would allow for international movement. Not as many climate migrants move from country to country (or region to region) as move from a certain section of a nation into another section. There is also a reluctance to link all natural disasters to climate change. Due to that reluctance, there is less likelihood to implement policies that will distinguish climate migrants from those fleeing a one-off natural disaster.
For many signatories of agreements set on tackling climate change, there is what seems an empty clause about plans for cities or inhabitants of cities if climate change hits so badly that they need to migrate. However, not many countries that are signatories have actively fulfilled that requirement. So, another pressing need is the push for accountability.
There are a lot of hurdles to overcome, which is why there aren’t any solutions – yet. But this is a really pressing issue and not something we can just sit-out waiting until something happens.
How can members of the Penn Law community get involved?
We have an active open call for papers (deadline November 30) which can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if you don’t have a completed paper ready, but want to workshop some ideas with us, we’re happy to schedule discussions.