Yumna Kamel LLM’20 came to the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School with an interest in immigration and refugee policy. Stephanie Hader LLM’20 arrived with a background in environmental law. Upon graduation, they joined forces to build Earth Refuge, a trailblazing and interdisciplinary hub of legal research and non-litigation advocacy that aims to cultivate solutions-minded conversations about climate migration.
“Climate migration is not just a future issue,” Hader said. “It is happening right now and the numbers are shocking. What is alarming is that there is a legal void in the U.S. and beyond, and Earth Refuge seeks to address it.”
At the Law School, Kamel and Hader also met Adam Garnick L’21, who works with Earth Refuge as Head of Partnerships. Moreover, two of the founders’ former professors sit on the organization’s Advisory Board: Adjunct Professor of Law in the Transnational Legal Clinic Ayodele Gansallo and Perry World House Professor of Practice of Law and Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, who taught “International Human Rights.”
“Earth Refuge would never have happened if it weren’t for our time at Penn, and we continue to rely on the relationships we made and things we learned there,” Garnick said.
One of the primary ways Earth Refuge seeks to work toward a solution for climate migration is through its production and distribution of educational materials on the topic. According to Hader and Kamel, one of the major barriers to movement in this area of policy around the globe is a lack of conversation. To combat this, the group’s “Archive” functions as a hub for information on the topic, both on a global scale and a local one. The goal is to create a space for a comprehensive conversation about climate migration by centralizing scholarship, news articles, book reviews, and reports from around the world in one dynamic platform.
Implicit in Earth Refuge’s mission is to shine a light on the actual lived experiences of people who have been affected by climate migration and to shape legal solutions to the needs outlined in their testimonies. Kamel explained that Earth Refuge’s “Faces” project serves both to “humanize the problem” and to center the organization’s work on the realities faced by the people who are most impacted by climate migration. In addition to highlighting the experiences of migrants themselves, Faces takes into account the perspectives of “allies,” such as climate and refugee activists, who have valuable on-the-ground information that can help to inform the community of lawyers, policymakers, and organizers Earth Refuge is cultivating.
“Disasters impact communities differently across the globe. This is something we constantly have to keep in mind,” Hader said. “As there is no one-size-fits-all solution, our aim is to amplify the voices of those affected and incorporate their grassroot ideas into our solution-finding process.”
Currently, Earth Refuge is working on the creation of legal toolkits meant to assist directly-impacted communities in regions around the world. Volunteers from across the globe are needed to contribute to the development of these toolkits, which are necessarily mutable pieces of advocacy, likely to change as the law progresses. As Earth Refuge continues to grow as an organization, the dream is for legal counsel to be able to work directly with local actors to advocate for legal relief measures tailored to the specific needs of various impacted communities around the world.
“The law gives status to people and causes: once you are legally acknowledged, but not boxed in, your rights are enshrined,” said Kamel. “Without legal protection, figurative rights are just floating in the ether. Facilitating that process around the world is one of our major long-term aims.”
Constructing Earth Refuge from the ground up presented a steep learning curve. Kamel laughed as she described the beginning of the process involving them “emailing everyone we knew” to reach out for paper submissions, publicity, and research support. Now, the organization operates through the work of more than thirty people who Hader and Kamel oversee, and people working in spaces related to climate migration have begun to reach out to Earth Refuge, eager to collaborate with an organization dedicated specifically to this area of law and policy.
“We know this is a gargantuan project, but we hope to find and craft solutions which span the globe. Seeing that people and organizations are interested in our cause serves as a constant reminder that we have to keep going,” said Hader. “And it doesn’t hurt that we have a great team pushing our organization forward.”