Those Fleeing States Destroyed by Climate Change Are Convention Refugees

Biblioteca Della Libertà 2023 (237):63-96 (2023)
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Multiple states are at risk of becoming uninhabitable due to climate change, forcing their populations to flee. While the 1951 Refugee Convention provides the gold standard of international protection, it is only applied to a limited subset of people fleeing their countries, those who suffer persecution, which most people fleeing climate change cannot establish. While many journalists and non-lawyers freely use the term “climate refugees,” governments, and courts, as well as UNHCR and many refugee experts, have excluded most climate refugees from the Convention as a matter of legal interpretation. In our 2015 paper, “Unable to Return in the 1951 Refugee Convention: Stateless Refugees and Climate Change”, we sought to reopen the debate on “climate refugees” by arguing that some climate refugees qualify under the 1951 Convention as it is currently written (even if they are not persecuted): those who are stateless and are unable to return to their country of origin because climate change has rendered it uninhabitable. Our interpretation, however, has been rejected by Goodwin-Gill and McAdam (2021) and by Foster and Lambert (2019), which explicitly responds to our paper. Here, we address and respond to their arguments, and develop a new supplementary one, drawing on the principle of systemic integration, as enshrined in Article 31(3)(c) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Author's Profile

Jonathan Simon
Université de Montréal


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