Should there be a special status for the millions of displaced every year due to natural disasters? For 72% of the general public, the answer is yes. Although drought, famine and heat waves have already led to the migration of 83.65 million people between 2011 and 2014 (IDMC), climate refugees will not be directly discussed during COP21. The main objective of the 196 states gathered in Paris remains to reach an agreement limiting climate change.
An ‘impossible’ legal status
Today, climate refugees have no protection from international law because there is no internationally agreed definition for the term. As highlighted by those Internet users who oppose granting them a legal status, it is difficult to differentiate them from economic immigrants. The only ones currently protected by the Geneva Convention are political refugees. This is certainly why New Zealand recently refused to grant the status to a citizen of Kiribati.
According to François Gemenne, a specialist in migratory flows: "The first to refuse climate refugees are those countries directly affected by climate change and the number of applications is negligible.” For him, a better solution would be to agree on a better system of protection. An argument echoed on social networks: “Developed countries have caused climate change, it is their responsibility to help the most vulnerable.”
U.S. President Obama meets leaders of island nations under threat by rising see levels during the COP21
The Nansen initiative, one step towards recognition
NGOs, unanimous in their support of an official status for climate refugees, have been the first to raise the alarm, but the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) members have refused to include the issue in their work program. Switzerland and Norway therefore decided to take things into their own hands in 2012 by creating the Nansen Initiative in order to create a dialogue with the disaster-affected regions to develop concrete solutions.
On October 13, 2015, the Nansen Initiative’s "Protection Agenda", a sort of guide for states, was adopted by 114 countries, including France, the USA and China. Its goal is to develop tools adapted to the protection of displaced persons. Signatory states will begin the ratification process in 2016.