Towards the status of climate refugee

The status of refugees should be updated to include all those people who are forced to migrate because of climate change.

A refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. This is how the status of a refugee is defined by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

A text that is still effective but that should be updated to make space for all those people who are subject to the phenomenon of forced environmental migration.

The case of Kiribati

This is, for example, the reality that the inhabitants of Kiribati face. The state is composed of 33 atolls, all threatened by rising sea levels. Many have already escaped to the largest island, Tarawa, which is over-populated as a result. Floods periodically hit the coasts of the archipelago and make the availability of fresh water more difficult by causing its contamination with sea water, threaten crops and reduce the surface of habitable landmass.


The President of Kiribati Anote Tong has announced to his people, in particular younger generations, to prepare to leave the country, for “migration with dignity”. Tong declared that his government will increase resources towards education to give young people better opportunities to make a new life elsewhere.

Australia and island states

Australia is the largest and closest state which must prepare to let in thousands of climate refugees coming from the island states of the Pacific, who will add themselves to to the 20,000 people who every year ask for political asylum in Australia because they are threatened by conflict at home. Because of this, Phil Glendenning, President of the Refugee Council of Australia, has asked the central government led by Julia Gillard that it be the first country in the world to formally recognise the status of climate refugees. Because people who need help mustn’t face discrimination.

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