A House on Fire but Nowhere to Go: Time to Update the 1967 Refugee Protocol

The global reach of refugee-inducing events. Click to enlarge.

As climate change progresses, more people around the world are being forced from their homes by intensifying natural disasters, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, and rising tides which threaten to wash away entire countries. Unfortunately, due to antiquated global refugee protocols, these people suffer as their homes are wrenched from them and continue to suffer as they struggle to find domestic or international replacement. The UNHCR estimated that over 89 million people were displaced in 2021. While it is nearly impossible to understand the reasons for each displacement, climate change’s intractability means it exacerbates even seemingly disconnected impetuses for displacement: a sentiment echoed by the UN High Commissioner. Even if the immediate reason for displacement is not environmental, climate change affects numerous factors which worsen conflict by diminishing agricultural output, depleting vital resources, and spreading diseases to previously unafflicted areas. So, even those who are not directly categorized as “climate refugees” are nonetheless victimized by climate change.

Given this reality, it is vital that new binding international agreements be established to ensure the human rights of these refugees are protected. The last such accord was signed in 1967 and limits the rights of refugees to those who were displaced by war or persecution but not those forced to leave due to other factors outside of their control. Thus, the first step that must be taken to adequately meet the needs of people displaced by climate change is to amend this definition to include other life-threatening experiences outside the control of the victim. Already this language has been adopted by other protocols for the treatment of refugees. In 1969 the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) signed a refugee protocol which includes in their definition of refugee any person suffering from “events seriously disturbing the public order.” This same definition was then used in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration and has even been utilized in the UNHCR’s own publications.

It is so important that climate refugees receive legal recognition because of the complex, hierarchical nature of migrant status. As described by Italian scholars, Veronico Federico and Simone Baglioni, there exist five categories of migrants with clandestine migrants and asylum seekers residing in the legal periphery at the bottom. Therefore, without reforms to the legal definition of refugee, those feeling an inhospitable climate will be relegated to perpetual insecurity – forced to cross dangerous land or sea borders, hunted by border security officers, and constantly fearing expulsion.

Without adequate legal protections, there will be a crisis not only for the millions fleeing cataclysmic climate change, but also for the countries to which they flee. By adopting an international agreement now, norms and processes can be established before they become utterly critical. Already, refugeeism presents one of the greatest challenges to modern states. As a remarkably divisive issue, it threatens the fabric of society with angry, nativist citizens and with anti-democratic governance. We have already begun to see in the US and Europe that refugee crises can serve as the impetus for a swift shift toward right-authoritarianism. Trump in the US, the right-leaning coalition government in Sweden, and Giorgia Meloni in Italy, all owe their power in large part to migrant anxiety. Climate change is only going to amplify these effects and push Western politics closer to the precipice of fascism.

Furthermore, by not preparing for climate refugeeism, states risk unprecedented pragmatic crises. Having hundreds of millions of refugees with nowhere else to go will stretch the bureaucracies of every receiving nation to their absolute limits. It need not be this way, though. In Germany, the initial flight of Syrian migrants was nearly unmanageable despite being among the best prepared countries in the world. However, in response to this crisis, they developed new norms and practices which have been successfully implemented for the thousands of Ukrainian refugees that have entered the country since Russia’s invasion. Planning is the only way to avoid a near failure of governmental bureaucracy in the face of an unprecedented humanitarian threat.

While an entirely new protocol may be necessary, it will nonetheless be extremely difficult to adopt. The 1967 agreement required leaders to pressure states individually since it would have been too contentious to attempt adoption at once. Now, a half century later, borders have become sacred, and their loosening can have dire political consequences. Governments are unlikely to adopt an agreement which does just that until it is politically expedient – at which time it will be far too late. To avoid what may become the greatest threat to humanitarianism and state sovereignty of the 21st century, it is essential that act now to stave off catastrophe by simply reforming the 1967 Refugee Convention to include climate refugeeism.

— Ethan Thorpe

RCC Fellow Ethan Thorpe is a junior at Vanderbilt University studying Law, History, and Society with a minor in Philosophy. Originally from Madison, Connecticut, Ethan moved to Singapore at fourteen where he studied at the Singapore American School. After learning about environmental catastrophes, his life-long passion for the environment gained focus and clarity. His goal is to pursue a JD, ultimately working in public interest environmental law.


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