When we consider the consequences of climate change, policy makers have until recently given relatively little consideration to the significant risk forced migration poses to state security. The increased frequency of drought, storms, floods, growing water scarcity and natural disasters will likely lead to displacement of an estimated 200 million people by 2050 both within countries and across borders. The impacts of land degradation that will make once populated places uninhabitable will contribute to asylum seeker numbers surpassing (on an international level) those of victims displaced by war, poverty and violence.
Because climate change often manifests through natural disasters its effects are felt most strongly in isolated and marginalised communities with limited resources and lower infrastructure resilience. Countries such as the pacific islands of Tuvula, sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh and the Maldives, are more vulnerable than others due to their geographic location, resource availability and socio-economic factors such as poverty. As the lowest nation on earth, the Maldives remains one of the most vulnerable places in the world to the effects of climate change and is expected to be the first country that will completely disappear under the water if sea levels continue to rise. These are also the communities that are least able to rebuild and defend against future disasters meaning in many cases their only option is to leave. Ongoing land degradation as a result of climate change will exacerbate the existing refugee crisis as highly populated places become uninhabitable.
The idea of ‘climate change refugees’ or ‘environmental refugees’ is a relatively modern one, referring to individuals or groups who “have been forced to leave their traditional habitat because of marked environmental disruption that jeopardized their existence and seriously affected their quality of life”. In these circumstances, there is no longer a secure livelihood in their traditional homelands environmental change. In most of these cases, this movement means the loss of rich cultural traditions, collective memory and sense of place which creates a significant social barrier that restricts migration until circumstances become dire. When communities are forced to migrate because of the direct impacts of climate change, it reflects a survival mechanism of the last resort.
Currently international laws do not offer protection to climate change refugees, as they do not fall within the legal guidelines of seeking asylum or of refugee status. Despite the real and imminent issue of mass migration, New Zealand remains the only country in to introduce a Climate Refugee Scheme, with plans to create a special refugee visa for residents who are forced to migrate due to the rise of sea levels. The New Zealand system also focuses on implementing voluntary movement that builds on its existing immigration frameworks and champions the importance of pre-emptive action until resettlement becomes the only option.
Dealing with the political tension between migration and climate change is complex and unpopular but is critical to Australia’s national security. Our current legislation and definition of a ‘refugee’ does not extend to people displaced by climate change and Australia maintains one of the most restrictive immigration detention systems in the world. Formulating a consistent policy position on how to address the unfamiliar issue of climate change refugees will be paramount if only to address the broader national security consequences within our region. Accommodating those displaced by climate change in an appropriate and manageable way may reduce the potential for conflict arising from forced displacement.
 El-Hinnawi, E. (1985) Environmental refugees. Unpublished report, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UNEP Office, PO Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya: pp. 40.
Emily Clifford is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory.
FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change