Climate Change, Displaced Populations and Asylum Seeker Policy


The ability to seek asylum is an inalienable human right. In theory, any individual has the capacity to flee political, economic, social or religious persecution and endeavour to make a better life for themselves in another state. Furthermore, with the impacts of climate change set to displace millions of the world’s population, a solid and humane refugee policy needs to be at the forefront of every nation’s agenda.

However, at this stage, citizens that are displaced due to environmental factors are not considered to be true refugees under the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Traditionally, a refugee is defined as 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’ (UNHCR, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951, p. 3).

Yet, this does not include people who are displaced from their homeland due to environmental factors such as sea level rise, extreme drought and a lack of crop yields. Across the globe, millions of people are currently at risk of displacement due to changes in the climate that will leave much of the Earth’s land mass uninhabitable.

As Jane McAdam (2008, p. 27) outlines, the impacts of climate change will be felt differently in various parts of the world. For example, ‘…rising sea levels are threatening the very existence of small island states, while Inuit communities in North America and Greenland fear displacement due to melting ice’ (McAdam, 2008, p. 27).

In low lying islands such as Kiribati and Tuvalu many citizens have already been forced to migrate from some of the lower islands to the mainland as a result of salt water intrusion and increased storm surges.

As such, the notion of ‘climate refugees’ presents significant challenges to immigration policy in the 21st century and poses questions regarding how to best deal with the impending humanitarian crisis which is likely to emerge as a result of mass population displacement.

The number of people expected to be displaced by changes to the climate is not easy to estimate. This number depends to some degree on the actions that are taken in the near future to mitigate the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. However, it is projected that between 25 Million and 700 Million people will become ‘climate refuges’ as the planet continues to experience the impacts of a warming climate (Crane, 2012, p. 22).

The melting of ice sheets and glaciers means that more and more water is being added to the world’s oceans. Additionally, as the sea water heats up, thermal expansion is causing the oceans to increase in volume. The result is that sea levels are rising by roughly 3.2 millimetres per year. Although this number sounds minimal, overtime rising waters threaten to wipe small island states as well as several major cities of the map (Crane, 2012, p. 24).

Many of the key regions to be effected by the impacts of sea level rise include highly populated areas like the Ganges River delta in Bangladesh, as well as cities including Shanghai, Manhattan, London, Venice and Los Angeles.

The impacts of sea level rise coupled with various other climatic changes will cause the displacement of millions of people across the world and will highlight the ‘human face’ of climate change (Felli, 2012, p. 337).

In light of this, Australia (and the rest of the globe) needs to reevaluate its asylum seeker policy in order to humanely cater for the growing number of ‘climate refugees’ who will be forced from their homes due to environmental factors.

As a regional giant in the South Pacific, Australia is commonly defined as a ‘destination country’ for asylum seekers and will therefore need to accept a growing intake of people with no other choice but to relocate (Walker, 2010, p. 12).

Despite this, the history of Australia’s asylum seeker policy has been characterized by notions of selectivity and deterrence rather than creating a humanitarian response to a global issue. This point is illustrated by the Australian Labor Government’s decision to process and resettle all asylum seekers who are not in possession of a visa in Papua New Guinea.

Processing and resettling asylum seekers in PNG is not only on the fringe of being illegal by international standards but places further burdens on a nation which is currently facing its own social, economic, political and environmental issues.

Additionally, with the recent election of the Abbott led, Coalition Government, Australian refugee policy is set to become more hardline and unyielding. Tony Abbott and the majority of Australian political figures have increasingly portrayed seeking asylum as a ‘criminal act’ and denigrated the status of refugees (FitzGerald, 2013, p. 2).

Therefore, it is clear that the current political rhetoric does not meet the need for humanitarian action to address the impending crisis of mass population displacement caused by changes to the climate.

With climate change expected to cause a paradigm shift in the way that we, as human beings live, it is important that governments begin to develop policies that are as utilitarian and compassionate as possible. This will be the ultimate test of our humanity.


Crane, C. (2012) ‘Climate Refugees’ in Science World, Volume 68, Issue 12, pp. 22 – 25

Felli, R. (2012) ‘Managing Climate Insecurity by Ensuring Continuous Capital Accumulation: ‘Climate Refugees’ and ‘Climate Migrants’ in New Political Economy, Volume 18, Number 3, pp. 337 – 363

FitzGerald, C. (2013) ‘Prejudice and Empathy in Political Discourse: A Look into Language Used by Politicians in the Asylum Seeker Debate’ in Macquarie Matrix, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp. 1 – 28

McAdam, J. (2008) ‘Climate Change “Refugees” and International Law’ in The Journal of the NSW Bar Association, pp. 27 – 31

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees’, Communications and Public Information Service, 1951

Walker, C. (2010) ‘Climate Refugees in Australia?’ in Chain Reaction, Volume, 108, Issue 1, pp. 12 – 13


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