The question of “Should the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) expand its mandate to include ‘climate refugees’?” is becoming not a question of should, but when it will. Although ‘refugee’ is a legal term, its use next to the words ‘climate’ or ‘environmental’ to explain the millions of people who are becoming more and more displaced because of natural disasters, is still not considered a legal term, although the terms are already in use, and the UNHCR is on its way to creating the legal framework. That means mandated international cooperation and assistance funding for this expanded terminology.
The UNHCR, in its 2009 policy report, made clear it did not accept the category of ‘climate refugees’ using the criteria of the original 1951 Refugee Convention, saying it was as fuzzy a term as ‘economic refugees’. However, with increasing environmental disasters, whether caused by evolving climate change or human conflict that sets off ‘pestilence and famine’ and interacts with climate change, the UNHCR is already on its way to expanding its definition of populations that will come under its mandate, despite the US disagreeing. As the 2009 UNHCR report points out, the number of natural disasters has doubled from 200 to 400 over the last two decades, and 9 out of 10 natural disasters today are climate related. Over 77% of the UNHCR funding comes from just 10 donors, “the most significant being the United States, the European Commission, and Japan.” The big 10 are understandably worried that the definition of refugees can soon come to define a majority of the world’s population, if the predicted effects of climate change come to pass, and as more scientific evidence points that way. And since the UNHCR in the 90’s has already expanded the term of refugees to include those displaced inside a country (Internally Displaced Persons-IDPs) because of political, manmade, AND natural environmental disasters, it is now including in its thinking, those displaced outside, or crossing the border of a country because of environmental disasters, and wants international resources mandated for those. That will eventually mean enforcement of delivery of those resources if needed.
As Alexander Betts explains in his essay titled, “UNHCR, Autonomy, and Mandate Change”, the UNHCR is staying relevant with changing times as it tries to fulfill its purpose of ensuring refugee protection. Walter Kälin points out, in an interview with Jérémie Labbé, that one of the biggest challenges facing the world now, and increasingly in the future, is the physical change of the world, and thus the problem of “people displaced by natural disasters, including and in particular from the effects of climate change”. We are at the start of constant crisis being the new normal. Kälin states, “We are talking about huge numbers. We know about the 16 million plus refugees. We know about the 30 million plus internally displaced persons, displaced by armed conflict and violence. What is much less known is that-…every year between 12-45 million people are displaced by sudden onset disasters. We don’t know the number of those displaced by slow onset disasters.”
The Maldives Islands is the starkest example of this new required way to look at refugees who require international protection. They won’t just be leaving and crossing borders into other countries, as rising oceans flood island countries. They will be stateless, as these islands will cease to exist physically. They will be ‘inactivated’ and maybe their sovereignty dissolved. The concept is that small island states, even narrow coastal countries won’t be extinguished by war or conquerors, and exiled populations won’t be waiting to return with repatriation, as there won’t be a physical place to return to. Will the international order force states to cease their existence and agree to absolve into another state, and will those other states agree to absorb all, maintaining their internal security and defense? Who would enforce such?
The Israeli/Palestinian crisis comes to mind with a stateless people still arguing over a physical place, and what the forced exodus of a population because of disappearance, not just destruction, of place will mean. A case of how two countries have reacted differently, recently, to a flood of refugees, is Jordan and Turkey with the ongoing spreading conflict in Syria, that now includes Iraq, and that will evolve into the category of natural disaster caused by political conflict, as the weather gets worse. Jordan has taken in over a million people and provided temporary aid, while Turkey closed its border to Kurdish refugees, fearing destabilization by an entire ‘stateless’ group that wants to have its own state within Turkish borders. And this refugee upheaval is not caused by another state, even though the criminal ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) calls itself such. The UNHCR report talks about international cooperation, that will aid the prevention, emergency preparedness, use of new technology regarding environmental disasters and the “international protection regime…that should not prevent States from recognizing their existing obligations under international law” But their talk of international cooperation is not reassuring, as cases in the future often won’t even concern populations leaving actual nations, as instability increases and non-states of criminal groups that are not actual sovereign governments providing for a people, come to power.
The report points out, as the interconnected negative trends that the UNHCR Report, Betts Essay, and Labbé interview discuss, develop further (floods, drought, deforestation, famine, disease, extreme weather, unstable international financial markets), the UNHCR will need all the clout it can to encourage international community aid to assist mass migrations of people and the subsequent instability and disorder that will follow. More and more states will want to react with NIMBY responses, (“Not In My Backyard”) and close their borders more. The recent case of the EBOLA epidemic, points out a new area for the UNHCR, as the international community has to find a way to enforce people not to migrate and become refugees, and quarantine entire countries. H1N1, Swine and Avian flus have been precursors, but vaccines have been developed, and governments sufficiently able to respond. Refugee migrations, because of outbreaks of diseases without any vaccines, and occurring within countries with weak government/public health response are another category for the UNCHR, with the refugees either as IDPs or crossing borders in mass. The AIDS epidemic in Africa pointed out the danger of losing an entire generation of a healthy workforce to run a government and its public services and defense. In the future, mass epidemics and the decrease in the effectiveness of antibiotics, will require the UNCHR to expand the second of the five climate change-related scenarios that Walter Kälin has lined out. Not only will aid be needed for those who leave “zones designated by Governments as being too high risk and dangerous for human habitation”, the UNCHR will also have to increase the category of IDPs it developed in the 1990’s to those who remain in high risk areas of countries, for the health of the global community, causing conflict with UNHCR’s human rights protection purpose. The same could be said of a scenario of a future nuclear accident (recalling Fukushima and Chernobyl) or use of an atomic bomb, as the nuclear threat looms still-and may be even more with the meeting of terrorism and unsecured atomic weaponry, and/or new countries developing nuclear weapons. Will populations in a nuclear devastated area that survives, be IDPs but remain in an enforced area with their increased radiation sickness? Will the global community step in to aid if entire governments are destroyed by nuclear events? The UNCHR points out the existence of mass refugee problems already, and that the legal framework of such should be expanded, as natural disasters are increasing due to climate change, and disease disasters are currently warning us, and as possible future ‘limited use’ nuclear disasters threaten us.
The pressure to change and create an expanded legal framework defining refugees will come from UNHCR and civil society groups, and be more resisted by many member states, as member states will have to pay for, and be called upon to supply resources to enforce such a legal framework. The UNHCR is already becoming more independent by developing its ‘cluster approach’ by leading and coordinating with other agencies, and dividing responsibility and labor; particularly by using agencies that are already at work within a country. It expanded its purpose this way by defining IDPs in the 1990’s, but coordinated and got other agencies to take on refugee assistance, without it being entirely a UN response. However, as Betts points out, “at no point has UNHCR’s expanded role in IDP protection ever explicitly been examined or ratified by the UN General Assembly.” Betts explains, The UNCHR effectively uses the IASC (Inter Agency Standing Committee, an interagency body) to effectively disperse humanitarian response, and does not need to come to member states for approval. So UNHCR has already been able to independently expand its mandate through use of networks of organizations, not directly co-opting, but certainly coordinating their use. Betts shows, it first used “foundation grants and NGO partners to define a resource space and degree of influence for itself that stood apart from state control. In recent years, it has used the IASC …without ever having to directly seek approval from an interstate body such as the UN General Assembly.”
Betts also points out that the Leadership of UNCHR makes a difference. The UNCHR was created in the aftermath of WWII and focused primarily on Europe, and it was to work with states to ensure protection of refugees and help states with permanent solutions to refugee’s status. Different leaders have expanded its mandate as global crises have demanded, and it still tries to define, as Betts labels, “who to protect” and “how to protect” with “material assistance, humanitarian emergency response, and repatriation.” While there was some internal conflict within the organization on how to carry out its mission, the current Commissioner, António Guterres, sees an expanded role for the UNCHR due to his awareness of climate change and increasing natural disasters, and the success the UNCHR had in creating the IDP category, where it could influence states for activities within that state’s borders. As Guterres looks to the future, he seems to see it necessary that the UNHCR become more independent. His push for UN enforced protection and assistance for an increased category of refugees comes from his perspective on future global change. According to Betts, he wants the UNCHR to have “the ability to make decisions and exert influence outside of a principal-agent relationship with states” or being subsidiary to states. He also sees the UNHCR as being influenced by not only its UN position under the UN hierarchy, but also by the many uncoordinated, and sometimes confusing humanitarian assistance groups that are evolving. The ‘humanitarian marketplace’ of intergovernmental and non-governmental agencies from multiple states, reacting with smaller sums of money and assistance, has made it harder for UNHCR to keep control of activities.
As the UN gets stretched, and more and more unable to respond with large amounts of assistance to increasing, multiple crises, the UNHCR feels it has to be more independent in managing its assistance to refugees. The future humanitarian disasters, increasing physical change of the earth, and probably a few future assistance failures, will force the global community, with push from grass roots civil society groups, to start thinking of how to expand the UNHCR’s mandate (or purpose in missions), as the UNHCR seeks legal clarification for itself, in response to the future global condition. But UN member states will worry how they will pay to aid all humanitarian and natural disasters as they increase with climate change, and the potential for human conflict increases, despite all the prevention and preparedness the UNHCR wants to provide.