UNHCR: What about climate refugees?

Between 12-45 million environmental refugees are displaced from their homes each year by sudden onset disasters such as tsunamis and still more from slow onset disasters. From the conflicts in Sudan that erupted as a result of scarce resources due to climate change, to an ever-increasing rise in sea level that threatens low-lying islands such as the Maldives, the need to address climate refugees and migrants resulting from these disasters is becoming more and more critical. Legal language; however, has played a major role in mitigating the help that these refugees receive. Legally, the term “environmental” or “climate refugee” holds little weight when it comes to international law. Gaps exist that exclude these peoples from benefiting from proper assistance mechanisms and procedures (http://theglobalobservatory.org/interviews/715-what-makes-a-refugee-as-impact-of-natural-disasters-grows-definition-leaves-gaps.html). One such gap is limitation of the UNHCR’s mandate, which does not protect those displaced due to environmental implications. The UNHCR, or United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, is an institution whose prime purpose is to protect the rights and wellbeing of refugees, which more specifically include asylum seekers, stateless people, and internally displaced people (http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home). The fact that there is discrimination based on the reasons behind refugees’ displacement undermines the UNHCR’s as well as the world’s moral responsibility to protect these people. If the world seeks assistance for environmental refugees this gap needs to be adequately addressed and the UNHCR’s mandate should be expanded to include the protection of those displaced due to environmental disasters and climate change.

Mandate expansion is entirely plausible considering the nature of this institution—one with steadfast political efficacy and determination to influence policy and procedures in order to truly make a difference in the lives of others. Since its infancy, the UNHCR has stretched its mandate considerably and broadened its reach to better address and accommodate pressing, contemporary issues. Originally focusing on issues specific to Europe, it has become much more global in its scope. This pressure to expand has been a result of exceptional leadership within the organization itself. The High Commissioners that the institution has experienced over the years have strived to increase the powers and reach of the UNHCR, despite contestation from member states and donors (http://www.qeh.ox.ac.uk/arDetails?qeh_id=BET6AM1459). It seems that the UNHCR has been successful in standing firm in its principles and “not taking no for an answer” when it comes to its mission of helping refugees. The challenges the institution has faced; however, have not been alone. The UN General assembly, NGO’s, and the IASC have supported the UNHCR considerably in its efforts. Throughout its history, the UNHCR has varied in its focus and has been very successful— from addressing repatriation to helping IDP’s (http://www.qeh.ox.ac.uk/arDetails?qeh_id=BET6AM1459). Perhaps it is time for a new focus: environmental refugees. With determination and institutional backing, the UNHCR could once again achieve its ambitious goals to circumvent international politics, focus on the task at hand, and help those in need.

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