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Defending Dignity: Redefining Refugee Legal Protections

As the rest of the world enjoys the highest standard of living in human history, 80 million people remain displaced due to violence and religious, political, and ethnic persecution.According to the UN, the number of people seeking refuge from violence is the highest since the Second World War.Adding to this global crisis, climate change poses additional threats to the world’s most vulnerable.The Economist estimates that by 2050, climate change will force an additional 200 million people from their homes.

The Rohingya are at the intersection of state-sanctioned violence and climate displacement. The Burmese government has forced 700,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar to Thailand, Malaysia, and Bangladesh and indefinitely imprisoned 135,000 Rohingya in open-air concentration camps.Whether on erosion-prone hillsides or a silt-formed island in the Bay of Bengal, Rohingya refugees have been denied the most basic human rights and are vulnerable to the worst of climate change. The Rohingya, denied citizenship by the Burmese Constitution, cannot claim refugee rights in the countries to which they are forced to flee, enabling systemic human rights violations, and dulling the international response.

Environmental deterioration poses similar threats to millions of “climate-induced migrants,” as classified by the UN. Rather than holding refugee status, those forcibly displaced by climate change are denied access to temporary shelter and aid or even prosecuted.

Central American farmers face the worst crop conditions in decades. El Niño, a powerful weather phenomenon affecting the region, threatens to decrease rainfall by 60% and cut crop yields by a third, putting farmers at risk of starvation.Thousands of Guatemalan farmers, forced to flee deteriorating weather conditions, are denied asylum at the American border. Insofar as an asylum claim is the only chance for entry into the US for almost all Central Americans, its denial condemns refugees to either a state of limbo in a migrant camp in Mexico or putting one’s life in the hands of human traffickers.

Even when climate migrants are fortunate enough to enter a destination country, lives scarcely improve. Because of gaps in international law, climate migrants are not entitled to refugee-specific legal protections.According to Human Rights Watch, the Rohingya face a similar problem, stemming from Bangladesh’s designation of the Rohingya people not as refugees but as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.”Their ambiguous legal status enables denial of access to even basic rights, including public services, work, and freedom of movement.

The fundamental human dignity of Rohingya refugees and climate migrants must be recognized and protected by the extension of formal refugee status. Currently, international law is insufficiently prepared to protect all refugees and future climate-displaced. The international community must work to redefine refugee status before it is too late, and climate displacement accelerates. States could benefit from the framework laid out by New Zealand, which recognizes climate migrants as refugees and develops visa pathways to preempt indefinite displacement.

The global community must not helplessly stand by as another group—and the very humanity of its members—is allowed to hang in the balance.


Works Cited

Cumming-Bruce, Nick. “Number of People Fleeing Conflict Is Highest since World War II, U.N. Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, June 19, 2019.

Dervis, Kemal. “Devastating for the World's Poor: Climate Change Threatens the Development Gains Already Achieved.” United Nations. United Nations. Accessed June 22, 2022.

H., W. “Why Climate Migrants Do Not Have Refugee Status.” The Economist. March 6, 2018.

Lustgarten, Abrahm. “The Great Climate Migration Has Begun.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 23, 2020.

Myanmar: The Rohingya's Decade of Detention.” Human Rights Watch, June 15, 2022.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Forced Displacement Passes 80 million by Mid-2020 as Covid-19 Tests Refugee Protection Globally.” UNHCR, December 9, 2020.

‘Bangladesh Is Not My Country’: The Plight of Rohingya Refugees from Myanmar.” Human Rights Watch, August 10, 2020.


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