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According to the definition given by the United Nations, climate refugees are a group of people who have been forcibly displaced, due to a natural catastrophe or because of an event caused by climate and environmental change. Even if the phenomenon is becoming increasingly normal, climate refugees are not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Why? Because they lack the ground of “persecution”, meaning they are not fleeing as a result of human illicit behaviour. Nonetheless, the issue is destined to be crucial in the future policy development of both European Union and the rest of the world. For this reason, it is important to understand how Member States address this peculiar type of migration, and how it impacts migration policies, especially in Italy and Greece, the doors of the EU.

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The key numbers of the phenomenon

A briefing presented by the European Parliament at the end of 2019, estimated that, from 2008 onwards, an average of 26.4 million people fled their home due to environmental and climatic changes. It roughly equals a person misplaced every second. The United Nations High Committee for Refugees (UNHCR), affirms that, by 2050 climatic refugees will be no less than 200-250 million people, representing by far the vast majority of all migrants, with an average number of 6 million people per year. Though these numbers seem disproportionate now, an attentive insight easily finds out that they are, by every mean, plausible: the Amazonian forest – poorly protected and constantly endangered by reckless internal policies of some Latin American governments –  has already been declared “endangered”. Sub- Saharan Africa is torn between an unstoppable desertification and growing population. With Nigeria, South Africa, and Ethiopia soon to be some of the most densely populated area of the world, is more than likely that natural resources will be a critical issue in Africa sooner than we can possibly think. However, it is still difficult to properly address the problem of climatic migrations and refugees, both from a judicial and political perspective. 

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What are the rules of International Law?

Technically speaking, International law, as we previously said, does not recognize climate refugees. Leaving the term mostly in the sphere of mass-media. The fact that environmental refugees and migrants find themselves in a sort of grey area for the law, is one of the key issues in ensuring their protection. While the term is one of recent conceptualization, it is of the uttermost urgency to define a clear juridical framework, to ensure the effectiveness of rights and the certainty of law. In this sense, we may find some sort of Agenda into the Nansen Initiative, launched in 2012 jointly by Norway and Switzerland, aiming at finding some common guidelines to fill the juridical void. The roadmap focused on a threefold structure:

  • Prevention -> this pillar must be structured together with a reinforcement of environmental Law, in order to ensure the survival both of the planet and of the human species.
  • Protection -> the best way to protect the most affected categories lies in providing them with knowledge, technologies and know-how, in order to better face the deep changes our environment is going through, provided that the countries of destination are often not willing to accept refugees, especially during the most delicate historical or economical junctures;
  • Help while in another country -> it is important to create a comprehensive and shared way to regulate entrances and permits, while broadening the concept of refugee.

While the Nansen initiative is undoubtedly remarkable it is not sufficient to ensure an adequate level of protection to environmental refugees. First, in fact, not all the States are willing to include this kind of refugees in their legislation, and second because of the sclerotic nature of European migration regulation itself. One could easily argue that the best way to act is to provide a comprehensive reform of the Dublin regulation to include climate refugees while preserving some of the pre-existing legislation. This reform should also include some key findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change relevant to population movement: a) reduction of available water; b) decreases in crop yields; c) risk of floods, storms and coastal flooding; and d) negative overall impacts on health (especially for the poor, elderly, young and marginalised), and their impact on the host States, while trying to answer the most important question when it comes to climate refugees: to what extent is possible to send them back after a catastrophe? And when?

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The impact on the host state: Italy and Greece

The other aspect to consider, while talking about migration and refugees, is the impact that the movement and displacement of people is going to have in the host  States, this is particularly relevant when it comes to the doors of Europe, Italy ( Sicily in particular) and Greece, two of the most affected European States. It is, in fact, important to consider the impact of these policies in some of the most fragile countries of the European Union: Italy and Greece are constantly living in more or a less of a state of emergency due to the continuous landing of migrants from Middle East and North Africa. This has led to the rise of an extremely specific form of populism, especially in Italy, where political discussion is frequently centred on migration discourse. Political parties such as Matteo Salvini’s Lega or Giorgia Meloni’s FdI, are constantly accusing Europe of abandoning Italy and Greece to migrants, while forgetting that Dublin legislation imposes the redistribution of people seeking refugees in all Member States. It is not difficult to understand that, including climate refugees in the list of the people that could have a facilitated entry in Europe would raise some concern in Italy , where Lega is, at present, the most important party in the political landscape. The most likely scenario is a tightening of entry policies, like the one already experienced with the two “Security Decrees”, approved when Matteo Salvini was Interior Minister. In Italy, and in Sicily in particular, protection of climate refugees as to go hand in hand with some structural reforms of the reception system – which are substantially failing in supporting and providing the necessary guidance and protection of the misplaced persons- and with a reform of the country’s most delicate issue: labour and social policy. Most of the people in Italy are angered with migrants because they sense they are becoming poorer and poorer, while having little or no protection in the workplace. They feel, on the other hand, that migrants are endangering an already saturated marketplace. It is obviously an internal policy issue, but it is resounding in the country’s external relations.

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Prospects and conclusion

Climate migration is a certitude: the world’s temperature is constantly increasing, our resources are diminishing, most of our behaviour are non-sustainable. Climate migration will happen, and sooner than we expect. This known fact gives the world a clear advantage: we can get ready, we can prepare. It is important to follow to parallel paths, that are linked with one another. It is important to raise awareness on climate change, and environmental law, making this the central focus of international juridical doctrine, knowing that most our future issues are linked with environment, and it is therefore crucial to create a solid structure in which every single legislation can be framed and can have common ground rules. On the other hand, it is important to reform European migration policy in order to include environmental refugees. There could be a starting point: The Green New Deal initiative, launched by Ursula Von der Leyen. GND can be the starting point of a comprehensive green European reform.

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