Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Climate change displaced persons in Africa and the limitations of the refugee protection regime

The effects of climate change and the ways that it will lead to increases in migration are both myriad and complex. The issue is: how to assist those who will be displaced by the effects of climate change and not leave them to fall into the gaps of the legal systems we have erected

Anthropogenic climate change is increasingly becoming one of the major drivers of migration, both forced and otherwise. Not only are the effects of climate change already being linked to increased migration but furthermore projections of future climate change, driven predominately by greenhouse gas emissions, predict that climate change will contribute significantly to an increase in the number of people seeking to migrate, with estimates ranging from the very conservative figure of 25 million all the way to 2 billion climate change displaced persons by 2050, many of which will be on the African continent. The effects of climate change and the ways that it will lead to increases in migration are both myriad and complex. Not only will people be forcibly displaced by increasingly strong and frequent natural disasters along with other slow onset effects of climate change, but furthermore climate change’s more subtle effects, which ripple throughout our ecosystem, societies and economies, will likely deprive many of the socio-economic and environmental opportunities needed to live a decent human life.

Despite its limitations, the United Nation Refugee Convention has long served to protect those who are forcibly displaced as a result of a well-founded fear of persecution. However, with regards to those who are displaced by climate change there exists a rather significant de jure and de facto gap in protection. While the non-legally binding Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are meant to govern those who are displaced internally, both by climate change and otherwise, there does not currently exist a well-defined legal or in practice mechanism or regime for assisting those displaced across international borders by climate change.


Looking to the international community, while the Nansen Principles provide guidance on how to deal with those forcibly displaced by climate change, they are yet to be formally adopted (Cf. Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011; UNHCR, 2012, p. 187). Similarly, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN body tasked with developing a response to climate change, has yet to develop meaningful legislation around climate change displacement, and their commitments remain limited to a paragraph within the 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework, which “Invites all Parties to enhance adaptation action… taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities…. to undertake, inter alia… Measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation related to national, regional and international climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate” (UNFCCC, 2010). While this was an important step forward in recognizing the problem of climate change displacement, this rather soft commitment typical of UN-speak does little in itself to fill the climate change displacement protection gap.


Thus both on the African continent and in the international community, those displaced by climate change exist within a gap in the forced migration protection regime. Recognizing this it is important that in the face of significantly more potential forced migrants, we as a continent, as Africans, pull together to assist those who will be displaced by the effects of climate change and beyond, and not leave them to fall into the gaps of the legal systems we have erected. As Katy Long (2011) argues allowing broader migration through regional cooperation using groups like ECOWAS and SADC can significantly mitigate problems of migration. However, regional cooperation on this front remains very limited, never mind broader pan-African cooperation.

While the Kampala Convention on Internal Displacement should be lauded for some of its progressiveness, its focus on responsibilities only to people displaced within a state rather than across borders reinforces the colonially-erected divides which separate us. Of course, the Kampala Convention states as an objective, “establishing a legal framework for solidarity… and mutual support between State parties in order to combat displacement and address its consequences”. Achieving this objective and moving beyond the Kampala Convention by providing increased protection to those displaced across borders will become increasingly important, especially in the face of a changing climate. Indeed, seeing past the artificial borders that colonists erected in Africa can help us come together in difficult times and to move towards a more cooperative response to the increased migration flows that Africa can expect, not only within countries but across them too.

Here the Organization for African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa of 1969 (or the OAU Convention) should serve as a guide to broader responsibilities to those outside displaced across colonially-erected borders. Moving beyond the UN Refugee Convention the OAU Convention states that not only those fleeing persecution, but those fleeing events ‘seriously disturbing public order’ should be counted as refugees. The OAU Convention, furthermore, asks states to use their ‘best endeavours’ to ‘secure the settlement’ of refugees who are unavailable or unwilling to return to their country of origin. While these words are encouraging the OAU Convention has been applied inconsistently, and often in restrictive ways, which excludes many of those (already being and set to be) displaced by climate change (Cf. Betts, 2010). Thus it is important, that as we move into a rapidly warming world with its myriad different and complex ways of leading to displacement, that we interpret the Convention in broad and generous ways, so as to not allow those who are poor and marginalized by the effects of climate change to fall into the gaps of our refugee regime. Alternatively perhaps it is time to develop a new regime which assists those who fall through the cracks…

Of course, it is important that we do not only focus on those displaced solely by climate change. As Alexander Betts points out:

“While most policy debates are currently sidetracked by an isolated focus on climate change refugees and environmental displacement, the reality is that the real institutional gap in the protection regime is broader than this [including any person not covered by the Refugee Convention, yet outside of their country of origin because of an existential threat to which they have no access to a domestic remedy or resolution">. Most flight that is associated with processes of slow-onset environmental change is not monocausal, but stems from the complex interaction of a range of factors, including environmental disaster, livelihood failure, and state fragility. Furthermore, what matters for any debate on institutional reform in the context of climate change is not attributing causality to movement, which is both virtually impossible and also irrelevant, but rather identifying the sets of rights deprivations… that entitle a person to seek substitute protection in another country” (Betts 2010, p.378).

To add to Betts’ point, causes may be important for thinking about how we distribute responsibility especially when thinking about climate change and other concerns of justice. However when we are thinking about those whose rights are threatened the correct locus of attention for ascribing rights protection seems to be on the fact that their rights are threatened and their needs are not being met, rather than on the cause of rights deprivations. What is arguably important is not whether the situation was caused by climate change; rather what is important is whether or not a person’s basic needs are being met. Focusing just on climate change displaced persons, however you choose to define that, would create a specially privileged group of refugees, despite the fact that the nature of their rights deprivations was similar insofar as they were unable to secure their basic rights. Indeed, we need to be careful about focusing solely on climate change, for as Christine Gibb and James Ford point out “increased attention to and protection of climate migrants may come at the expense of other displaced people” who might be further marginalized in the international refugee regime (Gibb & Ford, 2012, p. 4).


Certainly what is important when considering the effects of climate change is the relative responsibilities that they point to with regards to who should shoulder the possible responsibilities associated with increased displacement. This is particularly important given that the current Refugee Convention “does not set out an explicit framework for responsibility-sharing” (UNHCR, 2012, p. 36) and that the number of convention refugees will likely increase as a result of climate change – consider, for instance, that climate change could increase the incidences of African civil war by 55 percent by 2030 according to a study done by Burke et al. (2009). Furthermore, as the UNHCR points out, the responsibility for migrants is falling rather shockingly disproportionately on the developing world:

“States with a relatively low per capita GDP accommodate a disproportionate number of the world’s refugees. At the start of 2011, developing countries hosted 80 percent of the 10.5 million refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate. The 20 countries with highest number of refugees in relation to GDP were all in the developing world, and more than half were least developed countries” (UNHCR, 2012, p. 197).


This deep inequality and injustice will most likely be exacerbated by climate change for as numerous analyses and studies of climate change have shown, the poorest countries in the world are likely to experience the most severe impacts of global warming despite the fact that it is predominately the developed world who is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. As the ‘Climate Paradox’ goes, the people least responsible for climate change (especially the Least Developed 12 percent of the global population) are suffering the most because of it (Watson Institute for International Studies, 2012). Recognizing this it is important not only that we in Africa seeks justice, help and compensation for the harms caused predominately by the rich and developed world, but, perhaps more importantly, that we emphasize the humane side of pan-Africanism and help the poor and vulnerable who will be displaced across our beautiful but at times fragile continent.

Thus, to conclude: In the face of our rapidly warming world which will impose increasing harms on the people of Africa, forcing an increasing number of them to move from their homes, it is important that we as Africans dig deep and see past the borders erected by colonialism, which are still enshrined in our international and continental refugee protection regime. Rather than seeing borders and otherness we need to see fellow Africans and human beings in need of help, in need of assistance, in need of the pan-African ideal. Yes, we must seek climate justice, colonial justice, and global justice, but we must not forget to be just and fair on our own land to our fellow Africans, and to all those in need of shelter in the figurative and literal storms to come.

*Alex Lenferna is a proudly South African Fulbright and Mandela Rhodes Scholar pursuing a PhD in the University of Washington Philosophy Department, where he focuses on climate change, poverty, inequality and justice. His research and work can be accessed at the following link:


Betts, A. (2010). Survival Migration : A New Protection Framework, 16, 361–382.
Burke, M. B., Miguel, E., Satyanath, S., Dykema, J. a, & Lobell, D. B. (2009). Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(49), 20670–4. doi:10.1073/pnas.0907998106
Gibb, C., & Ford, J. (2012). Should the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change recognize climate migrants? Environmental Research Letters, 7(4), 045601. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/045601
Long, K. (2011). Permanent crises?: unlocking the protracted displacement of refugees and internally displaced persons. Retrieved from
Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2011). The Nansen principles on climate change and displacement. Norwegian Government Website. Retrieved from
UNFCCC. (2010). Cancun Adaptation Framework. UNFCCC Website. Retrieved from
UNHCR. (2012). The State of the World’s Refugees: In Search of Solidarity. (The Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Watson Institute for International Studies. (2012). The Climate Paradox. United States: Brown University. Retrieved from

* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.