Infographic analyzing the 1951 Convention refugee definition, unpacking its limitations and highlighting the lack of protections for people seeking refuge due to climate change.
What does it mean to be a refugee? The definition of a refugee, which has been the standard for international law for almost 70 years, was established during the 1951 Refugee Convention. Although this definition seems to be filled with good intentions to help refugees, it does not fully encompass the needs and issues faced by people seeking asylum, and its loopholes and limitations ultimately end up harming human beings. This infographic dives deeper into the refugee definition and unpacks its limitations as well as provides a brief overview of one of the populations excluded from the definition.
The first section of the infographic analyzes the 1951 Convention definition. As stated in the “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees,” the official definition is worded as such: “…owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
The inclusion of the five categories of persecution establishes a framework through which people may receive refugee status, but this framework is restricted to only those groups. This definition overlooks a large population which deserves the opportunity to receive refugee status just as much as that which seeks it due to persecution for the aforementioned reasons.
The next section of the infographic highlights several groups who are excluded from the definition: climate refugees, economic migrants, and people fleeing generalized violence or civil war, not particularly targeted towards a certain group of people. This is an important segue into the next section, which describes the adjusted definition by the 1967 Protocol and the Organisation of the African Union Convention of 1969. This definition expanded refugee protections to non-targeted forms of violence or “events seriously disturbing the public order.” With this distinction, there is a potential for people fleeing natural disasters to be eligible to receive refugee status. However, this definition was never officially interpreted as the standard for refugee procedures. The next section of the infographic contains a statistic of 18.8 million, which is the number of new disaster-related internally displaced people in 2017. This quantified data emphasizes the rising issue of human displacement due to climate change. Next to this statistic is a quote describing that that term “climate refugee” is nonexistent in international law. No matter how great the number of people displaced by climate change is, there is no protection or process for seeking asylum for them. This phrase is accompanied by an image of a globe in the colors of black and orange, resembling the refugee flag, to showcase that climate refugees should be under this umbrella term, too.
The next section of the infographic contains first-hand testimony from Ioane Teitiota, the world’s first climate refugee from Kiribati. Two quotes which he said are included: “I'm the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it's the same as me.” “I think being a refugee is the best way of protecting myself.”
These quotes connect experiences to reality. They mirror the sense of urgency described in the film The Island President, where the condition of the Maldives is shown as the islands are washed away little by little every day. As humans who were pushed out of their home country by a cause greater than them, they deserve the same protections as refugees fleeing targeted violence.
The final section of the infographic integrates the ethics lacking in the official refugee definition. As Matthew Gibney described in The Ethics of Refugees, deontological ethics guide humanity’s obligation and duty to allow refugees into our countries and to support them. I believe this idea should be expanded to refugees who may not fit into the current universal definition: those seeking asylum from other factors, including climate change. As a wealthy western state, we have the duty of rescue; essentially, we have an unconditional duty to help when it is a miniscule cost to our nation. With this ethical backing, what difference does it make if the refugees are fleeing persecution or if they are fleeing rising sea levels and disappearing homelands?
McDonald, Tim. “The Man Who Would Be the First Climate Change Refugee.” BBC News, BBC, 5 Nov. 2015.
Gibney, Matthew J. “The Ethics of Refugees.” Philosophy Compass, vol. 13, no. 10, Oct. 2018.
United Nations. “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.” UNHCR.
United Nations. “Climate Change and Disaster Displacement.” UNHCR.