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Law and policy for protection and climate action

Climate change and displacement

Law and policy for protection and climate action

UNHCR advocates and provides advice on international protection in the context of climate change and for the inclusion of displaced people in climate action-related policies and plans at national and international levels.
Several adults and children travel in a dugout canoe piled with timber and corrugated iron.

A family displaced by flooding in far north Cameroon navigates a river with all that remains of their house.

Climate change is one of many factors that compel people to move; it adds fuel to poor governance, inequity and inequality, and contributes to the conditions for conflict, violence, and persecution that displace people, including across borders.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, works to ensure people forced to flee due to persecution, violence and human rights violations caused or exacerbated by the adverse effects of climate change and disasters who need international protection are protected and safe.

Provide advice on refugee law and climate change

UNHCR provides legal advice, guidance and support on emerging laws and policies regarding refugees and forced displacement in the context of climate change.

We ensure that national government institutions, regional bodies, legal practitioners, academia and civil society have an increased understanding of people’s protection needs and entitlements when they flee across borders. We guide them on how the 1951 Refugee Convention and other international and regional instruments apply in the context of climate change. Through this we can help ensure they are equipped to respond to asylum claims from people fleeing conflict, persecution and human rights abuses exacerbated by the climate crisis. 

UNHCR also assists States to protect and support their citizens in situations of internal displacement, especially in countries significantly affected by climate change. We support legislative and policy reforms that strengthen protection and solutions for internally displaced people. 

Advocate for the inclusion of displaced people in local and global climate policy, finance and action

At the international level, UNHCR advocates for the inclusion and protection of displaced people and host communities in policy, finance, and action to avert, minimize and address displacement in the context of climate change.
Our collaborative advocacy work and technical advice has led to the inclusion of displaced people and their specific concerns in governments’ climate policies, plans and mechanisms, including multi-lateral decisions taken by the State Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, as well as National Adaptation Plans, Nationally Determined Contributions, and Disaster Risk Reduction Strategies.  

UNHCR is a standing invitee and advisory group member to the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD) and a member of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage’s Task Force on Displacement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Displacement is recognized as both a people-centred form of "loss and damage" resulting from climate change and a consequence of loss and damage that is hitting the most vulnerable countries and communities the hardest, and must be averted, minimized and addressed. 

“Climate refugees?”

The term "climate refugees" is commonly used in the media to describe people who are forced to move from their homes due to climate-related events and require protection and assistance. While it is a simple and impactful phrase that sparks discussion about the impacts of the climate emergency, it is not officially recognized in international law.  

The majority of people forced to flee due to climate-related disasters stay within their own countries. This means that they become internally displaced and are not considered refugees as a refugee is defined as someone who has fled their country and crossed an international border in order to seek safety from conflict or persecution.

Climate change does not act alone, but is often one of several underlying — and increasingly significant— drivers of displacement. It has been described as a "risk multiplier". As extreme weather events and environmental conditions worsen with global heating, they are contributing to multiple and overlapping crises, threatening human rights, increasing poverty and loss of livelihoods, straining peaceful relations between communities and, ultimately, creating the conditions for further forced displacement. 

As a result, people displaced by climate related crises are very difficult to categorize as a separate group from other displaced people that may include people displaced because of a "disaster" as well as people displaced because of persecution or conflict exacerbated by climate change, including refugees in some circumstances. 

However, existing refugee and human rights instruments can protect people displaced across borders in certain contexts related to climate change: 

  • Where the risks of persecution or conflict are increased by climate change and disasters, the criteria for refugee status set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention may apply. This could be a drought-related famine that fuels armed conflict and violence, and together causes displacement.  
  • There are also complementary forms of protection under international human rights law based on the principle of non-refoulement – the prohibition on returning a person to a country where they have a real risk of facing serious harm.  
  • Regional refugee instruments may also provide protection. Refugee definitions in the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention, and Latin America’s 1984 Cartagena Declaration include those seeking refuge abroad due to events “seriously disturbing public order”, which could include climate-related events. 


Resources from partner organizations

  • CLIMB Policy Database to explore relevant policies, (e.g. action plans, frameworks, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), strategies, among others), legislation (e.g. acts, agreements, decrees, laws, regulations, resolutions, among others), and other related instruments addressing human mobility in the context of disasters, climate change and environmental degradation around the world. 
  • The Checklist on Law and Disaster Preparedness and Response