Biodiversity & Livelihoods
Climate Change
Early Warning & Risk Analysis
Environment & Migration
Land & Food
Global Issues

Climate shocks as drivers of migration might be long present in the environmental narrative, but they are hardly being addressed on a policy level. According to MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, the lack of a legal definition of ‘climate refugees’ effectively excludes the issue from international agendas – and creates space for generalized scepticism.

What is the role of climate change in forced displacement of people?

It is high-time that analysts, researchers and politicians involved in migration report the impossibility of drawing clear boundaries between the various types of migrants. There is a distinction between political and economic migrants, but the situation is much more fluid than that. In fact, there are also migrants of a climatic nature, people forced to abandon their lands temporarily in the event of environmental stress, or permanently, when irreparable natural disasters occur or when the resources needed to support the populations have been exhausted. The vulnerable populations are often the ones that pay the price in this devastating process, even though they are the least culpable, and they are forced to leave their lands. In fact, an estimated 25.4 million people are being displaced each year due to extreme weather-related disasters.

What is the current state of play with regards to an international definition for people fleeing climate change impacts?

We started talking about climate refugees almost 50 years ago, but there is not yet a legal definition that guarantees the protection of those vulnerable categories. That means there is no tool that would allow us to face the challenge represented by climate-induced migration. Today, these subjects do not have any legal recognition on an international level. We need to build an itinerary that allows us to consider the situation of climate migrants as an important topic for discussion at the international level.

“There is no tool that would allow us to face the challenge represented by climate-induced migration.”

Throughout 2018, the Global Compact on Migration is being negotiated at the UN Headquarters in New York. What do you expect from diplomats participating in the drafting process?

At the European Parliament, we discussed the Global Compact on Migration extensively. I insisted on adding a paragraph about the necessity of a juridical definition of “climate refugee”, however, my proposal was ultimately declined. A significant portion of the Parliament still think that migration is a kind of accident in our history, and that climate change is a pathology that emerged from left-wing politics. This part, which we could identify in right-wing parties, is not at all in favour of a reception policy. In their opinion, establishing a new refugee definition for people escaping climate impacts would make it easier for migrants to be accepted in Europe. This is why they push for adopting the expression "climate migrants" instead of "climate refugees". In fact, it seems that "refugee" creates obligations for the state, while the term "migrant" does not. But this is clearly incorrect, because migration means voluntary displacement and this is not the case for people who are displaced by climate impacts. We want to fight the ignorance through a political and cultural jolt. 


Pier Antonio Panzeri is an Italian politician and Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the S&D Alliance. He currently holds the Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and has been a member of the ‘Delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries and the Arab Maghreb Union’ since 2009, where he held the Chair for 7 years. His main activity as an MEP encompasses deliberating on human rights issues in North Africa and the Middle East.

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