Waiting for Godot No More: The Climate Crisis and the New European Asylum Pact

by | Apr 18, 2024

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About Emilio Antonios Hugues

Originally educated and trained in Mexico, Emilio holds a Masters Degree in European Competition Law and Regulation from the University of Amsterdam and is currently studying a Masters in International Solidarity and Social Integration from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He is passionate about climate justice, immigration and asylum law and the Common European Asylum System.

To many born in the 1990s, climate change was akin to Godot: the figure conjured by Beckett whose influence was omnipresent, but whose appearance, anticipated as it was, never came to be. That image has long been shattered. With rising global temperatures, global warming has gone from a possibility to a reality, and the world now faces a climate crisis.

According to figures by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of October 2023, there were around 110 million displaced people, the vast majority of whom were internally displaced people. In contrast, the World Bank estimated that by 2050, a total of 216 million people would become climate migrants.

The reality of climate change and its impact on migration flows is not lost on the European Union (EU). Also in October 2023, the European Parliament issued a briefing regarding the future of climate refugees. The factual outlook is bleak, and the legal and political ones are (un)fashionably late to address an emergency already at our doorstep.

Academic works on asylum will serve as a constant reminder that the authors of the 1951 Refugee Convention could not have imagined the possibility of mass migrations occurring as response to the natural disasters we are seeing in the present day. With scientific reports on climate change only picking up pace in the 1970s, and the First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change only being completed in 1990, it is understandable the phrase “climate refugee” never occurred to the drafters of the Refugee Convention in the early 1950s.

We are not, however, in the 1950s anymore. It is 2024, and the EU recently announced the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. However, the opportunity to expand the continental approach to asylum in a manner that protects those most at risk of being harmed by rising global temperatures seems to have largely come and gone without much effort from any of the parties involved, much less a systemic solution being offered.

Originally proposed in 2020, the New Pact is comprised of amendments to 5 different legislative instruments – Screening, Eurodac, Asylum Procedures, Asylum Management and Crisis and Force Majeure Regulations. This package of amendments has been much criticized by the civil sector: the International Rescue Committee has expressed concern that the crisis regulation could increase, not decrease, pressure on frontline states, such as Greece or Italy. The Spanish Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado has criticized the New Pact’s “voluntary” solidarity mechanism, which will allow Member States to instead contribute €20,000 to a joint EU Fund instead of resettling an asylum seeker.

While these concerns are legitimate, little attention has been paid to the inadequacy of the current asylum framework to deal with massive climate migrations. The Crisis and Force Majeure regulation may, in principle, appear to have been drafted with this type of exodus in mind; but neither its purpose nor procedures provide adequate protection to climate refugees. Rather than protecting displaced people, the pact leaves them in the same situation as with the Refugee Convention – not legally under the protection of asylum.

A few nations have realized the inherent weakness of the international asylum system and have taken steps to address it. Australia recently announced it would offer residency to up to 280 Tuvaluans per year, no small amount for a country of around 11,000 people. The UN, meanwhile, while not expressly acknowledging the category of “climate refugee”, has implied climate factors may pose an immediate threat to the life of a person if returned to their country, and thus they need to be taken into account in the context of an asylum procedure.

The climate crisis has arrived. Legal terminology aside, climate refugees will be at the doorstep of Europe within the coming decades. If Europe wants to be at the forefront of the protection for human rights, the New Pact will require further work. Legal certainty and an enforceable definition of “Climate Refugees” as a cause for asylum would be a good starting point.

Godot is here and is knocking on the door. Now it is up to Europe to answer.

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