by Jay Ramasubramanyam

“Rains have become so fickle, the days measurably hotter, the droughts more frequent and more fierce, making it impossible to grow enough food on their land” read an article in the New York Times that appeared in late February which elucidated the grounds for mass-migratory patterns across Sub-Saharan Africa (Heat, Hunger and War Force Africans Onto a ‘Road on Fire’). In light of such patterns increasing more than ever in the global south, the role of Carleton University’s Climate Commons, a working group that brings together faculty members and undergraduate and graduate students to discuss climate change issues, becomes all the more prominent within the context of such narratives. An evening of discussion and dialogue on climate change migration on the 1st of March brought together professors, a slam poet and a graduate student to discuss ‘climate refugees’.

The session began with Prof Jay Drydyk posing a question on forced migration induced as a result of factors that are considered unconventional to the normative conceptions in international framework. If an individual is forced to migrate due to a natural disaster and if there was another individual who was asked to forcibly relocate due to developmental projects that have caused inclement weather, which of these two cases should be privileged? This question characterizes the complexity of forced migration debates today. Slam poet Sergio Guerra made points on the experiences of Salvadoran refugees in Canada and how the state of impermanence is exacerbated due to the lack of clarity in contextualizing forced migration. Prof Nadia Abu-Zahra spoke about her visits to Palestine, and her findings on forced migration being a measure undertaken solely by those who are privileged. For those who are unable to do so, she argued, they must make the best of a bad situation.

Related Blog: The Future (for) Climate Refugees: NGOs, Security, and the Politics of Containment by David Meinen.

Prof Daniel McNeil spoke about the role of academia and the student community plays in enabling contextualization of new challenges in forced migration debates. Rather than viewing refugees as objects to be studied and their situation be pathologized, it is important to view them as subjects of the decisions that the international community makes. Prof Franny Nudelman emphasized the problematic aspects in labeling those who migrate as a result of environmental factors – should they be called climate migrants or climate refugees? Should the ‘refugee’ tag be associated with those who are displaced due to climate change? Finally, Prof Chris Russill discussed the need to look beyond the science behind climate change and incorporate human dimensions to the narrative. While science is beneficial in providing us with certain targets, subjective experiences of such changes alone can determine the action that the global community needs to undertake to be able to effectively combat the negative consequences of environmental degradation.

The issues discussed were multifold – vulnerability, evolving narratives on forced migration, the role of science in conceptualizing climate migration, subjective experiences of climate change, and most importantly the role of academia and students in contributing to this discussion. While the panelists’ presentations followed patterns on the abovementioned issues, the discussions that took place subsequently switched to semiotics and labeling. Discussions like the one that was conducted through Climate Commons, shines the spotlight on the narratives, labeling, and language used in this context.

Should drivers of displacement such as climate change be conceptualized within the larger ‘refugee’ context? Should individuals and communities that have made decisions to migrate due to environmental change be characterized as ‘refugees’? Does the term ‘climate refugee’ trivialize conventional factors of persecution? There are also several questions raised on the permanence and impermanence of factors of persecution – scientifically climate change is permanent; however, with respect to conventional factors as per the 1951 Refugee Convention, there is a deep sense of temporariness associated with identifying a refugee, who is liable to be repatriated.

There have been arguments against terming individuals who flee environmental reasons as refugees, despite there being several theoretical conceptualizations on considering climate change as a factor of ‘persecution’ within the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, locating the label of a refugee is complex in the context of this narrative. A fair bit of rigidity is apparent in pre-existing frameworks and international conventions established to protect refugees. The lack of willingness to push beyond the normative conceptualizations of ‘refugeeness’ goes to the heart of the flaws of liberalism. The mark of a liberal democratic nation-state like that of Canada has been, among other things, being accepting of diversity and refugees.

However, this is a veneer…a façade that all is well with these international mechanisms that govern who can and cannot be categorized as a refugee. Unfortunately, we are guilty of pathologizing the identity of a refugee. The refugee is viewed as someone who is in need of assistance and needs to be protected. This in many ways takes away their sense of agency. While many may be in dire need of humanitarian assistance, it is critical to note the tendency to box them in a category that would permanently view them as a group who externalizes the burden of protection. This drives to the heart of our discussions on labeling. Hypothetically, if frameworks develop to accept migrants based on this ground of ‘persecution’ is it okay to continue to label them as ‘climate refugees’?

A policy developed in the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati may have the answer. The administration has denounced the label of ‘climate refugee’. Kiribati, a small island nation in the South Pacific, has developed the ‘migration with dignity’ policy as a part of the country’s long-term nation-wide relocation strategy. The policy forms a part of the country’s initiative to create “opportunities for those who wish to migrate abroad” and most importantly to “enhance the opportunity for remittances to be sent back” (McNamara). This justifies migration as a viable option for adaptation and argue that voluntary migration could enhance adaptive capacity of those who are left behind, and also contributes towards gains in those areas that are receiving this new category of climate migrants (McLeman).

The volume of remittances, could increase over a period of time and this in turn allows for better access to resources and basic needs, better sustenance, better capacity to withstand vulnerabilities and livelihood shocks in countries of origin of these migrants. This capacity in likely to be enhanced, if climate migrants lived in developed countries and generate remittances from there – assuming that a great majority of climate migrants are bound to be from developing or least developed countries. However, ‘migration with dignity’ is unfortunately open only to those who are ready and willing to migrate and is focused only on the population that is literate while leaving out a majority which is dependent on climate-sensitive livelihoods. The policy fails to ensure equitable access to migration mechanisms for all.

In conclusion, these are ongoing discussions that need to amid a global climate of incivility and uncertainty. Several groups of populations who are vulnerable to the effects of climate change are likely to be compelled or forced to relocate. Nevertheless, irrespective of the nature of communities’ relocation, most of this migration is likely to be internal relocation. However, if external relocation is the only option, the burden of accommodating them is likely to be solely shouldered by developing nations rather than developed countries, as we can see today from the refugee crises.

Given the fact that the poorest of the world are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and a great majority of them live in developing or least developed countries, their willingness to migrate is minimal, since many people decide to migrate only if it is financially feasible. Finally, the extent to which climate change affects specific communities will depend on other modes of policy interventions designed to improve adaptation responses. Given that subjective experiences of climate change are disparate, migration is likely to be viable only if individuals and communities move voluntarily, and is a decision driven by them, rather than by an external entity.


Jay Ramasubramanyam is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Law and Legal Studies in Carleton University. His research positions itself on the evolving narrative of forced migration, more specifically on the need to include previously overlooked grounds of ‘persecution’ that leads to displacement. Prior to this he was employed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a Refugee Status Determination Associate and in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a Protection Field Officer. Mr. Ramasubramanyam is currently associated with Mobility Politics, a Transnational Research Collective formed by students, emerging scholars, and practitioners, based out of Carleton University.

Image at top: From left to right: Jay Ramasubramanyam, Chris Russill, Sergio Guerra. Climate Café – 1st March 2017: Heart & Crown Preston Street, Ottawa.