Environmental Migration: Protecting Migrants Amid Sea Level Rise

Climate change-induced rising sea levels is causing significant impacts on coastal communities worldwide, leading to climate-induced environmental migration. As sea levels continue to rise, people are forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in other areas.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, reports an annual average of 21.5 million people were forcibly displaced due to weather-related events between 2008 and 2016.

However, while international law plays a crucial role in protecting migrants, there is currently no single international law specifically tailored to address climate-induced migration. Instead, several existing international laws can be applied to protect and support those displaced by the consistent sea level rise.

Defining Environmental Migration Due to Sea Level Rise

Migration caused by consistent sea level rise is considered environmental migration. Environmental migration encompasses the movement of individuals compelled to leave their habitual homes due to environmental factors, such as climate change, natural disasters, or environmental degradation.

As rising sea levels inundate coastal communities and erode shorelines, people are uprooted from their homes, leading to what is often referred to as climate-induced migration or climate displacement.

The Role of International Law in Climate-Induced Environmental Migration

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

UNCLOS outlines regulations for maritime boundaries and includes provisions related to the rights of coastal states. These provisions can be applied to protect migrants displaced by sea level rise, ensuring their safety and rights are upheld.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

The ICCPR safeguards the right to freedom of movement and prohibits discrimination based on race, nationality, or other statuses. These provisions can be utilized to protect climate migrants and prevent any discrimination they may face.

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

While not exclusively targeting climate migration, the UNFCCC focuses on climate change mitigation and adaptation. By addressing the root causes of sea level rise, this convention indirectly contributes to protecting climate migrants.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

The CRC protects children’s rights, including those affected by climate-induced migration. It can play a vital role in safeguarding the well-being and rights of migrant children.

International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW)

ICRMW emphasizes the rights of migrant workers and their families. It can be applied to ensure that climate migrants are treated fairly and protected from exploitation during their journey.

The Need for New International Laws

Given the escalating impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, there is a pressing need for new international laws tailored specifically to protect climate migrants. These new laws should address several critical aspects:

Access to Basic Rights

Climate migrants often flee extreme poverty and hardship, necessitating access to fundamental rights such as housing, healthcare, and education.

Protection from Discrimination and Xenophobia

Climate migrants often encounter discrimination and xenophobia in host countries. Robust laws are required to protect them from such prejudice and hostility.


International Cooperation and Responsibility-Sharing

Climate change affects nations differently, with some being more vulnerable than others. New laws should ensure that countries share responsibility for addressing climate-induced migration.

Challenges in Applying International Law

Applying international law to climate-induced environmental migration presents several challenges:

Lack of a Specific Legal Framework

The absence of a single, dedicated international law specifically addressing climate migration makes consistent application difficult.

Complexity and Variability of Climate Impacts

Climate-induced migration is a complex issue, and the impacts of climate change differ across regions. Determining what qualifies as “climate-induced migration” can be challenging.

The Politicization of the Issue

Some countries may hesitate to recognize climate-induced migration as legitimate, impeding international law’s fair and consistent application.

Potential Benefits of Developing New International Laws

Developing new international laws can offer several benefits:

Comprehensive Protection for Climate Migrants

Dedicated laws can ensure adequate protection for climate migrants, covering their needs and rights.

Fair Distribution of Responsibility

New laws can ensure that countries responsible for climate change also share responsibility for addressing its impacts, including climate-induced migration.

Regional and Bilateral Agreements: Strengthening Protection for Climate Migrants

Apart from international laws and conventions, regional and bilateral agreements also significantly address climate-induced environmental migration and protect those affected by consistent sea-level rise.

These agreements offer a more localized approach to addressing the challenges posed by climate change and can complement and strengthen the protection provided by international frameworks.

Regional Agreements

Regional agreements are essential for cooperation among neighboring countries facing similar climate challenges. As sea levels rise, communities nearby may share migration patterns and experiences. These nations can devise innovative solutions for climate-induced migration by collaborating through regional agreements.

One prominent example of a regional agreement relevant to climate-induced migration is the Pacific Islands Forum. The Pacific region is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, posing existential threats to low-lying island nations.

Pacific Islands Forum

The Pacific Islands Forum facilitates dialogue and cooperation among member states, focusing on climate resilience, disaster response, and migration management.

This regional collaboration helps countries pool resources and expertise to address the shared challenges brought about by climate change, including the displacement of communities due to sea-level rise.

Bilateral Agreements

Bilateral agreements between individual countries provide a platform for addressing migration issues in a more focused and tailored manner.

These agreements can address specific concerns related to the migration of individuals displaced by rising sea levels, particularly when there is a significant migratory flow between two countries.

For example, consider bilateral agreements between Pacific island nations and countries like New Zealand or Australia, potentially destinations for climate migrants.

These agreements can define responsibilities and legal protections through International law firms and support mechanisms for climate migrants seeking refuge in these countries.

By negotiating bilaterally, nations can address the unique challenges and opportunities posed by climate-induced migration in a way that aligns with their respective interests and capacities.


While international law plays a crucial role in protecting climate migrants, there is a need for dedicated laws to address climate-induced environmental migration more comprehensively.

Existing international laws, such as UNCLOS, ICCPR, UNFCCC, CRC, and ICRMW, can provide some protection. However, new laws are essential to address the unique challenges of rising sea levels and climate-induced migration.

By working together, the international community can develop and implement these laws. It will ensure that climate migrants get the dignity, respect, and the protection they deserve.

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