Tiffany Geluz

With rising sea levels and extreme absurd weather, where will climate refugees go?
The Philippines is taking a significant step towards becoming a haven for climate migrants with House Bill 10490.

This bill, also known as the Act Amending Section 47 of Commonwealth Act 613 (the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940), proposes an amendment empowering the president to grant refuge to foreign nationals displaced by climate change.

It seeks to add a new paragraph to Section 47 (c) of the Immigration Act that would authorize the president to admit “environmental immigrants” from low-lying Pacific island nations seeking protection from climate change-related harm. 

Currently, the Act only allows refugees to be admitted for religious, political or racial reasons.

House Bill 10490 is championed by a group of representatives, including Edcel Lagman Sr. (Albay, 1st District), Pablo John Garcia (Cebu, 3rd District), Ziaur-Rahman Alonto-Adiong (Lanao del Sur, 1st District), Samuel Versoza Jr. (Tutok To Win Party-list), and Robert Ace Barbers (Surigao del Norte, 2nd District).

“This legislation is a testament to our commitment to upholding human rights and our international responsibility,” Versoza emphasized.

He further highlighted the proactive nature of the bill, stating it addresses the needs of climate refugees while setting a precedent for global responses to similar crises.

The proposed bill has undergone scrutiny by relevant experts during a conference on June 20, and among those present were representatives from environmental organizations, government agencies, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  

Rising seas, displaced lives

The Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are on the frontlines of climate displacement, facing rising sea levels, intense storms, flooding, salinization of groundwater, and land degradation.

This threatens to submerge entire countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. 

This crisis has given rise to a new category of refugees termed “climate refugees,” “environmental migrants,” and “environmentally / climate displaced persons.” 

As these disasters may cause citizens of low-lying nations to lose their homes, making their habitats, safety, and human dignity vulnerable, these individuals’ quality of life and ability to survive are greatly affected.

The problem extends beyond SIDS as countries like Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines – even the United States –  are experiencing rising sea levels and extreme weather events that displace citizens and force relocation.

Claim on the right to life

In 2015, Kiribati man Ioane Teitiota’s case brought the plight of climate migrants to the forefront.

Teitiota sought refugee status in New Zealand, citing the rising sea levels in his home country of Kiribati. Teitiota argued that climate change had caused a scarcity of habitable land and environmental degradation, jeopardizing his right to life, livelihood, and home. 

Despite his claim that the denial of his refugee status by New Zealand violated his right to life under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Commission (HRC) ultimately ruled in New Zealand’s favor.

Amnesty International, however, hailed it as a “landmark case for people displaced by climate change,” highlighting the potential future where entire countries becoming uninhabitable due to climate change could create situations where the right to life with dignity is fundamentally compromised.

The Philippines’ acceptance of refugees The Philippines has a long-standing tradition of welcoming refugees, embodying its values of hospitality, compassion, and solidarity. The country is a signatory to the New York Declaration and upholds the rights and welfare of migrants through agreements like the Global Compacts on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. This commitment is reflected in past actions. The Philippines provided a haven to diverse groups, including 1,315 European Jews escaping World War II persecution, 800 Russians fleeing the 1917 Socialist Revolution, and 2,700 Vietnamese “boat people.” More recently, it offered refuge to 600 refugees from Timor Leste and over 6,000 migrants from Burma and Brunei due to persecution for their religion and fleeing poverty. Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and several European nations have implemented policies addressing displacement, offering asylum or resettlement opportunities. Is the Philippines ready? While House Bill 10490 aims to offer refuge to climate migrants, concerns regarding the Philippines’ own vulnerabilities have been raised. As the country grapples with the harsh realities of climate change, experiencing intense cyclones, floods, landslides, rising sea levels, and high temperatures, experts question if a nation facing similar challenges can be a haven for those fleeing climate impacts elsewhere. During a conference on the bill, the high population density was a point of discussion, with experts highlighting the potential strain on resources with an influx of migrants. Versoza acknowledged this, pointing out the Philippines' experience with severe weather displacement, which is evident in a 2022 report ranking it second in the world for internally displaced people due to disasters. Foreseen loopholes During the conference, experts identified several areas requiring further discussion. Tabassam Raza, Executive Director of the Planning and Development Research Foundation, said that the lack of a comprehensive legal framework for identifying and protecting climate refugees was a concern. He highlighted the need for clear guidelines and raised the issue that the bill's current focus on Pacific island nations might need to be broadened. With the bill not mentioning the specific types of environmental harm considered for climate refugee status, Anton Lusi Avila, a senior legal associate with the UNHCR, emphasized the broader context of ecological displacement. He also highlighted that “not all people displaced in the context of cross-border climate change and disaster displacement will be refugees,” as hindered by assessing claims for international protection. As Dewy Sacayan, a lawyer and the Southeast Asia Coordinator at the South Cooperation Council, pointed out, no universally agreed-upon definition of a climate refugee hinders assessments for international protection. But beyond legal considerations, experts raised concerns about the social integration of climate migrants, as ensuring the acceptance of their cultures and norms within the host community is crucial to avoid discrimination. Expert recommendations Raza advocated for future direction by developing new legal instruments, strengthening regional cooperation, and increasing support for adaptation. New legal instruments would be developed by amending existing refugee conventions and creating new international treaties. Regional cooperation would be strengthened through countries sharing their responsibilities towards climate-induced displacement. Support for education would also be increased by investing in climate adaptation and resilience. Sacayan advised that refugees and migrant children should receive housing education within a few months of their arrival. She also emphasizes that countries rescuing and hosting large numbers of refugees and migrants should receive support. Aside from their right to life, Sacayan also stressed that citizens have their right to life and leave, as defined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She stated that climate migrants should not be forced to return to their country of origin. In protecting climate-displaced individuals, she quoted the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, which suggests that “devising planned relocation and visa options for climate-displaced persons” when returning to their country of origin is impossible. Avila advised that temporary protection could be an effective tool for fast access to protection and services. However, he also mentioned that it must not discourage refugees from seeking asylum. Ferrer recommended the legal procedures be strengthened and streamlined for climate refugees prior to granting entitlements and legal rights. Experts also underscored the importance of dignity in migration. Sacayan stated that movement, security, equality, the standard of living, access to services, and civil and political rights are integral components.