Shekinah Jedidiah M. Alima

Lawmakers in the Philippines have filed a bill to offer greater protection to climate refugees in response to the growing threat of climate change, particularly rising sea levels in neighboring island nations.

House Bill 10490 seeks to amend the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940 to allow the admission of environmental migrants. 

The bill is sponsored by Senate President Chiz Escudero, along with Representatives Edcel Lagman Sr. (Albay, 1st District), Pablo John Garcia (Cebu, 3rd District), Samuel Versoza (Tutok To Win Party-List), Ziaur Rahman Adiong (Lanao del Sur, 1st District), and Robert Ace Barbers (Surigao del Norte, 2nd District).

The filing of the bill stemmed from the dire situation faced by Pacific Island nations like Kiribati, Vanuatu, and Fiji, which could be submerged by rising sea levels in the coming decade, and threaten to displace millions and create a global refugee crisis.

“We come from the same Austronesian origins hence, they are our distant relatives. In our culture, we do what we can to protect our family,” the billmakers stated. 

The legislation reflected the Philippines’ long tradition of offering refuge during times of crisis, with the lawmakers emphasizing the importance of humanitarian responsibility and shared humanity.

“Our works today extends beyond legislation. It is a declaration of shared humanity. The bill represents a critical step in recognizing and protecting those displaced,” Adiong read during the Climate Refugee Bill Press Conference on June 20.

The press conference launching the bill, titled “Rising Tides, Shifting Lives: Charting the Course with the Climate Refugee Bill,” explored the various aspects of the refugee crisis and the proposed legislation, which coincided with the annual celebration of the United Nations Day for World Refugees.

Roberto Ferrer Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, urged people to prepare for the challenges of the climate crisis and also to help those forced to flee their homes because of disasters.

“Live with crisis, because crisis equals opportunity. You act, you spread the love. The Filipinos are very good with the yin. We take care,” Ferrer Jr. said. 

Cecile Alvarez, Director of Earthsavers Dreams Ensemble, stressed the need for the Philippines to address climate change more urgently. 

Alvarez expressed the belief that the bill could position the Philippines as a global leader in welcoming climate refugees, but only if the country tackles environmental issues and transitions to a green economy.

“The voice of the Philippines will count and other Small Island States (SIS) undertaking similar actions in convergence will form,” she stated.

Highlighting the complexity of the issue, Dewy Sacayan, Southeast Asia Coordinator of the South-South Cooperation Council, noted the lack of a universally agreed-upon definition for “climate refugees.”

However, she offered alternative terms like “environmental migrants," "environmentally displaced persons," or "climate displaced persons."

Sacayan then outlined six key parameters for ensuring dignified migration for these displaced individuals, including movement; security; equality; standard of living; access to services; and social and political rights.

The legal implications were also discussed by Anton Avila, Senior Legal Associate for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, outlining the potential challenges and highlighting the specific vulnerabilities faced by women, children and other marginalized groups.

In an exclusive interview with the Explained PH, Avila clarified that the bill does not grant automatic citizenship to climate refugees, and they would retain their original nationality unless they formally apply for naturalization.

“It depends on the country where they came from, but they can undergo naturalization,” he said.

The event was facilitated by Alpha Phi Beta Fraternity of the University of the Philippines College of Law in partnership with several media organizations, including Explained PH.