Climate change has created a new type of refugee: climate refugees. The Global Governance Project defines climate refugees as people displaced “due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.” Climate refugees are not fleeing their home countries to escape war or violence but natural disasters, droughts, and other environmental hazards.

Many climate refugees come from countries most vulnerable to rising sea levels, notably the Maldives, a group of islands located southwest of Sri Lanka. The Maldives has the lowest terrain worldwide, where 80 percent of the land area lies less than one meter above sea level. One study showed that if carbon emissions stay at the current rate, the islands could become uninhabitable by 2050 as wave-driven flooding increases and freshwater becomes limited. Given its geography and vulnerability to climate change, Maldivians will be among the first forced to relocate.

On the other hand, neighboring countries will face a new challenge as climate refugees cross borders. India, the largest refugee receiving country in South Asia, can expect an influx of refugees from countries like the Maldives affected by climate change and rising sea levels. Yet, there is no international law that India can use as a guide to handling climate refugee claims. The 1951 Refugee Convention doesn’t include environmental degradation as a persecuting factor seeing as the convention’s authors did not anticipate the severity of climate change. Additionally, climate refugees are barred from the principle of non-refoulement, which protects refugees by obligating countries not to reject refugees facing persecution. Without an international framework to manage migration, India lacks clarity on the course of action once climate migration intensifies. 

Analyzing the Best Course of Action from the Indian Government’s Perspective

We must first identify Indian interests: to maintain political stability, domestic support, and sovereignty. The best policy choice will balance all three interests. 

Option 1: India Does Not Take Action

Doing nothing is always a policy option. If India takes no action, domestic support will stay the same. India will also maintain its sovereignty, as the government will not be held responsible for the welfare of refugees. 

While turning a blind eye to the refugee crisis would be unethical on India’s part, the Indian government could argue that welcoming climate refugees without a concrete plan could lead to regional and national instability. Since India lacks adequate infrastructure to host refugees, a lack of foresight and planning on its part could lead to increased competition for resources like food, shelter, and jobs. Violence might then be incited by locals who inaccurately view the incoming climate refugees as responsible for any strain on resources. For example, the Indian state of Assam has seen anti-immigrant violence, and Bangladesh has seen local protests against Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

In a more extreme case, the Indian government risks letting climate change exacerbate terrorist recruitment. According to a report from the Wilson Center, terrorist groups may take advantage of tensions to recruit in major cities. At a Security Council Meeting in December 2021, Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres pointed out that terrorist groups have exploited tensions between herders and farmers and water shortages to recruit in Mali and Iraq, respectively. Refugees are already some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and this would harm the security of refugees who have the right to receive assistance and be protected from abuse.

Option 2: India Adopts Temporary Domestic Policies to Accommodate a Refugee Crisis

If international law doesn’t recognize climate refugees, India can make temporary immigration policies at the regional level. The government can prepare for a refugee crisis by making policy changes that outline how the country, states, and union territories will accommodate climate refugees. A temporary policy would facilitate agreement because it doesn’t require as strong a commitment, and there are opportunities to renegotiate in the future. This choice will maintain general political stability, unlike option 1, where violence can break out from administrative lethargy. India can also ensure its sovereignty because the government does not delegate significant authority to an outside party like the UN Refugee Agency.  

However, such a policy may not tick the box of domestic support. In a labor-abundant country like India, a population spike may depress wages and prices of goods made with labor. Politicians may also be unwilling to introduce policy changes on refugees because they will be wary of how the electorate will judge them.

Option 3: India Strengthens International Cooperation on Climate Change

If countries work together to limit carbon emissions, climate refugees would not be forced out of their homes in the first place. They would also not have to live in crowded shelters with inadequate access to drinking water and health care. As a result, India can strengthen efforts on international climate cooperation. Serious climate efforts would limit sea level rise to under a meter by 2050 and prevent a climate refugee crisis. India would also benefit from preventing political instability, garnering domestic support, and maintaining sovereignty. 

However, India must get industrial nations on board with climate cooperation. Current environmental agreements are not enough to protect people from those countries most vulnerable to climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement was a great start, but success depends on countries adhering to voluntary targets. There is also no privileged group willing to bear the costs of solving climate change for the public good. Unlike the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s handling of the ozone depletion issue, no country is willing to tackle climate change on its own. 

Policy Recommendation

Of the proposed options, the best policy is option 2 – for India to adopt temporary domestic policies to prepare for a climate refugee crisis. Having a framework to accommodate climate refugees will first and foremost ensure maximum security for climate refugees. It is also best for Indian national interests, as India can maintain stability by preventing violence and assert state sovereignty by making its own decisions on climate refugee accommodation. Though it may receive low domestic support, this downfall is small compared to options 1 and 3. 

Meanwhile, option 1 serves Indian interests of domestic support and sovereignty, but it comes with potential political instability. Option 3 serves all of India’s interests, but it would be unrealistic to cling to the hope of global climate efforts. 

India must make policy changes without waiting for the international community to respond. The government should clearly define what a climate refugee is, then approach domestic groups to formulate an immigration policy. In the current climate of countries lacking the political incentive to develop a plan protecting climate refugees, India will show its strong political will to combat the challenges ahead. 

Edited by Pearl Zhou

Yulina Goto

Yulina Goto (she/her) is a Japanese undergraduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She is Japanese and grew up in the US, Japan, Denmark, and Taiwan. In her free time, she...