Washington International Law Journal


An influx of climate-driven, cross-border migration has begun in Southeast Asia, but these peoples are not considered refugees. They are at best economic migrants, and at worse stateless persons. They are displaced because of human-driven environmental decline, with limited protections due to the lack of an internationally accepted definition of their status: there is no agreed upon definition of what constitutes a person displaced by climate change. As such, there are no legal frameworks that accurately speak to the realities of this growing problem. Worse, there is limited understanding that the confluence of these omissions will lead to disastrous effects and a humanitarian toll unlike anything the world has seen.

We propose a first step in addressing this challenge for Southeast Asian states—a legally binding definition. We submit that a “climate displacee” is one who is compelled to migrate due to the direct or related impact of changing climates. We propose a second step in addition to this definition—a Southeast Asian state regional climate migration framework that takes a human rights-based approach. This approach, based on existing international legal frameworks, is the only way to properly address the humanitarian challenges inherent to migration. We also propose a series of fundamental and operational principles as building blocks for such a regional framework. These principles consider human rights and address shortfalls with other frameworks. Southeast Asian states have an opportunity to develop the world’s first cross-border climate migration framework, and we have drafted our recommendations to assist in that effort.

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