US Should Expand Refugee Definition

Human Rights

Representatives from Latin American and Caribbean states convened recently to address responses to “forced displacement due to disasters,” including the effects of the climate crisis, following up on their Cartagena Declaration of 1984. The United States has not adopted the declaration and did not join the group, but it should pay attention and reflect on its own policies, as some people in need of protection – particularly from the Americas –will seek to move to the US. 

Often, the people most impacted by extreme weather events, including those intensified by climate change, live in locations least responsible for the climate crisis. Extreme weather caused over half of new displacement in 2023 globally, with 26.4 million people displaced by extreme weather events, including floods and droughts.

As the climate crisis worsens, the US has paradoxically worked to restrict asylum access and narrow the qualifying grounds of protection. 

Since 2020, Human Rights Watch has maintained that the increasing effects of the climate crisis necessitate broadening international protection and incorporating complementary protection. The threat of injury and death from climate change, disproportionally impacting already at-risk communities, can result in similar physical harm and endangerment as other grounds for protection. 

In December 2023, the International Refugee Assistance Project, Refugees International, and others filed a brief in ongoing litigation in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding state obligations to people displaced in climate contexts. The organizations argue that states are obligated to protect populations before and after displacement occurs.

Though the US is not bound by Inter-American Court rulings, the court’s imminent advisory ruling on the impacts of climate change on human rights will offer guidance on rights-based approaches to a growing threat. 

The US should expand protection for people displaced in the context of climate-related events and adopt the broader refugee definition in the Cartagena Declaration to include people fleeing circumstances seriously disturbing public order, including extreme weather events intensified by the climate crisis. 

The US should also respect the principle of nonrefoulement for people whose lives would be threatened if returned to their country of origin because of exceptional situations like the effects of climate crisis. The US Congress should amend US asylum law to extend protection to people who face real risk of serious harm to life or physical integrity in such circumstances, even if the perpetrator or cause of that harm is not seeking to persecute them.

Additionally, the US should combat the root causes of climate change by equitably transitioning from fossil fuels

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