Why Environmental Displacement Affects Us All

Once, Hélène Ragheboom spent long nights studying in the library at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Lund. She wrote papers, prepared for moot court competitions, and ultimately earned her Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law from Lund University.

Later, she finished a PhD at University of Luxembourg, and she has now published her first book from her dissertation: “The International Legal Status and Protection of Environmentally-Displaced Persons: A European Perspective”. The book is now available in the same library where she used to study human rights.

We sat down with her to talk about her interest in environmental displacement and why the topic is relevant for everyone.

I was intrigued by the fact that people who escape from armed conflict can get protection under EU law, but not people who come from a place affected by environmental disaster, says Ragheboom.

This needs to change, she stresses, because climate change-related migration is unavoidable:

Building walls never stopped migration. It’s just a matter of being realistic – climate change exists. You can’t expect people whose living environment is destroyed to just stay and wait. They will move for their own sake or for their family’s sake.

The Responsibility for Environmental Displacement

After finishing her research, Ragheboom concluded that law is not enough to solve the issue of environmental displacement. Solidarity and political will to help displaced persons is essential. She published her dissertation to reinforce her arguments and to “add her stone to the building”, as she puts it.

“Of course, law should be applied because I believe that existing human rights law would solve some aspects of the issue. But other measures must come into play,” she says, adding:

My conclusion was that a broad set of measures should be adopted. Some of them are rather simple and can be put in place by states, regions or communities. That can be done quite easily and I believe it can contribute to solve many issues for many affected people.

She suggests setting up an ombudsman mechanism to act as intermediary between populations displaced by natural disasters and the government that is to relocate them.

“Communication, if it even exists, is often difficult between these parties,” she says.

The responsibility to help environmentally displaced persons also extends to Europe, which is less directly affected by climate change than, for instance, small island states. When natural disasters force people from their home, these will likely seek refuge in Europe.

Therefore, it is equally important to investigate ways to protect environmentally displaced persons, says Ragheboom:

The best is to facilitate this migration because migration will happen anyway. Preparation in the country of origin, country of transit and country of destination is the most reasonable approach.

Dealing with the Anti-Migration Wave

Ragheboom is well aware of the nationalistic anti-migration waves washing over Europe these days. But even people, who oppose migration, have a reason to care about environmental displacement, she argues:

We saw during the so-called refugee crisis that Europe is not ready to deal with such a large influx of people. If you don’t want to have such a political crisis, make sure that migration takes place in a ‘smooth’ way and limit the impact the migration might have in future.

Even if someone does not consider smooth migration a solution, they still have a reason to care about the environment, she adds:

If you want to be cynical, you can say that it’s in Europe’s best interest to take measures ahead of disasters and migration movements so that these movements don’t reach Europe. That’s also one argument for actually addressing climate change. If you look at costs, it will be cheaper to invest human and financial resources in anticipating crises and migration than having to deal with it once it occurs.