New UNESCO working paper on the impact of climate displacement on the right to education

In 2018, 17.2 million people were internally displaced as a result of natural disasters (IDMC 2019). Just one year later, in 2019, 24.9 million people were displaced due to natural disasters and extreme weather events (IDMC 2020). The catastrophic effects of climate change are no longer isolated emergencies, but have become the new global norm- a reality that is only intensifying each year. Yet the literature regarding climate change has little to no information on the specific nexus between climate displaced and their right to education.

Persons displaced by the effects of climate change face significant vulnerabilities with regard to accessing education: saturated school capacity, destroyed infrastructure, linguistic barriers, difficulties to have past qualifications recognized, discrimination, and more. This is why UNESCO commenced a new initiative: the Impact of Climate Displacement on the Right to Education- now explored in the new Working Paper.

What is climate displacement?

The effects of climate change go far beyond global warming and rising sea temperatures. They entail rapid-onset weather events such as intensified monsoons, flooding, drought, and wildfires, as well as slow-onset environmental changes such as rising sea levels and desertification. These climate events force people to migrate- either to a new location within their own country (internal displacement) or cross-border migration (international displacement). Whether populations are displaced suddenly due to an extreme event or are undergoing planned relocation, climate displacement entails the mass migration of populations affected by climate change forcibly leaving their homes that have become uninhabitable.

Who will be affected?

Climate change does not affect everyone equally; populations of certain geographic locations, professions, and socio-economic status will be more prone to climate displacement than others. Certain geographic regions, such as the Asia-Pacific region, have long been the victims of increasing natural hazards (flooding, monsoons, slowly disappearing islands). Furthermore, those populations whose livelihoods depend on agricultural productivity are at heightened risk. From a socio-economic perspective, the poorest of the poor face the most severe vulnerabilities, as they lack the financial resources which might permit them to legally migrate to safer grounds- sometimes rendering them a trapped population.

What are the applicable international human rights frameworks?

International human rights law provides a large body of obligations for States to protect and fulfill the right to education, beginning with Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which establishes that “everyone has the right to education” (emphasis added). Other international conventions- such as the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education, celebrating its 60th anniversary on 14 December 2020 –  enshrine the right to equality of opportunity and treatment in education, including for foreign nationals, the obligation to provide free and compulsory primary education, to make higher education equally accessible to all, and more.

There is also a growing body of international policy that calls on states to provide certain rights for the displaced, notably: the strengthening of the resilience of education systems in countries affected by climate change, calling for increased preparedness, solidarity, and responsibility to respond to climate displacement, and facilitating orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration.

However, the crux of the interplay between climate displacement and the right to education is that while climate-displaced persons have the same right to education as any and every other person, they have no specific right under international law to enter or remain in another State; under the 1951 Refugee Convention, persons displaced by climate change do not fall within the legal definition of a “refugee,” and therefore are not guaranteed legal residency abroad. If gaining the legal right to simply migrate internationally is uncertain, protecting and fulfilling their right to education in the destination country is even more precarious. With this in mind, copious barriers to the right to education for climate displaced persons become clear.

What are the dimensions of climate displacement and their expected impacts on education?

While their motives for migrating might be different, climate displaced persons face similar barriers to the right to education as refugees. Internally climate displaced persons often live in poverty and are already highly vulnerable. When forced to leave their homes, such persons might find themselves without official papers verifying their qualifications. Following migration, the government might place them in education outside of the formal system, lacking qualified teachers and certified examination procedures. Furthermore, in the case of circular migration (migrating only during certain seasons due to cyclical, annual weather patterns), parents might hesitate to enroll their children in the local schooling system, knowing that their displacement is only temporary.

Internationally climate displaced persons also face the challenges above, but with further complications. To recall again, such persons do not fall under the legal definition of a “refugee” according to international law, and are therefore neither guaranteed the right of residency in the destination country nor the right to the national education system. Even if they can access the schooling system, linguistic barriers often lead internationally climate displaced persons to drop-out, as the national language of instruction is not the same as their native language. In any case, such an abrupt and international migration often leaves students facing xenophobia, violence, discrimination, and trauma of displacement- all of which impede quality access to continued education.

The way forward: As this global challenge becomes ever-more pressing, what can national policy makers and the international community do to address these issues? Action must be preceded by accurate information; through continued research, the global community must fill the knowledge and data gap by implementing increased monitoring. Simultaneously, States can align their national legislation to international law by ratifying and implementing international conventions that ensure the right to education for all and take measures to remove financial barriers to education; use alternative learning methods (such as remote learning when lacking physical infrastructure); integrate multilingual education to minimize linguistic barriers; and negotiate bilateral or regional agreements- giving climate migrants the legal right to residency and education as this global crisis continues to unfold.