THE U.N. CLIMATE CONFERENCE in Paris should have been a moment for reimagining the way nations absorb the movement of people across borders. And to a very limited extent, it was. In a timid acknowledgement of the inevitability of climate-induced displacement, and despite reported efforts from Australia to block the provision, the final agreement did include a few lines about migration, “requesting” that a task force be created to develop recommendations “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”

More than anything, however, the Paris conference coincided with an era of new restrictions on movement, with nations closing borders, building walls, and erecting new legal barriers to migration in reaction to the threat of ISIS and attacks in Paris, Beirut, and San Bernardino, as well as the influx of nearly 1 million migrants arriving in Europe since last January. Migration is expected to increase as the climate changes. So if the Paris moment is a foreshadowing of future events, then the outlook is bleak for those fleeing the most vulnerable nations.

Although some policymakers point to the newly formed Nansen Initiative, which aims to develop standards of protection for groups displaced by natural disasters, under international law there is no such thing as a “climate refugee.” The U.N.’s Refugee Convention defines a refugee narrowly as someone who “has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” But even if a specific designation did exist, capturing the range of problems that cause people to move would be a challenge. For Pacific Islanders, the issue is rising sea levels; for others it’s a conflict over land or water.

In Paris, Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, used his nation’s impending submergence as leverage, emerging as a leader in the successful push for a 1.5-degree Celsius target rather than the 2-degree goal that had reigned for several years. Even so, many experts believe that warming will inevitably exceed 1.5 degrees. They point out that pledges to cut emissions submitted by most of the world’s countries add up to well over the 2-degree doomsday scenario, which would drown the Marshall Islands.

For Pacific Islanders in low-lying nations, displacement threatens survival, but also culture. “Displacements of populations and destruction of cultural language and tradition is equivalent in our minds to genocide,” de Brum declared in an interview with Radio New Zealand in October. Few islanders are yet resigned to the tidal obliteration of their homelands, but the situation is growing acute. Milikini Failautusi, a 25-year-old from the coral atolls of Tuvalu, told me that some of what she knew was disappearing. Crops are failing because the soil has become salty. The birds are different, and the fish are smaller, coming at odd times of year. It’s always hot, and there’s a sense that there is no future for the island’s youth. Relocation might be an option, but if Failautusi were to leave, would she hear again the background hum of traditional chants that have already faded since her childhood? And more practically, she wondered, “If you go to another country are you going to be given the same rights, the same treatment as a citizen?”

If countries like the U.S. fail to transform their energy economies fast enough to save small Pacific nations, then some islanders may relocate en masse to planned settlements. In Fiji, for example, the Kiribati government has purchased about 8 square miles of land. Many, though, will migrate on their own to places like New Zealand, though their ability to gain refugee status is highly uncertain. A farmer from Kiribati named Ioane Teitiota was recently deported after losing a legal battle to be considered a climate refugee. According to the courts, Teitiota was simply an economic migrant who had overstayed his visa and did not qualify for the special protections.

It’s likely that as displacements increase in the years to come, those affected will more frequently look like economic or conflict refugees than like the Pacific Islanders whose plight can be unambiguously linked to climate change.

“At the moment we’re trying to make a clear distinction between political refugees, economic migrants, and possibly ecological refugees. The reality is that, on the ground, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between these different forms of migration,” said Francois Gemenne, a research fellow at the Paris School of International Affairs who focuses on environmental displacement. “If we try to say this is climate change, this is not climate change, I think this is a political no go.” 

As the climate warms it puts new pressure on people who were already living precariously, which leads inexorably to conflict.

Syria’s war, for instance, was preceded by the worst three-year drought in the region’s recorded history, raising food prices and destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. As many as 1.5 million left their homes, often moving from the country to the cities. Migration and drought-induced economic stress helped feed the protests that spiraled into civil war and then mass migration.

Image #: 12534326    Sheikh Ghazi Rashad Hrimis touches dried earth in the parched region of Raqqa province in eastern Syria, November 11, 2010. Lack of rain and mismanagement of the land and water resources have forced up to half of million people to flee the region in one of Syriaís largest internal migrations since France and Britain carved the country out of the former Ottoman Empire in 1920.   REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri /Landov

Sheikh Ghazi Rashad Hrimis touches parched earth in Raqqa province in eastern Syria, November 11, 2010.

Photo: Khaled al Hariri/Reuters /Landov

Likewise, it’s impossible to disentangle the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, another source of migrants in Europe, from the droughts that have wracked Africa’s Sahel region, south of the Sahara Desert. Northern Darfur experienced a 30 percent decrease in rainfall in the 80 years preceding the genocide. The desert expanded, and rangeland for grazing livestock shrank. Disputes over land between nomadic herdsmen and sedentary farmers contributed to what became a decadeslong series of conflicts that started to break along ethnic lines in the late 1980s and then exploded in the early 2000s, when the state-supported Janjaweed militia began raping and murdering villagers.

In Paris, I spoke to migrants from Mali whose reasons for seeking asylum in France did not immediately seem related to climate disruption. After working in Tripoli for years, these mostly French-speaking migrants were forced to flee and ended up, along with 200 other men from West Africa, living in a squat known as the Baras collective. Mali sits on the opposite end of the Sahel region from Darfur, and the political and economic conditions that drove them to work in Libya are intractably linked to drought. And because they lived in Italy before they came to Paris, the French government does not consider them to be refugees and has attempted to evict them from the building where they live. Ultimately many of them would be happy to leave the collective. “We didn’t come to France to have squats,” one of the members told me. Their bigger fight is for legal work and accommodations. “We don’t want to see our friends, our brothers come to this country and be in the same situation.”

Although climate is beginning to be acknowledged as a cause of migration, to many Europeans these migrants are simply foreigners who speak an exotic language and come from regions that are increasingly linked in the Western imagination to terrorism.

“We are now in a state where all countries are trying to close their borders and build a fortress around their borders,” Gemenne, the environmental displacement researcher, told me. “Clearly this is at best contradictive, at worst criminal and dangerous. This is the reason I think we need to address migration and climate change together, because they are the same question. This question is how can we go about living with the other in a globalized world?”