Mind the gap : exposing the protection gaps in international law for environmentally displaced citizens of small island states


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




The President of the Maldives, Mr. Mohamed Nasheed, has stressed repeatedly that if current trends in sea level rise continue, the Maldives and other island countries would disappear before the end of the century. Despite the growing awareness of the nexus between climate change and migration, academic research into the legal protection, or even the legal definition, of people who may be induced or forced to leave their homeland due to the effects of climate change is scarce. Citizens of Small Island States, displaced as a result of climate change, have very specific characteristics that make them unique in international law but so far it is unclear what status and protection they will have under international law. This thesis aims to provide an overview over existing legal instruments, their capacity to protect island citizen and the ensuing duties and obligations on signatory states and the international community in the hope that it will provide a roadmap for future actions. The author first confirms the leading opinion that environmentally displaced people are not refugees before moving on to explore the protection capacity of international human rights law, the international legal principle of non-refoulement and the legal framework on statelessness. This thesis reaches the unwelcome conclusion that current legal frameworks are not equipped to provide displaced citizen of disappearing islands with the necessary and effective protection they require and none of the discussed legal instruments can confer on them a secure and stable legal status, comparable to that of a refugee. It further concludes that - seeing how specific the needs of these geographically remote islands are and taking into account the wishes of the populations at risk - the most promising way forward for the protection of small island states citizen therefore lies in regional agreements aimed at gradual and dignified migration and the preservation of island communities and culture within the host countries.

Date Available



Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International




Law, Faculty of