Disappearing States, Rising Statelessness: The Twin Crises Just Around the Corner

Blog post by Jennifer Saxon, a graduate student at the School of International Service at American University, specializing in human rights and refugee studies, and Grace Benson, a Ph.D. student at the School of International Service at …

Blog post by Jennifer Saxon, a graduate student at the School of International Service at American University, specializing in human rights and refugee studies, and Grace Benson, a Ph.D. student at the School of International Service at American University, studying forced migration and comparative refugee resettlement policy.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is halfway through a ten-year campaign to end statelessness, a goal impossible to attain as long as a key demographic is neglected: people who will become stateless due to climate change.  

Climate displaces 24 million people each year. That’s four times more than are displaced by conflict. While most are displaced within their own countries, large-scale cross-border displacement is becoming more likely due to sea-level rise and the submersion of low-lying small island developing states.  

By some estimates, sea levels are expected to rise by at least two meters by 2100. This would result in massive internal displacement across the globe and would be disastrous for five specific countries: the Maldives, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Kiribati. These island countries will likely disappear completely, rendering their combined population of 600,000 people stateless.  

Statelessness, a status currently held by more than four million people worldwide, occurs when an individual has no nationality, or no country upon which it can rely on for protection. This lack of citizenship results in a humanitarian crisis where access to basic universal rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement are severely limited or outright denied.  

Despite the anticipated growth in statelessness due to sea-level rise, the international community is doing little to facilitate the preservation of these island nations. Planned relocation is a possible solution emphasized in academic and global governance circles, yet the related guidance and toolbox published by UNHCR focuses solely on internal displacement. While some additional measures have been promoted with respect to cross-border disaster migration, such as humanitarian visas and other temporary protections, there is still no guidance on how to handle the loss of an entire nation’s territory.  

Likewise, the 2018 UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration offers no specific guidance, instead calling on nations to collaborate on solutions for climate-related migration. Out of the Global Compact, the Network on Migration was established to coordinate migration efforts within the UN, yet no current or future work-streams address the specific issues that will undoubtedly arise when climate displacement causes thousands to lose their national territories.  

What’s worse is that this impending disaster has long been anticipated.  In 2009, UNHCR published an overview on Climate Change and Statelessness, acknowledging that “there is no precedent for [the] loss of [an] entire territory or the exile of [an] entire population” and noting the need for “early preparedness…[to] avert a humanitarian catastrophe.” Yet, the United Nations and other global agencies have no plans in place to mitigate the humanitarian emergency they’ve seen coming for more than a decade.  

Today’s political climate is decidedly anti-migrant, making states unlikely to welcome plans for mass relocation. Adaptation efforts tend to engender more support, such as land reclamation projects designed to raise island elevation and regional economic migration agreements that result in remittance-supported island development. Local populations also prefer adaptation measures rather than abandoning their homes, calling for a curb in global emissions in order to keep temperature rise at “one point five to stay alive.” However, scientists believe temperatures will inevitably exceed this threshold, creating an “existential threat” to small island nations even in the best of scenarios.  

When these territories become submerged, what happens to the countries defined by those territories? While there is no universally recognized definition of a state, there is legal precedent to consider the requirements for statehood as: “a permanent population; defined territory; government; and capacity to enter into relations with other states.” Rising sea levels may erase a state’s defined territory, but other aspects that define a state could survive, such as its population, government, and interstate relationships.  

A path forward for stateless sovereignty

Interstate relations are codified by a shared understanding of sovereignty as self-determination, as outlined in the UN Charter. That self-determination does not need to be tied to territory. With the consent of its citizens and recognition by other sovereign states, a state could theoretically survive the loss of its territory. A reimagined approach to statehood could salvage the fate of these small island nations by helping them preserve what defines them: their culture, values, institutions, and political identity.  

As de-territorialized states, or nations ex-situ, small island nations could transform into individually-governed, or even jointly-governed, formal diasporas, potentially dispersed throughout the globe. As imagined by law professor Maxine Burkett at the University of Hawai‘i, “the government of ex-situ nations would sit in a permanent location and manage the affairs of the state at a distance,” preserving a nation’s “culture, connection amongst its people, and the security and well-being of its citizens.”  

Governing these diasporas from a distance could be further supported by a combination of government entities and non-profit institutions designed to protect and advocate for its remote citizens and promote integration into host communities. Consular entities, traditionally tasked with promoting diaspora support for development back home, could instead focus on helping dispersed populations preserve their culture, access services, sponsor cultural events, and maintain intra-state relationships and residency agreements.  

This unique approach adds a new dimension to the concept of planned relocation for states that face an impending loss of territory. It necessitates acceptance of de-territorialized states within the international community and formal recognition of the rights and sovereignty of nations ex-situ. This may seem idealistic given rising populist and isolationist attitudes, but it is clear that states are currently unwilling to collectively prevent rising seas or to invest in radical physical interventions to protect island nations. Therefore, revolutionary thinking is necessary to preserve the sovereignty of all nations as our world is transformed by climate change.  

By embracing the concept of de-territorialized states, the international community can help those living at the front lines of climate change retain their autonomy and identity and avoid the fate of statelessness. The governments of these small island nations can continue to work on behalf of their citizens, providing protection and advocacy long after the physical boundaries of their states disappear.  


The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.

This post was originally published on Refugee Law Initiative Blog.


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