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Why the world fails 'climate refugees'?

13 December 2022

 In 2015, a family from Kiribati, a South Pacific Island, left their home for New Zealand, where they applied for refugee status. They have asserted that climate change had devastated Kiribati so much, posing a risk to their lives. The family fought numerous legal battles to stay in New Zealand as climate change refugees rather than going back. However, they eventually lost their case and were deported to their home country.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 21 million people are forced to leave their homes due to climate change and the devastating effects it brings about, from floods to unprecedented heat waves, droughts, or hurricanes. The estimate is expected to get much higher, reaching 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050.

The World Bank predicts that, by 2050, climate migration will affect more than 143 million people in Latin America, South East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

More than 40 million cases of climate migration were registered by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre just in 2020, the highest in a decade. Climate disasters have resulted in 3 times the number of displaced people due to wars and conflict, reaching a total of 30 million.


Migrants, not refugees?

The term ‘climate refugee’ first emerged in 1985, during which the UN Environment Programme expert Essam El-Hinnawi defined ‘environmental refugees’ as "those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life." And despite the number of lives being directly affected by climate change, the term remains debatable.

The definition of a refugee under the United Nations 1951 Convention aims to protect groups of people or individuals who fear being persecuted due to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. The UN, however, continues to use the term ‘climate migrants’ despite solid efforts by civil society and activist groups to recognise climate-affected migrants under the UN’s definition of refugees. Yet, the UN has done little in this regard.

The UN lacks the necessary mechanisms to protect people impacted by climate change. As global warming rapidly changes the face of the earth, the UN’s capacity to respond to the needs of existing refugees is already at risk. Also, anti-migration movements and the rise of the 'political-right' in Europe and the US have undermined any viable solution.

Moreover, there’s a lack of consensus on what constitutes a ‘climate refugee’. Many voices call to include those facing long-term climate change impacts. There must be protection to those who have been compelled to leave their home countries due to climate catastrophes, noting that many had to abandon their homes not only due to immediate disasters but also due to slow changes in their surrounding environment, such as rising sea levels, draughts, and changing rain patterns.

The International Organisation for Migration defines ‘climate migration’ as individuals or groups of people who had to migrate due to the effects of climate change, both immediate or long-term. These effects could be due to reasons within or outside a country and cover a wide range of reasons, people, and circumstances, rendering this definition descriptive rather than legal. Thus, the organisation’s definition is quite limiting regarding protecting climate migrants.

Despite the ongoing debate, migrants continue to be impacted by climate change and the increasing rate of mass migration would compel the international community to find urgent solutions to this issue.

Before the Chaos

Mass migration continues to be a global issue. More people every year are being impacted by the effects of climate change, and its impact on the demography of many countries is already being seen. An imminent scenario of 2 degrees increase in global temperature by 2050 will be felt by more than 350 million, which is 37% of the world’s population. Extreme heat waves would lead to high numbers of death. As a result, migration is expected to increase from 44 million to 216 million people by 2050. Cities will receive the majority of these migration movements. More than 2.5 billion people are forecasted to move to major cities by 2050; 90% of this will occur in Africa and Asia. According to UN reports, the African Sahel region will see migration jump from 18 million people to 86 million by 2050. In light of these massive changes, experts are voicing their concerns over random mass movements; more cynical views warn the international community of an imminent “grand chaos” if it fails to manage changes effectively, which may impact the world in four ways:


1. Changing patterns of mass migration:

For now, climate migrants move within the borders of their own countries. They often leave rural or coastal regions for central urban cities; the latest Pakistan catastrophe is a case in point. More than 33 million people moved to Pakistan to escape the floods. But with global warming rapidly on the rise, mass movements are expected to spell out to wider regions, where people look for safer and more stable conditions for living.

High population growth is yet another factor that drives mass migration. Latest estimates maintain that by 2060 the world population will reach more than 10 billion, mainly concentrated in tropical regions, meaning migration is most likely to be from the south to north.


2. Ignoring ‘slow impact’ refugees:

International intervention often takes the form of aid to support those impacted by natural disasters. Yet, many people remain at risk of displacement due to slow changes in global climate, though they remain largely ignored. These groups do not receive the same level of attention and tend to face much worse conditions exacerbated by armed groups and smugglers who take advantage of their plight. Fragile and destitute, they do not get any attention from protection programmes that often focus on disaster relief.


3. Climate change conflicts:

An increasing number of people flee armed conflicts resulting in instability and the proliferation of terrorist groups. The complexity of their conditions makes it hard to understand their circumstances concerning climate change, even if their migration could not be labelled under climate conflict as such. The UN estimates that more than 90% of current refugees under its Convention’s protection have come from the ‘front lines of climate emergency.

Additionally, more indications reveal deep links between conflict and climate change, especially in Africa. Other experts claimed that the Syrian Civil War sparked in 2011 may have been driven by long-standing climate issues related to agriculture, the primary source of living for the majority of Syrians. The worsening living conditions of Syrians and mass movements to urban centres have resulted in economic instability that eventually led to armed conflict.


4. Ignoring ‘trapped’ groups:

Many impacted by climate change are left behind, being unable to afford migration which remains too costly and dangerous for many. Another phenomenon that is expected to emerge parallel to mass migrations is ‘trapped populations’: those living in extreme conditions without being able to escape the dangers of climate change, deeply vulnerable to poverty and environmental shocks.


Proposed Solutions

Climate migration has become a contested reality that affects our present and immediate future and has become a pressing issue in international climate conferences since 2016. The ongoing discourse, therefore, has become about management, not prevention.

So far, efforts of international organisations have invested in dealing with climate migration indirectly, i.e., by providing aid to vulnerable groups rather than looking at the root causes. There’s a worrying absence of clear policies and goals to tackle the issue of climate migration directly. There isn’t an international consensus that could offer an effective platform to deal with the crisis in unison. The UN’s legal framework remains the only initiative, though hardly comprehensive, that deals with climate issues only when linked to armed conflict. This framework has not been incorporated into the 1951 Convention.

Only a handful of initiatives have been launched to tackle the crisis directly. Some of such initiatives aim to:


1. Enhance local capacity :

Some states have begun to shape local mechanisms to deal with increased numbers of migrants or trapped populations. Bangladesh, one of the world’s countries most at risk of climate change, have begun shaping maps for ‘climate-resilient towns’ which could accommodate climate migrants and offer better prospects.


2. Regional solutions: 

Another example is Argentina, which has forged innovative solutions to support climate migrants. The South American nation introduced new visa categories that fall under ‘humanitarian assistance’ that allows Mexicans and other residents of central America to live in the country for up to 3 years in case of natural disasters. On the other end of the Pacific, Australia has put a new work visa scheme that allows workers from eight Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste to work in Australia for a period of time.


We may conclude that climate migration will become the ‘new normal’ in the coming years. More voices are calling on the international community to adopt more flexible attitudes towards mass movement, social integration, and unconventional solutions. Experts are considering the idea of polar cities that could mark the beginning of a new way of urbanisation that adapts to upcoming climate challenges. Such solutions and proposals might find a place in coming climate conferences.