Climate refugees

Extreme heat, drought, floods, unpredictable rain patterns and other symptoms of an unstable climate system render traditional ways of life impossible

What is the definition of a climate refugee? 

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines refugees as people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. The global 1951 Refugee Convention defined a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.

Going by these definitions, the UNHCR estimates that there were 25.4 million registered refugees around the world at the end of 2017.

However, these definitions do not consider people who must flee floods, droughts, rising seas, or farms with soil too saline to grow crops – all impacts of climate change

Climate activists have been demanding that people displaced by the impacts of climate change be called refugees, but the term is highly politicised. Governments around the world fear that by attaching a legally coded label to the problem, they will be held responsible for this new humanitarian crisis.

The urgency of this conversation is increasing as more and more people are displaced by climate change impacts. In its 2018 Global Compact on Refugees, the UN stated that “climate, environmental degradation and disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements”.

That is not the same as granting people displaced by climate change refugee status under international law. The UNHCR agrees that “people may have a valid claim for refugee status, for example, where the adverse effects of climate change interact with armed conflict and violence”. In 2020, the agency issued a set of “Legal Considerations” to “guide interpretation and steer international discussion on such claims”, while refusing to endorse the term “climate refugee”. Instead, it said: “It is more accurate to refer to persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.”

What is an ‘internal climate migrant’?

The World Bank defines people who have had to move within a country because of climate-driven migration as internal climate migrants. Internal movement is projected to account for a large portion of the total number of people forced to move due to the impact of climate change.

Why The Third Pole uses the term climate refugees

Climate refugees are not climate migrants, because a migrant may be someone who relocates due to the pull of better livelihood options. But those displaced by climate change impacts have been pushed rather than pulled.

Nor does the term ‘climate displaced’ fully capture the gravity of the situation. The word ‘displaced’ leaves open the possibility of return. In many cases, that possibility is no longer open to those hit by climate change impacts.

That is why we at The Third Pole have decided to refer to all people forced to leave their homes by climate change impacts as climate refugees, whether they are still in the same country or abroad.

How many climate refugees are there?

There were 18 million climate refugees in South Asia at the end of 2020, according to a joint study by non-profits ActionAid International and Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). The authors estimate that under the current emissions trajectory, by 2050 over 62 million people in South Asia could be forced out of their homes by disasters made more frequent and more severe by climate change.

Modelling by the World Bank published in September 2021 predicts there will be 40.5 million internal climate migrants in South Asia by 2050. Almost half of these people will be in Bangladesh. Across East Asia and the Pacific there may be 48.4 million internal climate migrants, and 5.1 million in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Globally, the World Bank calculates, climate change “could force 216 million people to migrate within their own countries by 2050” – more than the current population of Brazil. The report stresses that action to reduce emissions “could significantly reduce” the number of people forced to migrate internally.

What difficulties are faced by climate refugees?

When the study from ActionAid International and CANSA was released, Harjeet Singh, who at the time was global climate lead at ActionAid, said: “We are facing melting glaciers in Nepal, rising seas in India and Bangladesh, cyclones and inhospitable temperatures. Climate change is increasingly forcing people to flee their homes in search of safety and new means to provide for their families.”

The study found that women are affected far worse than men by climate change impacts. “They are left behind to take care of household chores, agricultural activities, look after children and elderly and manage livestock,” it says. “Women who migrate to urban settlements are often then forced to take up work in precarious settings where workers’ rights violations are rife.”

Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network South Asia, said when the report was released: “South Asia is geographically vulnerable to climate disasters and is regularly lashed with floods and cyclones, but poverty and environmental injustice are also determining factors in this climate migration crisis.”

What is the IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre)?

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre is the world’s leading source of data and analysis on internal displacement. In a 2019 report, it pointed out that cyclones Fani and Bulbul led to the displacement of over five million people in India and Bangladesh, and that 1.2 million people had been displaced by drought and floods in Afghanistan over the past few years.

The report said around 1,900 disasters triggered 24.9 million new displacements across 140 countries and territories in 2019. This was three times the number of displacements caused by conflict and violence. Climate change is well on its way to trigger the biggest refugee crisis the world has known.