Will climate change become the main cause behind migration?
It was only a matter of time for the effects of the climate crisis to become a human crisis. In the past few years, we’ve seen the overbearing impact of anthropogenic climate change not only on the degrading of our environment but on our own quality of life. Extreme weathers are now behind 10% of the yearly global death tally, and if we add up natural disasters and other environmental hazards (like pollution and the intercontinental spreading of diseases like malaria due to temperature changes), environmental factors can be identified as the cause behind 13 million deaths per year, according to recent UN research.
With a great bulk of the Earth’s population facing increased mortality, sickness and risk of wildfires, floods, and landslides, it becomes natural for many to think about, or be forced into migration. Between 2008 and 2016, an annual average of 21.5 million people were forcibly displaced off their homes by weather-related events; IEP’s 2020 Ecological Threat Report states that this average could ramp up to 40 million climate migrants a year, reaching 1.2 billion refugees by 2050.
So, what is a climate migrant? Simply put, the term refers to every person “forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of marked environmental disruption.” The concept has been well-known and widely used since the UNEP coined it in 1985, however, no matter how clear , the definition faces two important issues: it is still difficult to determine how the more subtle long-term effects of climate change (like temperature change and the rising of sea levels) have impacted the forced displacement of people throughout the decades, and by consequence, it is also difficult to set an international legal framework that is effective at protecting all potential climate refugees.
Due to this, international organisms are not legally bound to provide the adequate protection to displaced people, and national governments are having trouble determining which measures to take as the migration influx keeps on growing and there’s not enough legislation to contain the crisis. Last June, Ian Fry, an environmental lawyer and UN expert, made an urgent call to increase legal protection for climate refugees, underlining the failure of international border administration to contain the increasing number of deaths in transit (over 50 thousand in the last 7 years):
“The human rights implications of climate change displacement, in particular across international borders, are significant and truly disturbing, […] The international community must realise its responsibility to protect people displaced across borders by climate change impacts”.
Fry urges the Human Rights Council of the UN to develop new protocols, and national governments to consider providing humanitarian visas for climate migrants.
The lack of legal protection only doubles down on the most concerning issue of climate migration: those forced into international reallocation are usually those who already were in vulnerable and marginalized conditions within their own societies, which makes it extremely difficult for climate migrants to successfully find a new home, specially when they remain invisible by law. People who have lost their homes in the overflowing shores of Bangladesh or due to extreme droughts in Kenya have been long fighting an attrition war against the environment, and now that the conditions have worsened in the last 5 years, they are missing the tools to sustain themselves.
We encourage you to look further into the situation by visiting https://www.climate-refugees.org/, where you can read individual stories of climate migration (and the efforts to ameliorate it), and support climate refugees through donation.
Cassella, Carly. ‘Scientists Warn 1 Billion People on Track to Die From Climate Change’. ScienceAlert, 30 August 2023. https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-warn-1-billion-people-on-track-to-die-from-climate-change.
‘Climate Refugees: The Unseen Financial Crisis of Our Era’. Accessed 3 October 2023. https://www.worldfinance.com/strategy/climate-refugees-the-unseen-financial-crisis-of-our-era.
OHCHR. ‘UN Expert Calls for Full Legal Protection for People Displaced by Climate Change’. Accessed 3 October 2023. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/06/un-expert-calls-full-legal-protection-people-displaced-climate-change.
Sustainability (IDOS), German Institute of Development and. ‘The implications of the UN’s ruling on “climate refugees”’. Accessed 3 October 2023. https://www.idos-research.de/en/the-current-column/article/the-implications-of-the-uns-ruling-on-climate-refugees-1/.
‘There Could Be 1.2 Billion Climate Refugees by 2050. Here’s What You Need to Know’. Accessed 3 October 2023. https://www.zurich.com/en/media/magazine/2022/there-could-be-1-2-billion-climate-refugees-by-2050-here-s-what-you-need-to-know.