Climate Refugees—Driven out of their homes due to disasters or sudden long-term changes to their local environments, compromising their well-being and livelihood. Have you heard of them?
Who are they, and where do they come from? Let’s start with the fact of the matter, climate change is real, and it’s happening as we speak. The global impact of climate change is threatening to reshape the world, from coastal erosions, land degradation, droughts, floods, rise in sea levels to intensifying and more frequent storms caused by a rapidly warming planet irreversibly changing how and where we live.
This is where climate refugees come in—They are the people fleeing the devastating impacts this phenomenon brings, leaving their livelihoods, lands and assets behind either temporarily or permanently, seeking refuge in safe and habitable places elsewhere in their home country or abroad. Extreme weather conditions have displaced millions of people; it is estimated that by 2050, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia will generate 143 million more climate refugees.
As climate change continues to stare us in the face, The term “Climate Refugees” is not legally recognised. This is because it’s challenging to categorise if someone is fleeing from environmental disasters. With no recognition, the growing number of refugees do not have international legal protection or agencies protecting their fundamental human rights and helping to keep them safe.
Where it’s already happening…
For example, let’s look at Bangladesh; Bangladesh is increasingly vulnerable to climate change and its implications. This is primarily due to its placement; a significant part of Bangladesh lies in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta (GBM Delta), Asia’s largest and the world’s most populated delta. Although deltas are great for bountiful harvests, low lying delta’s are highly susceptible to climate change adversities, such as coastal floods, wetland loss, shoreline retreat and loss of infrastructure.
Due to its low elevation, high population density, and poor infrastructure, Bangladesh is put in a highly vulnerable situation; paired with an economy heavily reliant on farming; climate change effects can be detrimental to livelihoods. For this reason, it is not surprising that the people of Bangladesh use migration as a way of coping.
However, as climate change intensifies and conditions worsen, an alarming number of people are being driven from their homes and land. It’s been estimated that by 2050, one in seven people in the country will likely be displaced by climate change. What this means is up to 18 million people will have to relocate because of sea levels rising alone.
Similarly, The Vietnamese Mekong Delta is one of the world’s most agriculturally rich regions and has a worldwide significance with its exports of rice, shrimp, and fruit. However, the Mekong Delta is also home to 18 million people, increasingly vulnerable to the implications of climate change. Migration out of the Mekong Delta provinces is more than double the national average and even higher in its most climate-vulnerable areas. Over the past few years, about 1.7 million people have migrated out of the region.
When you think of your bucket list holiday locations, unquestionably, islands like Bora Bora, the Maldives and Tahiti come to mind. Sadly these places are under siege due to human-caused climate change and could be gone entirely in the next 20 years.
So what are the implications of climate change refugees?
Mass migrations can be increasingly problematic for most countries, especially if there are underlying ethnic and social tensions. “Massive migrations, particularly in the arid or semi-arid areas in which more than a third of the world’s people live, will turn fragile states into failed states and increase the pressure on regional neighbours, a dynamic that is already apparent in Africa”— as quoted from the Migration and Climate Change series IPCC
The implications of this phenomenon are widespread and with no legal protection or agency, protecting climate refugees is a growing cause for concern. Migrants from Bangladesh or even Vietnam who are forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods, wanting to settle abroad, would find it incredibly difficult to appeal for resettlement in another country. This is mainly because they cannot be categorised as refugees, even though they remain “trapped” in worsening environmental conditions.
“Yes, there is a protection gap involving climate change refugees, but we don’t call them climate refugees for the reason that they are not covered by the 1951 [Refugee] Convention,” said Marine Franck, a climate change officer at the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. That treaty extends only to people who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a social group or political opinion and are unable or unwilling to seek protection from their home countries— as reported on Aljazeera.
No one can be absolutely certain about how many people will be displaced by climate change; however, in 2020, a drastic 55 million people were forced to flee their homes due to extreme weather conditions. Furthermore, 75% of these migrations were localised and have cost economies about $20.5 billion globally in 2020.
For those that still doubt the existence of climate change, let me close with this argument…
Whatever the cause of climate change, be it natural or man-made, the fact of the matter is that it’s very much real, and a massive indication of this is the drastic increase in climate refugees in just the past few years alone.
As of now, the UNHCR does not endorse the term “climate refugees” and argues that it would be more appropriate to refer to these groups of people as “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.”
However, when it comes to climate change refugees, it all comes down to this, climate change is not something that scientists can quickly fix. Instead, it’s a global phenomenon threatening our very existence—it’s high time we all started paying attention to the human costs this crisis brings.
As stated by Nina Birkeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council, “The most effective way forward is to reduce the risk of displacement. Most people, if they have a choice, want to stay. And we have to help them stay.”