Climate Migration: The New Wave of Refugees?

July 3, 2018

Climate change is considered the greatest threat that Earth has to counter in this century. Due to intensified human activity and unsustainable use of the planet’s resources, the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased while the planet’s ability to absorb the excess carbon dioxide has decreased due to the elimination and degradation of natural carbon sinks such as forests and oceans. This imbalance in the atmosphere has led to increased global warming over a long period of time, and scientists have confirmed the existence of climate change.

The impacts of climate change are numerous and devastating in nature. Increasing average temperatures around the globe have led to significant melting of glacial ice, leading to a rise in global mean sea levels. Floods and storms are becoming more intense due to changes in weather patterns. The soaring temperatures have led to extreme heat waves and droughts.

All these phenomena threaten our sources of food, water, and shelter, which are fundamental for human survival. The consequences of climate change are so severe that it is increasingly contributing to migration, and this is likely to escalate much more in the years to come as climate change impacts become more serious. The World Bank reported that there are 140 million people identified as “climate migrants” who are forced to leave their homes and migrate within their countries borders, due to severe droughts, crop failures, and sea level rise.

Examples of climate refugees around the world

Maldives is one of the main countries that is most threatened by sea level rise as the island nation rises only 2.4 meters above sea level at its highest point. Sea level rise will likely create climate refugees because of changes in both economy and habitat. In 1995, Bhola Island which belongs to Bangladesh was half-submerged by rising sea levels which resulted in 500,000 people becoming homeless. Scientists predict Bangladesh will lose 17 percent of its land by 2050 due to flooding caused by climate change.

While rising sea levels threaten coastal regions, severe droughts as a result of climate change lead to crop failure and create climate displacement inland. In China, people living near the Gobi Desert are migrating to China’s urban areas, as the Gobi Desert expands more than 3,600 square kilometres every year and overtakes the grasslands. In Africa, countries like Somalia and Ethiopia are especially vulnerable to drought and desertification as most rural citizens engage in subsistence agriculture; that is, the farmers do not sell their produce on the market but only grow enough crop for themselves and for their families. As many subsistence farmers depend on their crops to feed their livestock, this becomes a problem as severe droughts prevent crops from growing, which in turn prevents livestock from being raised. As a result, thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians have fled to refugee camps in Kenya, threatened by starvation and poverty.

People who are forced to flee are usually already vulnerable and have limited options or powers to negotiate, as they may have lost whatever assets and savings as a result of the disasters and are now forced to accept whatever meagre options that are on offer just to survive. As in Bangladesh, when cyclone Aila hit the country, it left a lot of people destitute and unable to go back to their previous livelihoods. They were forced to migrate to urban areas in search of employment but they reported difficulty in finding employment with their limited skill sets and found it difficult to earn enough to recover from the losses of Aila.

Women face severe hardships in the face of climate migration when the men leave in search of employment to provide for their families. This results in many households being headed by women with additional burdens and challenges they have to overcome alone. Women must now not only take care of all household activities and children related responsibilities, but they also have the added responsibility of undertaking their husbands’ roles in agriculture.

Climate-induced displacement in Sri Lanka

During the end of May 2017, the island experienced heavy rains and wind which led to a series of flash floods and landslides and affected 15 districts. 879,778 people were affected by the disasters. 219 deaths were reported and 74 missing. 3,048 houses were destroyed and 76,803 houses partially damaged. The livelihoods of over 342,000 people were affected due to agriculture, trade, and industry being disrupted.

In the beginning of October an estimated 520,000 people were affected by a drought that spread across eight provinces. The drought continued with short intervals of heavy rain that caused flash floods but brought temporary relief to the drought ridden communities, but as of June 2017, the prolonged drought conditions had affected more than 850,000 people. Agricultural livelihoods were disrupted, water scarcity was severe, and whatever water supply that remained was affected due to salinisation. People faced food scarcity and economic hardships as they were forced to recover after such extreme events.

Sri Lanka as an island nation is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change. Sea levels in the Indian ocean are thought to be rising at a rate of 3.2 mm per year and our country can be threatened by erosion and loss of coastal land to the sea and widespread salinisation of agricultural fields and water sources in the near future. As a country that consists of a large coastal population that is dependent on fisheries, ocean acidification caused by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere leaves these communities vulnerable. Ocean acidification bleaches the coral ecosystems that provides the habitat and food source for many coastal fish species and this can reduce fish yields and incomes to coastal communities engaged in fisheries.

Sri Lanka is facing new opportunities for social and economic development and is fast becoming a middle-income country. But the disparities between regions and social groups remain high, and a considerable proportion of the population is considered just above the poverty line and highly vulnerable to climate related disasters and shocks that can drive them back to poverty. The disparities are even more evident because the recurrent occurrence of droughts, floods, and landslides affect particularly the impoverished sectors living in high risk conditions with reduced capacities for recovery.  And this is one of the main drivers for climate migration as people are forced to leave their affected home regions in search of economic and safety stability in more urban areas of the country.

UN Convention on Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons

Climate refugees are not recognized under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees which defines the term ‘refugee’ as a person who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

As such, people whose lands have disappeared underwater due to sea level rise, those who face water and food scarcity in face of droughts, or those whose homes have been destroyed by landslides, cannot be officially described as ‘refugees’. Thus, under the current framework, those displaced due to climate change induced extreme events are not legally granted the same rights and protections that are granted to those with refugee status.

Under the United Nations Human Rights Council lie the guiding principles on Internal Displacement, which defines Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) as:

“Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.

Although countries are encouraged to abide by these guidelines, they are not legally bound by them. So it is questionable whether the basic human rights of climate migrants are being protected by the respective governments.

Data records on people temporarily displaced by extreme weather events such as landslides, droughts, and flash floods exists but does not record the extent to which these numbers translate into permanent migration. The data also does not record the impact of migration due to slow-onset events such as crop failure, salinisation, coastal erosion, and changes in seasonal rainfall or temperature patterns which eventually drive people to give up on agriculture and move to urban areas.

UNFCCC process and climate migration

The evidence is clear; the increasing adverse impacts of climate change have become one of the main fuelling factors for migration and forced displacement. But the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is yet to recognize climate refugees, and as a result it does not provide sufficient protections and rights to those affected.

However, the “Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts”, which was established in 2013, is considered as a milestone event in addressing loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change, including extreme events and slow onset events, in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of the changing climate.

In March 2017, the Executive Committee (ExCom) of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM), which is tasked with guiding the implementation of the functions of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, established a Task Force on Displacement to develop recommendations to “avert, minimise and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”. It was established in accordance with their mandate outlined in COP Decision 49, adopted at the twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Paris in 2015.

Following the decision, a technical meeting was held between the WIM Executive Committee and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). During the meeting, experts shared views and a draft set of recommendations were developed to highlight key issues such as the need to protect the rights of those displaced by climate change; the need for a definition of climate displacement that can enable more effective data gathering and policies; and the need to identify new and emerging cross-border issues and formulate strategies to address them.

The Task Force is working to finalise its recommendations to the WIM ExCom in August 2018. Draft recommendations will be presented in December 2018 at the Katowice Climate Change Conference (COP24).

Moving forward

Climate change affects people’s’ livelihoods and safety, forcing them to leave their homelands in order to survive. This is only predicted to increase in the years to come. However, the rights of migrants are being threatened due to desperation and a lack of options caused by climate disasters. Thus, regional and international processes as well as local governments must take the opportunity to proactively address emerging challenges and to ensure protection for climate migrants.

The need for measures such as clear definitions, accurate data collection on the contribution of climate change towards migration, and the formulation of national policies that address these gaps are vital. It is also important to ensure the resilience of these vulnerable communities. Respective governments must implement effective adaptation measures that will result in reduced risk from climate disasters. All in all, since climate induced migration will be inevitable in the face of more frequent and more intense extreme events, the world needs to be prepared for it.


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