Larissa Saar begins her three part series discussing the implications of climate related displacement, this week explaining the main causes and issues of displacement in situations related to climate change.


According to a definition by the National Geographic, “climate refugees are people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming”, which makes them a subgroup of environmental refugees who have to leave their homes due to natural disasters like tsunamis or volcano eruptions. However, this does not translate into an international status that requires protection, as climate refugees are not recognised by international law or the vast majority of countries (with Finland and Sweden being notable exceptions). The most evident case of climate-related displacement comes in the form of increased flooding, as a result of rising sea levels, or increased droughts, as a result of rising temperature, making areas uninhabitable to people and forcing them to move elsewhere. Most of these are internal migrants, but those that cross borders can be sent back as per the current state of international law.

But there is also another way in which climate change can lead to displacement. According to the independent project Climate Refugees, “climate change serves as a ‘threat multiplier’ as food and water insecurity and competition over resources provoke or exacerbate conflict and compound displacement”. There are, for example, some suggestions that in the five years leading up to the conflict in Syria, millions migrated from no longer sustainable rural areas into cities, driving urban areas, which helped fuel the conflict. With these overlapping and intertwined causes of displacement, it is difficult to discern where displacement is climate-related, so estimates on the numbers of climate-related displacement vary. By some estimates, there will be up to 50 million climate refugees by 2050, while others suggest that the number will be as high as 250 million.

It is clear that action is needed yet the creation of an international protection status seems unlikely. While states are reluctant to take such a step in the first place, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is also concerned about undermining the status of those fleeing persecution and favours the creation of regional rather than international mechanisms as a response to increasing climate-related migration.






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Image courtesy of Cristina Gottardi via Unsplash

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