Between 2008 and 2015, extreme weather events and climate change-triggered disasters forced an average of 26.4 million people per year to flee their homes; and according to projections, another 1.2 billion people may be displaced globally by 2050. As societies keep burning fossil fuels and overexploit our planet’s resources, the climate crisis is worsening day by day. The consequences of it, from rapid shocks like floods and storms to more gradual disasters like crop failures and droughts, are going to add burden to entire societies and force people to move elsewhere.
Understanding Climate Migration
Even though worsening weather conditions are escalating poverty, crime, and political instability as well as igniting tensions over depleting resources flowing from Africa to Latin America, climate change is frequently neglected as a factor in people departing their homes. For instance, hundreds of Salvadorans depart their country every year as a result of gang violence after being forced to move from their villages due to crop failure brought on by drought or flooding.
Climate migrants have few legal options under present international or American laws since it is not always possible to pinpoint climate change as the sole or primary cause of migration. The 1951 Refugee Convention offers legal protection only to those fleeing their home “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Climate migrants, as per definition, are not granted refugee status.
When their home is no longer habitable, people have no choice but to move. However, the lack of an organisation in charge of regulating climate migration makes it dangerous and extremely difficult to find a suitable and safe home elsewhere. And with no social and legal framework coordinating these movements, this crisis has overwhelmed not only countries affected by climate change – most of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America – but also those receiving incredibly high and ever-rising numbers of refugees.
Fortunately, the situation has slowly improved in recent years. In 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published legal guidance to “guide interpretation and steer international discussion” on the recognition of refugee status to climate migrants. Despite not going so far as to redefine the 1951 Refugee Convention or endorsing the term “climate refugee”, the UN Organization set out “key legal considerations concerning the applicability of international and regional refugee and human rights law when cross-border displacement occurs in the context of the adverse effects of climate change and disasters.” An increasing number of countries are also slowly laying the groundwork for welcoming climate migrants in the future. In 2022, for example, Argentina established a special three-year humanitarian visa for citizens from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean who have been forced to flee following natural disasters.
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Why Do People Have To Move?
According to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), extreme weather displaced 24 million people within their countries in 2019, with conflict and other disasters forcing a further 9.5 million to leave their homes. About 10 million fled following floods and storms, while another 900,000 people were displaced by wildfires, droughts, landslides and temperature extremes. About one million people fled volcanoes and earthquakes.
Asia is by far one of the most affected areas. In countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia, hundreds of millions of people residing in low-lying coastlines and deltas are particularly vulnerable to floods, which have become more frequent and powerful as sea levels keep rising.
Last year, 200,000 people had to be evacuated when the most powerful cyclone to strike India in 20 years made landfall in the state of Gujarat. Although early warning systems can save lives by mobilising rescue teams and bringing people to safety before a major weather event hits, many do not have a place to return to.
Bangladesh, one of the world’s most vulnerable to climate change, has an estimated 3.5 million people at risk of river flooding every year. The UN predicts that over the next decade, about 17% of Bangladeshi would need to be relocated if global warming persists at the present rate. Indeed, besides destroying human settlements, these frequent and devastating weather events greatly threaten the country’s agriculture, infrastructure, and clean water supply, making entire cities and regions inhabitable.
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In 2020, conflict was the primary cause of relocation in Africa. People were evicted from their homes due to ongoing violence in nations like Burkina Faso and Mozambique, while new hostilities broke out in other nations like Ethiopia. According to the IDMC, 500,000 people had reportedly left hostilities in Ethiopia’s Tigray area by the end of last year. UNICEF has since raised the estimate to over a million.
In countries already impacted by violence, several wars were accompanied by abnormally lengthy and intense rainy seasons that caused floods and crop losses. According to the UN, in nations including Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Niger, heavy rains forced people who had previously been displaced to escape again. In 2020, 4.3 million people were displaced in sub-Saharan Africa alone as a result of environmental catastrophes.
Contrary to popular opinion, disasters brought on by extreme weather are not temporary issues that can be quickly fixed, allowing people to return home. Instead, the complicated network of food and water shortages brought on by climate disruption leads to a cascade of socioeconomic problems and ongoing hardship as crops fail and people lose their jobs.
Unlike wealthy nations like the US or Germany, which are also dealing with an increasing number of catastrophic weather events – including heatwaves and droughts, floods, and wildfires – people in underdeveloped nations lack any substantial safety net to help them cope with climate-related setbacks.
First and foremost, nations need to increase the issue’s visibility and establish a legal framework to recognise climate migration on a national and international level and protect those affected. Climate change must be addressed to lessen its effects and safeguard those who will be harmed. Nations could be hesitant to open what might seem like a fresh door for migrants, but since the number of climate migrants is set to increase rapidly in coming years as the crisis worsens, it is imperative to establish such frameworks as soon as possible.
Shifts in population distribution can be part of a successful adaptation strategy when foreseen and well-managed, enabling individuals to escape poverty and create durable livelihoods. The key to this is long-term planning for an orderly and well-managed internal climate migration, for example by incorporating climate migration into broader migratory patterns that can help drive a country’s next generation of skills and jobs in both sending and receiving nations.
Planning well helps ensure that both sending and receiving regions are well-equipped to meet the requirements and ambitions of those displaced. Along with appropriate health care, education, and public services, investments are required to assist working-age people in finding opportunities in climate-resilient labour markets. Investments in human capital can also help communities adapt to the effects of climate change, especially by empowering women and young people who are frequently the first to experience high unemployment rates.
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