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Land Ho: Climate Migrants and Refugees Search for New Homes

By Parisa Harvey

           More people are being displaced annually than ever before in history; more than 25 million are displaced by natural disasters each year. With the exacerbating Climate Crisis, the World Bank estimates this number to increase exponentially, with numbers reaching as high as 143 million displaced by human-induced climate change by 2050. Yet as with most issues relating to the climate, this migration and displacement will disproportionately impact BI-POC individuals and those living in the Global South. Internally displaced peoples (IDPs) who are forced to leave their homes but don’t cross international borders will account for the majority of consequent climate migrants. The 4 main drivers of such migration are sea-level rise, increased weather temperatures, water crises, and other changes to the water cycle (such as floods and droughts), and storms (including earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes). The United Nations High Commission on Refugees reports shows that the majority of IDPs from 2000-2016 were from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and SubSaharan Africa. However, this crisis is also happening much closer to home, American climate refugees include citizens of Alaska, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico. 
          The UNHCR is among many international NGOs tackling this issue of climate-induced migration in addressing legal loopholes and gaps in international law to protect refugees, helping IDPs in providing them safety, security, and resources, and minimizing possible environmental destruction and disaster for already displaced peoples (for a multitude of reasons. In 1988, The United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to report on and assist international policymakers on issues regarding the climate crisis. In 1990, “In its first report, published in 1990, the IPCC warned that the greatest impact of climate change could be the displacement of millions of people, mainly due to rising sea levels, flooding, and disruption of agriculture.” Finally, the 2016 Paris Agreement called for a special task force to report on climate-induced migration. However, it is difficult to draft international policy for refugees or asylees as persecution and credible fear are more abstract in regards to climate change as an existential crisis rather than simply one disaster or catastrophe. 
          Since the 1970s people in the world are twice as likely to be displaced. IDPS, refugees, and stateless people (due to environmental or other reasons) often seek refuge or reside in countries/regions in the Global South most at risk for future environmental destruction. In the example of Myanmar, asylees escaping religious persecution also face climate disasters in Bangladesh related to monsoons and other flooding in refugee camps. This makes it an even larger challenge for refugees to return to their homes or try to create new lives in their host countries.

         The UNHCR recently ruled in favor of climate refugees in

preventing countries to return or deport refugees whose lives are

threatened by the climate crisis. Loane Teitiota from the Pacific

island of Kiribati applied for protection in New Zealand on the basis

of sea-level rise which is anticipated to submerge Kiribati

completely in 10-15 years. In their ruling, the UN officially classified

Teitiota as a climate refugee which is historic. However, the they

ruled against him having imminent risk to his life. The very

classification of climate refugees has long been debated among

international policymakers. This is the first step in international law

to protect climate refugees and put pressure on governments to

act and prepare for future migration. 

        Essentially, climate refugees won’t receive protections or a pathway to citizenship due to environmental emergency, but governments can’t send them back similar to asylees or other cases of persecution.

        Migration is often a last resort or response for those faced with environmental destruction. Strengthening communities at risk for such disasters is a way to reduce future climate refugee crises. “The people who migrate are typically those who have the financial, social, and political resources to do so and are not too tethered to their home.” The Climate Crisis will impact the most vulnerable groups the hardest and earliest. It is these same groups that often lack the resources to adapt, migrate, and seek refuge in new countries. Climate change will cause massive urbanization and migration to urban areas as resources deplete, contributing to future conflicts and event climate wars. Ultimately, the Climate Crisis in exacerbating extreme weather patterns and environmental destruction will displace millions of people, especially in the Global South. With limited protections under international law it is imperative that the United Nations and countries such as the US, contributing most to this crisis, recognize, prepare for, and address the root issues of climate-induced migration. 


Picture of Kiribati

Key Terms to Know

Displacement: forced movement of a person from point A to point B 
Forced migration: migration from one’s home to another region because of environmental, manmade, or other conflicts.
Climate Migrants/Refugees: people forced to leave their homes because of climatically induced disasters and weather patterns; some are forced to cross borders while others migrate internally
Global South: countries from primarily Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia divided socioeconomically and politically 
UNHCR: The United Nations High Commission on Refugees 


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