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World Refugee Day: Climate Change and Migration

By Zaana Hall and Ellie Leaning

Today is World Refugee Day. At EcoCiv, we are using this moment to reflect on what it really means to promote wellbeing in a world where 79.5 million people are forcibly displaced, and climate change projections are dire, at best. 

This nexus of climate change and involuntary migration is close to the hearts of many of us here at EcoCiv. We employ a three-pronged methodology to develop our position on specific issues. For climate change and involuntary migration, this could look like: 

  1. Visioning – What is the future we want? What does that look like for refugees, migrants, and displaced persons in the context of climate change? 
  2. Backcasting – How did we get to the current reality? What systems, structures, policies, and laws got us here? What needs to change?
  3. Roadmapping – How can we move forward to realize our vision of “the wellbeing of people and the planet” for all people? How do we change “what needs to change”?

This blog post’s main focus is the second part of our methodology, backcasting, or “What systems and structures underlie the current humanitarian and refugee system?” This step is vital to devising an effective roadmap for change and to achieving our organizational goal of “the wellbeing of people and the planet.” 

The approaches we often use to look at climate change are also helpful in framing multi-pronged approaches to understanding climate change and displacement. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, but rather all should be happening at the same time. They assume that proactive and strong mitigation measures are taken in the Global North to reduce CO2 emissions and combat climate change. They also assume that adaptation efforts are employed in areas at high risk for climate change, and that suffer the consequent resource scarcity, to enable people to stay safely in their homes for as long as possible. But perhaps most solemnly, they assume that crisis responses will always be needed, as refugee crises will only increase apace with climate change. They assume there are no quick fixes and that we will endure unprecedented levels of forced or involuntary migration due to resource scarcity, conflict, or disasters derived from climate change. 

The Background: How Did We Get Here?

Historically, individuals from refugee backgrounds were forcibly displaced from their country of origin due to war, violence, intolerance, and persecution on account of a characteristic unique and intrinsic to an individual or group of individuals. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was founded in 1950 in the aftermath of World War II to assist the millions of Europeans who lost their homes and livelihoods. 

Although an unprecedented number of individuals, estimated at 26 million at the end of 2019, have indeed been designated “refugees” due to conditions of war, violence, intolerance, and persecution, there are increasing numbers of people globally who are forcibly displaced — in many cases with no homes to return to—due to the most critical challenge that the international community is facing: climate change

Many prominent, multilateral institutions that study patterns of human migration agree that the climate crisis is on track to displace far more people than conflict. Although quantifying the current population forcibly displaced by climate disasters is difficult due to a range of complexities, UNHCR estimates that approximately 22.5 million people have been displaced both internally and internationally, by climate or weather-related events since 2008. This number is projected to continue increasing, with the World Bank estimating that 143 million individuals in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could be displaced due to climate change by 2050. The media and advocates often use the term “climate refugees” to define this group of people. However, this term is confusing and somewhat problematic in that it does not exist in international law, nor has it been formally endorsed by UNHCR. As a result, advocates’ attempts to seek legal solutions for this group of people based on the same criteria, legal rights, and signatory obligations that the 1951 Refugee Convention conferred to refugees, have all too often failed.

This is because the term “refugee” has very rigid legal parameters, and the status is conferred as an individual determination based on a person’s fear of persecution on account of a protected characteristic. Therefore, the legal protections for refugees are not easily transferable to large communities — or in some cases, entire countries — who are forced to flee and relocate due to climate change. In addition, in a global environment where the plight of refugees has been politicized by prominent world leaders, referring to people displaced by climate as “refugees” likely exposes them to a range of xenophobic and exclusionary policies that governments have enacted globally to relinquish responsibility to protect these vulnerable communities. Thus, as we approach our 19th World Refugee Day, our global community must demonstrate a commitment to solve the displacement challenges related to climate change.

Although there are many layers to the development of effective solutions, these critical issues require thoughtful consideration and action:

  1. Development of an internationally recognized, legally supported definition to identify this growing group of peoples forcibly displaced by climate change. 
  2. Diagnose the root causes of climate displacement 
  3. Develop solutions to reduce the causes of climate displacement 
  4. Design humanitarian response systems that are better suited to climate displacement 

Issues 1: Development of an Internationally Recognized Legal Definition for Climate Displacement 

Since UNHCR does not formally recognize the term “climate refugee,” the protections provided to conflict refugees based on the UNHCR mandate are not extended to those displaced by climate change. The lack of an internationally endorsed definition for these individuals makes it impossible for international legislation to offer protection. As the number of individuals displaced due to climate change increases, all 193 United Nations member states will need to formally endorse a globally recognized definition in order to open viable, legal avenues of protection. 

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) offers one such term, “environmental migrants” defined as “a group of people who due to sudden or gradual changes in the environment, which have a negative effect on their living conditions are forced to abandon their homes, temporarily or permanently, and move to other parts of their own country or outside it.” This term captures the critical components of the nature of displacement that these individuals experience. However, most importantly, it offers a new description for this specific crisis, thus providing a pathway for a new set of international legal protections and global interaction to develop sustainable and equitable solutions. 

Issue 2: Diagnose the Root Causes of Climate Displacement  

We must first understand the causes of environmental displacement to implement adequate solutions. Consequences of climate change, such as extreme drought, flooding, and sea level rise, are the common root causes of climate displacement. However, unstable political, social, and economic circumstances exacerbate the impacts of climate disasters, making Global South countries and racialized communities more susceptible and vulnerable to the impacts of climate displacement. 

That said, we must recognize that although some countries and communities are impacted disproportionately, this issue is not one confined to only emerging or poorer economies, but also impacts some of the world’s wealthiest economies. For example, bushfires in Australia earlier this year displaced thousands of people, and three big hurricanes in 2017— Harvey, Irma, and Maria—displaced around 3 million people in 16 countries, including the United States. Thus, environmental migration is a global challenge that will continue to create a wide range of critical challenges that the international community will need to confront proactively and collaboratively. 

Issue 3: Develop Solutions to Reduce the Cause of Climate Displacement
Sustainable reduction of the acute symptoms requires that we comprehensively address all of the systemic and chronic causes. These systemic issues such as inequity and racism often precipitate and exacerbate environmental pressures, such as droughts and extreme weather events that cause displacement. 

Here are some concrete steps that global actors can take to address these systemic issues that would improve all communities’ resilience to environmental threats: 

  • Reduce the inequalities of power and capital
  • Improve access to quality education globally 
  • Extend access to quality health care globally 
  • Eradicate gender inequality and discrimination toward people in LGBTQIA community

We must also work to address the root causes of climate change by: 

  • Eliminating subsidies for fossil fuel production and consumption and replace with renewable forms of energy 
  • Introducing more sustainable farming methods and developing alternatives forms of protein 
  • Pursuing circular economy solutions that reduce waste, recover resources, and reduce pressure on the environment
  • Actively reducing greenhouse gas emissions by all governments 
  • Ensuring global financial support for all countries to make critical adaptations to climate change and other environmental and social challenges

Issue 4: Design of more Comprehensive Humanitarian  Response Systems 

In designing legal frameworks for climate displacement, we have a unique opportunity to examine existing response systems and to design them better. These measures could include:

  • Ensuring efficient processes for asylum seekers so people are not stuck in limbo waiting for sluggish legal systems 
  • Rethinking and redesigning the “refugee camp” as a city itself with permanent structures and long-term design for improved livelihoods
  • Improving and formalizing design of shelters that are climatically and culturally appropriate
  • Integrating host communities and refugee or displaced population communities
  • Empowering people to choose where to relocate
  • Rethinking concepts of borders, nationalism, and citizenry 

The United Nations has declared that 2020 will usher in a decade of ambitious action by the international community to build a more peaceful and equitable world. As we gain global momentum to solve complex climate issues and rescue our planet from ecological disaster, we must not forget to take immediate, concrete actions to improve the circumstances of and protect the individuals most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 


At EcoCiv, we’re interested in solutions that will help catalyze the wellbeing of all people and the planet. Today on World Refugee Day, let us know in the comments what solutions inspire you.

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