Climate & Migration
The International Organization for Migration projects that between 25 million and 1.5 billion people will have to leave their homes by 2050. This is not an issue which is being treated seriously. The poorest and smallest nations are the ones who are least likely to contribute to climate change, but they will be the first to be forced to migrate.
Already, by 2017, 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced, more than at any point in human history.
While it is difficult to estimate, approximately one-third of these (22.5 million to 24 million people) were forced to move by “sudden onset” weather events—flooding, forest fires after droughts, and intensified storms. While the remaining two-thirds of displacements are the results of other humanitarian crises, it is becoming obvious that climate change is contributing to so-called slow onset events such as desertification, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, air pollution, rain pattern shifts and loss of biodiversity. This deterioration will exacerbate many humanitarian crises and may lead to more people being on the move.
n 2018, the World Bank estimated that three regions (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050
The term “climate change refugee” does not formally exist under international law.
The United Nations (UN) 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines “refugee” as someone who crosses an international border for “a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” That is usually interpreted as political oppression, not fear of sinking homes, scorched harvests, or devastated jungles.
The recent IPCC report stated that:
Forced migration hinders development in at least four ways; by increasing pressure on urban infrastructure and services, by undermining economic growth, by increasing the risk of conflict and by leading to worse health, educational and social indicators among migrants themselves.
However, there has been a collective, and rather successful, attempt to ignore the scale of the problem. Forced climate migrants fall through the cracks of international refugee and immigration policy—and there is considerable resistance to the idea of expanding the definition of political refugees to incorporate climate “refugees”. Meanwhile, large-scale migration is not taken into account in national adaptation strategies which tend to see migration as a “failure of adaptation”. So far there is no “home” for climate migrants in the international community, both literally and figuratively.
In 2006, the British economist Nicholas Stern warned that one of the biggest dangers of climate change would be mass migration. “Climate-related shocks have sparked violent conflict in the past,” he wrote, “and conflict is a serious risk in areas such as West Africa, the Nile Basin, and Central Asia.”
To date, there are only a few cases where climate change is the sole factor prompting migration. The clearest examples are in the Pacific Islands. The sea level is rising at a rate of 12 millimeters per year in the western Pacific and has already submerged eight islands. Two more are on the brink of disappearing, prompting a wave of migration to larger countries. By 2100, it is estimated that 48 islands overall will be lost to the rising ocean. In 2015, the Teitota family applied for refugee status in New Zealand, fleeing the disappearing island nation of Kiribati. Their case, the first request for refuge explicitly attributed climate change, made it to the High Court of New Zealand but was ultimately dismissed. Islands in the Federated States of Micronesia have drastically reduced in size, washed down to an uninhabitable state, had their fresh water contaminated by the inflow of seawater, and disappeared in the past decade. Despite their extreme vulnerability, the relatively small population (2.3 million people spread across 11 countries ) and remote location of the Pacific Islands means that they garner little international action, for all the attention they receive in the media.