Over the last century, climate change has significantly contributed to the mass displacement of people. These people are defined as climate refugees who have been forced to leave their homes due to climate change. In the face of these environmental threats, people feel that they have no choice but to seek refuge elsewhere, whether in their own countries or beyond. Climate change impacts both direct and indirect livelihoods. It may also affect migration contributors or enablers and people’s natural, financial, and social resources. The impacts of migration are often substantial, and they need to be carefully analyzed and handled within the context of development and adaptation.
Climate change is a risk multiplier for conflict, insecurity, and destruction. The combination of severe weather and other stressors can disrupt the stability of states and societies. In already vulnerable and conflict-affected states, the capacity to adapt to climate change is minimal, and the impacts are more dramatic. Consequences include scarce natural resources, such as fresh drinking water, crop survival rates, and declining livestock. There are also economic problems with governments expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars attempting to restructure society and buildings that have been destroyed as a result of climate change. There is also the dependency on financial assistance from other states on hosting and protecting these refugees.
In 2017, 68.5 million people were internally displaced, with about 1/3 forced to leave their homes due to the sudden onset of weather disasters, including floods, forest fires following droughts, and severe storms. Although the remaining 2/3 of these displacements resulted from other humanitarian disasters, it is becoming apparent that climate change is leading to the rapid onset of events threatening livelihoods and food security in predominantly agricultural communities. Analyzing these recent trends, the World Bank estimated in 2018 that the regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South-East Asia would generate an additional 143 million climate refugees by 2050. The world could also see a higher temperature rise over the next 50 years than in the last 6,000 years combined.
Policymakers need to consider the opportunities and threats of internal climate displacement while planning responses and solutions to alleviate such challenges. A new approach is required to deal with the issue of climate refugees, one that acknowledges the existing realities of migration as a result of environmental crises and relies on international cooperation rather than unilateralism. In March 2016, the EU signed an agreement with Turkey, which was the last place that millions of migrants entered on their way to Europe during the climate crisis. The EU provided Turkey with almost two billion euros of assistance to host the integrating refugees while restricting their outward movements. While criticized for making some migrant’s journeys much more dangerous, the agreement has decreased the transit of the Aegean Sea to Greece and strengthened Turkey’s ability and willingness to host 3.7 million refugees. However, due to the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in Turkey, officials in Ankara have recently started resettling refugees in the Levant.
Policymakers could also draw guidance from the 1989 International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), which established regional solutions for almost two million displaced people globally, more than half of whom were displaced across borders. CIREFCA is one of the most successful historical examples of cooperation with refugees worldwide. The conference set guidelines for the identification and response of various categories of migration. Through this conference, countries have developed sustainable sanctuaries closer to home for climate refugees in their regions. Attendees of this conference called on the CIREFCA Secretariat to introduce 36 initial projects that would involve $375 million over three years. Most of the projects ensured that refugees could be safe and secure closer to their homelands.
The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol defines the term ‘refugee’ as someone “who has crossed an international border owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (UNHCR, 2020). However, it does not cover environmentally displaced people (EDPs) that have been forced to relocate due to climate change. Therefore, it is proposed that this outdated definition should be redefined to include climate refugees. This would highlight the importance and urgency of climate change and the significant number of people that are being displaced as a result.
Furthermore, although international law specifies the rights and protections guaranteed to refugees who move across international borders, there is no universal international treaty that applies specifically to internally displaced people (IDPs). The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, established by the UNOCHA, sets out thirty standards that outline the rights and protections available to IDPs (UNOCHA, 2004). While these principles include those that have been displaced by environmental degradation, it is not a legally binding document. Therefore, governments must be encouraged to adopt and apply these principles, recognizing their applicability to the protection of IDPs that have been uprooted by climate change.
Lastly, while most EDPs are being displaced internally, there is an ever-increasing number of people who must relocate across international borders because of climate change. This issue will only become more significant in the future as populations are threatened by global climate events such as sea-level rise. Therefore, it is essential that governments adequately recognize this as a worldwide issue that requires cooperation to aid in developing and maintaining the states that will be most critically affected by climate change, i.e. those within the Global South.
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