Climate refugees

Aistė Zakarauskaitė

What is a “climate refugee”?

All people around the world are feeling the effects of climate change. However, according to the World Economic Forum, developing countries more severely feel the consequences of climate change such as droughts, windstorms, hurricanes, heat waves, tornadoes, and other climate disasters [1]. It deprives individuals of daily safe food, clean water, and other basic needs. The World Economic Forum emphasizes that one of the biggest climate change threats is sea-level rise. It is mentioned that for example “In Bangladesh, it is predicted that 17% of the country will be submerged by the rise in sea level by 2050, and 20 million people living there will lose their homes.” [1]. Every year sea level rises 3.2 mm. [8]. Meaning that not only the developing countries, but all countries which are surrounded by the seas are at risk which could lead to migration.

Therefore, people are forced to move and look for safer spaces that they could call home. According to the World Economic Forum: “Concept of climate refugees is described as the increasing large-scale migration and cross-border mass movements of people that were partly caused by weather-related disasters” [1]. It is important to mention that because of climate change fundamental human rights of refugees are being constantly violated – the right to self-determination and housing. Extreme weather conditions destroy people's houses leaving them with no self-determination choice where to live, threatening indigenous people's traditional living area's survival [2]. Another common term to define “climate refugee” is “environmental refugee/migrant” meaning the same – people leaving their homes because of climate change-related disasters [3].

Statistics – climate refugees around the world

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “Since 2008 over 318 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced by floods, windstorms, earthquakes, or droughts” [3]. And in 2020 “30.7 million people were displaced because of environmental disasters, notably linked to climate change from 145 countries and territories.” [7]. This data shows that every year people experience the effects of climate change, forcing them to leave their homes. For example, the most affected by climate change in 2021 was Vanuatu - 260 459 people (per million inhabitants) were forced to leave their homes [7]. 41 274 (per million inhabitants) people were displaced because of climate conditions in Fiji [7]. According to statistical data from the Global internal displacement database, most climate refugees are from East Asia and the Pacific – 39% of the world’s climate refugees.

Laws protecting climate refugees

In 1951 “The Refugee Convention” was adopted. However, this convention only offers protection to those fleeing war and conflict who face persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion [4]. That implies those who leave their countries in the context of climate change or disasters do not qualify for protection under international law. However, the situation is slowly changing. According to The UN Refugee Agency, “People may have a valid claim for refugee status, for example, where the adverse effects of climate change interact with armed conflict and violence.” [5]. Some people according to this convention are able to claim their “climate refugees” status. In 2018 the United Nations also released the Global Compact on Refugees which acknowledged that “Climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements.” [6]. That means international organizations are taking action to ensure that people who have left their homes because of damaging climate conditions would be protected. Nevertheless, it is necessary to protect fundamental human rights, connected to climate change more effectively as the threats are beyond the control of climate refugees and the long-lasting process may put people's safety and even lives at risk.

Every year climate change causes negative impacts on economics, health and people’s social life. All of those factors affect people’s living conditions. Therefore, people are forced to leave their homes and the term “climate refugees” appears. Due to climate change, people’s fundamental human rights such as the right to self-determination, the right to health, and the right to housing are in danger as well. It is crucial to protect people’s rights and educate society about climate change's impact on people's living quality in order to make this phenomenon more seen and understood globally.

This article is a part of the project “Youth for Climate change!” which is implemented by Global Citizens‘ Academy (Lithuania) together with “Stebėk teises” (Lithuania), Peace Action (Estonia), Crossing Borders (Denmark). This publication has been produced with financial support from the Nordic Council of Ministers. The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of the coordinators of this project and does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

References:

[1]World Economic Forum. (2021). Climate refugees – the world’s forgotten victims. Read more:
[2]Understanding Human Rights and Climate Change. (2015). Read more
[3]European Parliament. The concept of climate refugee. (2021). Read more:
[4]The 1951 Refugee Convention. Read more:
[5]The UN Refugee Agency. Climate change and disaster displacement. (2021). Read more:
[6]Global Compact on Refugees. (2018). Read more:
[7]Global internal displacement database, 2020. Read more:
[8]Climate Change: Global Sea Level. (2020). Read more: