The unheard refugees: floating with Climate

Just because we have not counted the victims of climate change, does not mean they are not there.

Fred Pearce

How do you define victims of climate change? What happens when climate change takes it’s toll?

One such phenomenon due to climate change is migration or mobility which can be characterized by the production of ‘refugees’. [Farbotko & Lazrus, 2011]. It took us some time to use the term ‘climate refugee’ even though ‘environmental refugee’ came into being in 1990s . These are yet to become legal terms.

Typhoon Haiyan Damage in Philippines Credit: Asian Development Bank

Climate change refugee is a term used to describe people temporarily or permanently displaced across national/international borders by the effects of climate change. The concept is closely linked to that of ‘ecological refugee’ which has been used since the 1970s and ‘environmental refugee’ – used since 1990s – to denote persons who are forced to migrate for environmental reasons nationally or internationally [Docherty & Giannini, 2009; Farbotko & Lazrus, 2012; Williams, 2008].


Some have suggested that climate change refugees should be incorporated under the existing Refugee Convention, but for others the very usage of the term ‘refugee’ is considered inappropriate, as this might undermine the protections currently offered to conventional refugees [Williams, 2008]. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) avoids any reference to refugees, and instead refers to ‘environmentally displaced persons’ which it defines

persons ‘who are displaced from or who feel obliged to leave their usual place of residence, because their lives, livelihoods and welfare have been placed at serious risk as a result of adverse environmental, ecological or climatic processes and events

The UNHCR has also made clear that these persons do not fall under their mandate for internally displaced people. In recent times, migration and refugee has become a major concern for many of the developed and developing countries. Though many perceive, Ecological disasters do not typically lead to mass migrations, this has been proven to the contrary with increasing occurrence of climate disasters over the last 40 years. Most of this type of migration occurs within countries, instead of internationally. Case studies indicate that sudden onset disasters will generally cause only short-term local displacement, This may be due to economic and social factors, as those most affected are often poor with little social support and thus have limited mobility.

Norman Myer, first ever put a number about world’s Environmentally displaced people. According to estimates by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), around 185 million people were displaced by disasters in the period 2008–14. Found in a policy brief in 2008, below are some numbers.

  • The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) estimated in 2001 that for the first time the number of environmental refugees exceeded those displaced by war.
  • UNHCR (2002:12) estimated there were then approximately 24 million people around the world who had fled because of floods, famine and other environmental factors.
  • IPCC predicts 150 million environmental refugees by 2050 – equivalent to 1.5% of 2050’s predicted global population of 10 billion.
  • Myers, who in 1993 predicted 150 million environmental refugees, now believes the impact of global warming could potentially displace 200 million people (Myers 2005).
  • The Stern Review, commissioned by the UK Treasury, agrees it is likely there could be 200 million displaced by 2050 (Stern 2006).
  • UNEP argues that by 2060 there could be 50 million environmental refugees in Africa alone.
  • Most apocalyptically, Christian Aid have postulated that a billion people could be permanently displaced by 2050 – 250 million by climate change-related phenomena such as droughts, floods and hurricanes and 645 million by dams and other development projects (Christian Aid 2007)

Kosi Floods - IndiaNow, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified three expected effects of climate change which are considered as trigger effects for migration. These are: more frequent flooding; more frequent droughts; and a rise in sea levels. Climate change migration will affect populations in small island states, low lying coastal areas, Africa, Asia and Latin America with sea level rise symbolizing the greatest danger to these regions. Researches suggest that migration is not inevitable, as once financial resources are available protective measures can be implemented; thus, even sea level rise can be somewhat neutralized by engineering, like the case of Netherlands.

The countries which are and will suffer the most effects are generally those which contributed the least to climate change. These countries should get compensation and migration initiative to cope up with the change. As COP21 is few days away, it will be interesting to see what actions INDCs and country leaders take in order to address climate refugees if they take any at all?