Climate change

Who are climate refugees? Experts say defining displaced people key to policy, aid

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International organizations and countries must agree to a universal definition of what it means to be a climate refugee, in order to better help those displaced by the effects of climate change, experts told Al Arabiya English.

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The United Nations defines a refugee as a person who is outside his or her home country owing to reasons including feared persecution and violence and needs international protection.

Almost 150 countries have signed the UN Refugee Convention since it was first established in 1951. These countries are obliged to take in refugees and provide them with the basic aspects of housing and education, among other necessities.

However, no such protocol exists for those who have been displaced by the effects of climate change such as drought, heavy flooding or hurricanes.

“[Until] we’re all on the same page on what a climate migrant is, a lot of people will keep falling through the cracks and a lot of people will continue to be denied the services or care they deserve,” Jay Balagna, the disaster risk management researcher at US think-tank RAND, told Al Arabiya English.

No clear international definition on a climate migrant also means experts may disagree on the number of climate refugees or the number of people who have been displaced from their homes due to extreme weather and other effects of climate change.

Climate change, and effects stemming from it, such as extreme floods or drought, could force more than 200 million people to become internally displaced within their countries by 2050, the World Bank said in a 2021 estimate.

This estimate, though, does not include people forced to cross borders because of climate disasters or climate-related problems. This means that the actual number of people displaced by climate change may be higher than what is documented.

Because a climate refugee is not officially recognized by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “it’s hard to put a specific number on climate refugees”, Dubai-based Joe Y. Battikh, Head of Energy & Water Knowledge Hub with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told Al Arabiya English.

Climate or conflict migrants?

Another question about who falls into the category of a climate refugee stems from the fact that a lot of countries suffering from climate change are also affected by conflicts such as war. This means it is hard to determine who has been displaced because of the conflict and who by climate change, or even a mixture of both.

Armed conflict in the Middle East, for example, is exacerbating the effects of climate change across parts of the region, a report from the Norwegian Red Cross and ICRC said earlier this year.

“Countries that are impacted already by conflict are having a hard time dealing with climate change,” Battikh said.

There are several countries in the region affected by both climate change and conflict, including Sudan and Syria.

Sudan is currently suffering a civil war between the Rapid Support Forces and the country’s armed forces – a war that began this April and forced thousands to flee and resulted in hundreds of deaths. The country also suffers from the effects of droughts and depletion of water sources.

Civil war has gripped Syria since 2011, killing hundreds and destroying infrastructure. The country also faces increasing drought and temperatures.

Dealing with climate migration patchy across the globe

Despite no single term to define what a climate migrant or refugee is, experts agree that more steps need to be taken to mitigate the effects of climate change so that less people are forced to move because of it.

Some countries, such as Kenya and Bangladesh, are taking more action than others to address the issues of climate migration.

Kenya has published several action plans to deal with climate change and those displaced by the effects of it. Some of these plans include improving the country’s infrastructure against flooding, as well as developing early-warning systems for drought, to reduce the impact of climate change on livelihoods, so they are not forced to leave their homes in search of alternative sources of incomes.

The population of Kenya depends on agriculture and is predicted to face rising temperatures and alternating periods of drought and flooding over the coming years.

Bangladesh, in 2015, said it would make vulnerable communities in the country “resilient to climate change and disasters through sustainable management of disaster and climate-induced internal displacement”, according to the government’s climate action plan.

Herders face a struggle to continue their way of life in conflict-torn Somalia, which is facing a climate crisis. (File photo))
Herders face a struggle to continue their way of life in conflict-torn Somalia, which is facing a climate crisis. (File photo))

This includes measures for those displaced by climate change or to stop people from being forced to move because of it. The measures include making households better at managing climate disasters and creating a more resilient agriculture system to cope better with flooding.

Yet, not all countries have such coherent plans in place.

Iraq in 2021 suffered from a severe drought, following low rainfall across the Eastern Mediterranean, which contributed to decreased water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The situation was compounded by high temperatures and low spring rainfall.

By September 2021, two million people in Iraq were experiencing food insecurity, with the internally displaced people among the worst affected, the Norwegian Red Cross and ICRC said in its report this April.

Battikh feels that more needs to be done in the region to tackle the effects of climate change and related migration, such as reducing water scarcity and air pollution.

He suggested better water management to cope with water shortage and planting more trees to address air pollution. Efficient urban planning and better public transport may also help cities overflowing with an influx of people who have moved out of rural areas as part of climate-related migration.

Going forward, countries may be required to look internally for solutions to climate displacement, rather than expect guidelines from international organizations such as the UN.

“The bulk of policymaking or political effort will (not) come from places like the UN. I think it’s going to be something that countries [ought to] manage themselves,” Balagna said.

And the problem is not set to get any better, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in March this year warning that governments need to take action on climate-related displacement. The IPPC report highlights the need for governments to increase “climate resilience as a measure against displacement.”

“It is [climate migration] not something that will reduce in terms of numbers … and it definitely needs to be addressed,” Battikh added.

Read more:

Climate change amid armed conflict exacerbating humanitarian needs across Middle East

How is the Middle East and North Africa affected by climate change?

Iraq drought impacts potable water supply, crop yields: Aid group

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