Climate refugees

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Bangladesh innondations
According to estimates, between 50 and 500 million people could migrate by 2050 due to flooding, soil degradation, natural disasters or deforestation, the building of large dams or industrial accidents. Yet, the status of these people sometimes called climate refugees is not yet recognised by international law.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) defines « climate refugees as people who have to temporarily or permanently leave their homes because of a clear degradation of their environment (for human or natural reasons) which greatly affects their way of life and/ or which greatly jeopardises their quality of life ».


Millions of people have already been moved for reasons linked to the environment. The disastrous floods in 1998 made many people homeless and the Chernobyl disaster forced over 100 000 people to move. Africa’s serious droughts made thousands of people flee to neighbouring countries.

This is not a marginal phenomenon as, according to the World Bank, there were 25 million climate refugees in 1995, at a time when there were 27 million refugees fleeing political oppression, religious persecution and ethnic problems.

Dams cause the most movement as the huge artificial lakes they create force people to leave their land; over 80 million people were displaced according to the World Bank – over 1 million for the Dam of the Three Gorges.

Crises to come

Global warming and increasing threats to our environment mean that the number of climate refugees will increase considerably over the next few years.

The IPCC, (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has predicted that « the repercussions of the climate’s evolution will affect developing countries and poor people in all countries disproportionately and will increase health inequalities and inequalities relating to access to enough food, clean water and other resources ».

Estimates vary but if the number of climate refugees should double from 1995 to 2010, it could exceed 200 million people due to global warming. They could be struck by the upheaval of monsoon systems and other forms of precipitation, by the most serious droughts yet and by sea levels rising.

Many different cases

It should be noted that all migrations and all refugees will not cross the oceans to seek asylum in the North. Most are indeed poor and cannot afford to do this. It will therefore be migration between different Southern countries. Some migrants will maybe only move a few hundred kilometers away and will remain within their country’s borders. However, they will still be refugees and they will have to live in precarious conditions.

Rising sea levels

If sea levels go up significantly, the consequences could be disastrous as many people live along the coast.

In Bangladesh, half the population lives in zones are at less than 5 metres above sea level. According to scenarios, about 20 % of its territory is sinking beneath the waters and 20 to 40 million inhabitants have been displaced. The first effects can already be felt: the large amount of water which has flooded plains has salinated the soil, to the detriment of rice paddies. In Africa, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), « about 30 % of coastal infrastructures are at risk », and the number of Africans threatened by floods « will go from 1 million in 1990 to 70 million in 2080 ».

It is not only poor countries that are at risk. New York, London and Shanghai, to name but a few, are coastal cities.


The state of Tuvalu is made up of 9 coral atolls with a 5 meter high peak. It has about ten thousand inhabitants and is threatened by rising sea levels. According to experts, it could disappear by 2050.

The Tuvalu representatives have started thinking of the emigration of their inhabitants. They asked Australia for visas; these were refused. They then asked New Zealand who accepted. In an agreement called the Pacific Access Category (PAC), signed in 2001, 75 Tuvaluan and Kiribati residents, and 250 Tongan residents a year can obtain a permanent residence card. (2)

The wide media coverage of Tuvalu helped promote the concept of climate refugees. It also raised questions of responsibility. The small insular Pacific islands have only produced very small amounts of greenhouse gas but they are the first to suffer from the global warming which is a direct result of high greenhouse gas emissions. Countries like Australia which is one of the countries which emits high amounts of CO2, have not accepted to grant them the equivalent of the right of asylum.

Legal status

For now, climate refugees form a migrant group which is not recognised by international law. It is general considered that they do not meet the requirements of the 1951 Geneva Convention which considers that refugees are fleeing violence or persecution.

For this reason, no large international organisation like the UNHCR is authorised to care for them as such. This is only possible when they are considered to be fleeing hunger or poverty. However, boiling down migrations to the environmental factor is often simplistic: it often has multiple causes and brings both economic and social factors into play.

Today, many experts want the Geneva Convention to be revised to legally recognise the status and conditions of climate refugees. This would force countries to legally recognise their status and condition and they would thus be bound to look after this group of people.

However, as the Tuvaluan example shows, recognizing that some people are climate refugees means acknowledging responsibility and asking who is to blame. This is something certain people don’t want and also something that would be hard to do.

The affected regions

The displacement of populations has already started in Sub-Saharan Africa, in the insular South Pacific States and in the United States. Two years after hurricane Katrina (August 2005), only 68 % of previous inhabitants have returned, 160 000 inhabitants have not.

The main areas which are affected are:

The south of the Mediterranean basin and the Sahel: the lack of water, a drop in crop yields, an upward demographic trend and unstable political institutions will intensify political crises and pressure to migrate. Some examples, the salination of half the irrigated arable land in the Nile delta (Egypt), the droughts in Sudan and Niger.

Southern Africa: climate change could weaken the economic potential of countries, including some of the poorest in the world, further.

Central Asia: tensions over water have been increased by receding glaciers. This weakens agriculture and hydric resources thus leading to political and social tensions and conflicts.

The Indian subcontinent: receding glaciers in the Himalaya will threaten the water stocks of millions of people, changes to the yearly monsoon will affect farming and rising sea levels, cyclones will threaten housing around the highly populated Bay of Bengal.

China: the increase in heat waves and droughts will worsen the desertification and the lack of water in several regions in the country, in addition to the air pollution and water pollution and soil degradation. Rising sea levels and increasingly frequent tropical cyclones will threaten the East Coast.

The Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, with the increasing frequency and strength of hurricanes, especially in Central America.

The Andes and the Amazon: the receding glaciers in the Andes will make the region’s water problems worse. If the deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest continues it will radically change South America’s environment.

Alaska: A 2 to 4°C increase in the temperatures recorded over the past decades has changed the state of soil. This forced natives like those in Newtok, on the East coast to leave their villages because of a torrent from ice melting, or those in Shimaref, because the island’s coasts were eroded by the permafrost thawing.

The South Pacific Islands are already feeling the consequences of rising sea levels. In August 2005, Lateu, in the Vanuatu archipelago was the first to be displaced because sea levels have risen.

In this archipelago of over a hundred islands, in the Ganges, in between India and Bangladesh, the inhabitants, threatened by rising sea levels, have started being displaced. The islands are disappearing one after the other: in thirty years, four have already been wiped off the map. This means 6 000 inhabitants have been displaced. By 2020, 15 % of the land will have disappeared and 30 000 families will have to leave.

In the Bay of Bengal the sea level rises by 3.14 millimetres compared to 2 millimetres in other oceans, basically because global warming is melting the Himalayan glacier; this increases the rate of flow of the rivers that flow into the sea, facing the islands.

1) Revue Européenne des migrations internationales

2) FOE Climate citizens

3) Crideau

See also

UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Christian Aid – Human tide: the real migration crisis

Les réfugiés de l’environnement, Véronique Magniny, thèse de l’université Paris 1, 1999

Revue Européenne de Droit de l’Environnement

Vers une reconnaissance du « réfugié écologique ? Quelle(s) protection(s) Quel(s) statut(s) ?, Cournil, Revue du droit public, juillet-août 2006.

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