The UN Is Sounding the Alarm on 'Climate Refugees'

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Climate change is set to displace more people—including children.
Climate change is set to displace more people—including children.
Photo: Adam Berry (Getty)

For the first time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has included climate change in its annual report laying out what events cause refugees to flee. It signals a growing consensus around the risks climate poses, even if it doesn’t change much for the people actually forced to flee their homes after a cyclone or hurricane hits.

The UNHCR’s Global Trends report, released last week, found that one out of every 97 people in the world faced forced displacement last year. For many people, war and conflict continue to push them from their homes. However, the climate crisis poses an emerging threat. Extreme weather can displace people and long-term environmental changes like sea-level rise and drought are exacerbating threats that already exist. The report briefly mentions examples of both, noting that the “interplay between climate, conflict, hunger, poverty, and persecution creates increasingly complex emergencies.”

Kathryn Mahoney, a global spokesperson for UNHCR, told Earther that the agency is “particularly concerned about the risk of climate-related displacement of people.”


“The impacts of climate change are unevenly weighted against the world’s most vulnerable people: Those who are the poorest, most exposed, and have the least resources to withstand climate shocks and stresses,” she wrote in an email. “The reality is that climate change is forcing people around the world to leave their homes and even their countries. We’ve been working on displacement issues linked to climate change and disasters for many years, and we have long seen firsthand the devastating impact on people uprooted from their homes.”

It’s a pretty big deal for the UNHCR to draw such clear connections between climate change and the social conditions that already force people to leave their homes. The UN as a whole has said that the climate crisis will worsen migration, but including the threat in this report makes a more direct connection to refugees, which are a specific type of migrant. While the report doesn’t change the legal definition of refugee—“someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”—it does give more recognition to the notion of “climate refugees,” Idean Salehyan, a political science professor at the University of Texas, told Earther.


“Given the current political climate in the U.S. and Europe, I don’t think there’s any room to change that definition formally,” he said. “But I think it’s a fact of recognition by the UNHCR that these are conditions that people are fleeing and that [world governments] would respond to, at least in practice.”

The report specifically mentions the cyclones that struck Mozambique last year. Since then, tens of thousands of people in southeastern Africa are still living in damaged homes or makeshift shelters. In Mozambique alone, more than 18,000 people were displaced. UNHCR’s Global Compact on Refugees, which the UN affirmed in 2018, creates further support to help nations adapt to the growing needs of refugees affected by climate change. The compact is a statement of values and principles that are meant to guide world leaders. However, it’s not legally binding, so the UN can’t really force governments to abide by it even if they pledge to do so.


“Countries are recognizing that a coordinated approach is best, and at least rhetorically they are agreeing to these principles,” Salehyan said. “But it’s not a treaty in a sense that it’s being ratified and there’s some sort of enforcement or adjudication or mechanism that way.”

Countries like the U.S. are already seeing more people arrive at their borders because of environmental issues they face at home. Drought in Central America is, in part, why so many people have fled countries like El Salvador and Honduras in recent years. If farmers can’t grow their crops, they often feel they have no other option. That’s just a glimpse of what’s to come as the world warms. The Government Accountability Office warned the Department of State last year that it needs to start taking the issue seriously.


For President Donald Trump, that means building a destructive border wall, but this approach won’t discourage migration. It only winds up putting more people in danger. Around the world, we need stronger policies that help make home safe and livable for people and that provide alternatives to leaving it behind altogether. World leaders need to start working on creating jobs and ensuring individuals have safe access to opportunity everywhere and that communities are resilient to climate shocks. Otherwise, more people will flee their homes, overwhelming countries that continually fail to welcome them.

The report from the UNHCR is pretty clear: The refugee crisis is worsening. That’s not because people want to leave, though. It’s because world governments are failing to keep people safe.