Climate refugees

Environmental changes made worse by climate change – like extreme weather and drought – are forcing millions of people to flee their homes and countries.
  Published:  20 Jun 2017    |      3 minute read

Climate change is threatening the lives of the world's poorest and most vulnerable – displacing millions of people.

These people are known as "climate refugees". But they don't have the same protections as other refugees. It couldn't be more unfair. They haven't caused climate change, yet they suffer the worst of its impacts.

The richer countries most responsible for the climate crisis aren't doing enough to stop it getting worse – and they're not helping the people most affected.

Who are climate refugees?

Refugees are people who have been forced to leave their country and cannot return home safely. They are escaping war, persecution or conflict.

People fleeing for any other reason – even dire poverty – are defined as migrants.

Refugees are protected by international laws. These laws prevent them from being returned to danger and give them access to fair asylum procedures.

People fleeing because of climate change don't have the same protections.

Climate refugees are forced to leave their homes because of environmental changes which risk their lives or livelihoods. Such changes might include extreme weather, drought or rising sea levels.


Children lighting candles in Papa New Guinea. One holds a sign saying "We can't walk on water!!"
Credit: Tulele Peisa

I am a climate refugee

In 2013 Colitha Kasuana, her husband and their 4 children had to flee their tiny island home of Piul, part of Papua New Guinea in South East Asia.

She was forced to move to the nearby mainland – not by war or persecution, but by the rising sea levels. With less food to go round, she had to act.

The little piece of land where my family were growing their bananas was gone.

Colitha Kasuana

“The future of my children depended on me and my husband, so we made that hard decision to leave home.”

2,500 others have also fled this group of coral atolls known as the Carteret Islands. It's part of a growing humanitarian crisis – one that’s only set to get worse.

Every second, someone is displaced by a climate change or weather-related disaster. Droughts, floods and, in Colitha’s case, the encroaching tide, are taking their toll.

Thankfully, the Carteret Islanders were resettled. Colitha now has a hectare of land to grow food and cash crops such as cocoa and coconuts.

“We send our surplus food to the island to our remaining families and sell the rest for a little family income.”

But for most people escaping the effects of climate change, there is no happy ending. They don't have the same rights as those fleeing war and persecution. There is little or no support for them to rebuild their lives.


A man rows his family to an unknown destination on a long narrow boat in the waters of Papa New Guinea
Credit: Tulele Peisa

Millions are fleeing due to rising temperatures

By 2050, there could be up to 1.2 billion people displaced by rising global temperature.

As global temperatures increase, more and more people are feeling the impacts of climate change.

Drought and extreme storms are forcing people to leave their homes in search of a better life. And there is an increasing risk of communities clashing over precious natural resources such as water.

Where do climate refugees go?

Most displaced people are in the global south. Nations with lower wealth host 86% of all recognised refugees.

The majority of climate refugees remain in their own countries. The same is true for those displaced by conflict. They are known as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

However, many IDPs don't get the help they are entitled to because they are not identified or registered. Some will be forced to move to different countries seeking greater security.

As climate change gets worse, we're likely to see more people having to permanently leave their countries behind.

Are Syrian refugees also climate refugees?

The environmental factors pushing people from their land are not always immediately clear. They can be difficult to separate from economic factors and war.

Degradation of the local environment may create huge competition for resources, such as food or water, which forces people to leave an area.

Some research suggests that severe drought – made worse by climate change – contributed to the conflict in Syria, and the resulting refugee crisis.

As you can see, identifying who is or isn’t a climate refugee is problematic.

Who is most at risk from climate change?

Climate change will affect us all. But the world’s poorest people are hardest hit. Those whose lives are already precarious, living on marginal land, or in drought or flood-prone cities and countryside.

They often have the least resources to cope with climate change.

Sea-level rise and extreme weather events particularly threaten coastal areas in Asia and Africa, and Small Island States. They could lead to mass movements of people.

Even in rich countries, the poorest are often affected the most. Deprived areas of England face disproportionately more flood risk compared to those in less deprived areas.

Who is most responsible for climate change?

Richer countries like the UK need to act fast to avoid dangerous climate change.

They have released more emissions over the years – making them more responsible for the rise in global temperature. They have the means to do something about it and prevent worsening impacts from driving more and more people from their homes.

The poorest 50% of the global population emit only 10% of emissions – according to an Oxfam report [PDF]. The richest 10% are responsible for 50% of emissions.

Do climate refugees have any legal rights?

People fleeing their homes because of environmental impacts are not defined as refugees.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) offers some protection to these people.

However, international laws don't adequately protect people who are forced to move because of climate change.

Most people are simply classified as migrants – implying their move is voluntary – even when it is a matter of survival.