What’s the link between climate, migration and refugees?

The climate crisis is forcing more people to move as extreme weather destroys livelihoods and communities and increases conflict. But the UK government is ramping up attacks on migrants while failing to respond to the real crises of our day: increase in global conflict and the climate and cost-of-living crises.
  Published:  23 Jun 2023    |      5 minute read

Climate-related disasters are soaring. In 2023 we experienced multiple instances of climate devastation, impacting communities far and wide:

  • Afghanistan reported freezing temperatures, resulting in the deaths of 78 people and 77,000 farm animals.
  • Torrential rain in Brazil triggered landslides that left at least 64 people dead.
  • More than 50,000 people in Malaysia were displaced due to an unusual monsoon with unprecedented rainfall.
  • Wildfires rocked Canada and the impact travelled south, engulfing New York in alarming fumes and orange-coloured fog.
  • Deadly storms in Dubai saw 250mm of rain in less than 24 hours, exceeding all records in daily rainfall in the 75 years since records began.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Oxfam’s report “Inequality Kills” shows that “a disaster related to weather, climate, or water hazards has occurred every day on average over the past 50 years, with more than 91% of deaths caused by such disasters occurring in low- and middle-income countries.”. Alarmingly, Carbon Brief, a climate data analysis website, claims that over 71% of extreme weather events across the world are “made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change”.

People from low-income countries contribute far less to global warming than people from richer countries. Oxfam’s report “Inequality Kills” says:

  • The wealthiest 1% of humanity are responsible for twice as many emissions as the poorest 50%.
  • Rich countries are responsible for an estimated 92% of all excess historic emissions,  far above their fair share of CO2 emissions.
  • The damage a person does to the climate increases with their level of wealth.

However, people in low-income countries feel the impact strongly, with climate-related disasters causing mass humanitarian crises like the 2022 floods in Pakistan, which impacted 33 million people, displaced 7.9 million and killed 1,700. This is because many of these people live in areas especially vulnerable to extreme weather, with limited resources to “bounce back”. Climate-fuelled crises are forcing people to flee their homes to seek safe refuge.

The UK has a responsibility to do better for refugees

Climate change is pushing people into terrible economic situations: forced migration is already happening. The heating of our planet is destroying lives and livelihoods. We all need to play our part in this humanitarian and natural crisis. Countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are already hosting far more displaced people than the UK is. Yet these countries have also done the least to cause the climate crisis. For example, Uganda hosts the third highest number of refugees and is already facing climate-related droughts, impacting lives and livelihoods, its food supply and more. 76% of the world’s refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries, and 70% of refugees in need of international protection live in countries neighbouring their countries of origin.

While everyone has a right to asylum, it’s a myth that refugees flock to Western countries when disaster strikes. But every story is unique. While the percentage of people seeking refuge in the UK is comparatively low, people may choose to come to the UK to be with family, or because they speak English and it’ll give them a better chance at rebuilding their lives. In uncertain, terrifying and traumatic times, it’s natural to seek stability and familiarity.

Dangerous government legislation is threatening refugees’ right to seek asylum

In recent years, safe passage to the UK has  been under severe threat by worrying legislation that threatens human rights.

Friends of the Earth joined over 250 civic society organisations in opposing the misleadingly named "Safety of Rwanda Act" which'll enable the government to forcibly expel people seeking asylum, including children and survivors of trafficking and modern slavery. This puts them at grave risk of harm and human rights abuses. Despite our Supreme Court ruling that it's unsafe for them to be removed to a country that they'll have no connection with. This runs the risk of them being returned to danger in the countries they fled. The Act undermines the rule of law, and, by outsourcing our asylum system to other countries, abandons our duty to share in the global responsibility towards those forced to seek safety. Instead of this divisive, dangerous policy which offers no humane solution to those seeking refuge, government should be guaranteeing that asylum claims will be heard fairly on our shores, and open safe routes so that people are not forced to take dangerous journeys.

This comes of the off the back of the Nationality and Borders Act and the Illegal Migration Act, which means that people who enter the UK via “unofficial” ways, such as small boats, will be subject to detention rather than protection. The asylum seeker prison barge the "Bibby Stockholm" has also been met with charities demanding it be shut down. Such policies grab headlines at the expense of the human rights of those they target and are causing concern on the national and international stage.

The UN Refugee Agency and Human Rights Office issued a statement upon the passing of the Illegal Migration Act , calling for the new law to be reversed and raised serious concerns about how it undermines the UK’s obligations to human rights and refugee rights. For those who travel to the UK unconventionally, the Act removes their right to seek refugee protection, even if they have a genuine and compelling claim. Individual circumstances won’t be considered. These policies are inhumane, breach the UN’s Refugee Convention, and are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a speech to the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury openly criticised the Illegal Migration Act when it was being debated in the House of Lords, stating that it “will not stop conflict or climate migration. The UNHCR has warned that the Act could lead to the collapse of the international system that protects refugees.” Climate breakdown impacts us all, but to varying degrees. It’s not an abstract concept, but one that causes real-life devastation.  

The UK is facing a crisis, but it's not the narrative the government is pushing

It’s hard not to feel like the narrative the government is pushing about “illegal migrants” is simply a distraction from the wider issues we’re facing as a nation. Issues such as the enduring cost-of-living and energy crises, where the UK government is failing to invest in domestic insulation, despite calls from environmental and fuel poverty groups. Whipping up a toxic “hostile environment” against migrants ensures that immigration dominates the headlines. Not only does this divert attention away from the real crises, but it has a terrible impact on the communities such policies impact, the Windrush scandal being a prime example.

It’s easy to pick “others” as the enemy instead of facing up to the failures of government. Suella Braverman, Former UK Home Secretary, claimed there’s 100 million people around the world who could qualify for protection under our current laws, and they’re “coming here”.  In the year ending December 2023, the data shows the real number of people that who claimed asylum in the UK was around 67,000 – significantly lower than in 2022. The grossly exaggerated figure Suella Braverman used is a classic scaremongering, scapegoating tactic.

Historically and presently, the UK has relied on migrants to fill jobs and drive the economy. This is especially important during a cost-of-living crisis. The research proves that the impact of migration on wages and employment prospects for UK-born workers is small, and that the number of jobs in the UK economy isn’t fixed.

Migration actually causes job numbers to increase. And higher migration reduces pressure on government debt over time. A 10-year study analysing the impact of migration on the economy found immigration yielded a positive net contribution of about £25 billion, during a period when the UK ran an overall budget deficit. Despite this, asylum seekers are refused the right to work and money is going towards inhumane, large-scale deportation and detention schemes.

Celebrating refugee contributions to society and the world

During Refugee Week, it’s important to celebrate the significant contributions refugees have made to our world. From the Nobel laureate and humanitarian Albert Einstein to long-distance runner Sir Mo Farah, there have been countless refugees who’ve made significant contributions to the world. Whether they have a high profile or not, refugees bring many positive contributions to society: they enrich our communities and become our friends, neighbours, family.

Sir Mo Farrah in bright coloured running gear, running
Sir Mo Farah, London Marathon 2023
Credit: via Wikimedia Commons

We need solidarity in the climate movement. We’re all in this together, and the climate crisis is impacting us all. We have power in numbers. In 2021, hundreds of protesters in Glasgow were able to secure the safe release of their neighbours from UK Immigration Enforcement. Protesters surrounded the van in a day-long standoff, while they chanted: “they’re our neighbours, let them go’” Campaigners celebrated this display of Glaswegian solidarity, which shows that if you show up, you can make a difference. Friends of the Earth was one of 180 organisations that issued a joint civil society solidarity statement against the Illegal Migration Bill. We also signed Climate Justice Coalition letter on migrant justice during COP27. We stood alongside 260 charities and expert organisations to call on House of Lords to reject shameful Rwanda Bill.

Those who must migrate because of the climate crisis aren’t responsible for their circumstances. What’s clear is that we need just solutions from our leaders, and we need to hold them to account to protect those most at risk of the worst impacts of climate breakdown. We need to fight for solutions that benefit people and planet.

Climate justice means migrant justice