Over the last month, there have been approximately four million refugees due to the conflict in Ukraine, but the UK has granted fewer than 3,000 visas under its Homes for Ukraine sponsorship deal. In total, the Home Office issued approximately 25,500 visas in March, just 0.6 percent of the total number of Ukraine’s refugees.
With refugees from the conflict in Ukraine finding it difficult to obtain the correct paperwork to enter a country of safety, it raises the alarm that we will not be able to cope with ‘climate migrants’ and that a degree of urgency is now needed. Conservative estimates of displaced persons owing to the rising threat of the climate crisis are projected to be 200 million by 2050, with the Institute for Economics and Peace suggesting that this estimate is very low.
The IEP project that by 2050 over one billion people are at threat of being displaced. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently pleaded, “Urgent steps needed now to mitigate climate impact on displaced people”. They continued: “The climate crisis is a human crisis. It is driving displacement and makes life harder for those already forced to flee.”
Climate refugee or climate migrant?
The terms refugee and migrant have been repeatedly used as political weapons by various political parties and governments, and the connotations of these labels can be contentious. The term ‘refugee’, according to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the State of Refugees, is “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”.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that language is important in order to offer legal protection to individuals. They caution that:
- “This is not just semantics—which definition becomes generally accepted will have very real implications for the obligations of the international community under international law. Forced climate migrants fall through the cracks of international refugee and immigration policy—and there is considerable resistance to the idea of expanding the definition of political refugees to incorporate climate ‘refugees’. The term ‘climate migrant’ can also be a loaded term, with the implication that the ‘pull’ of the destination rather than the ‘push’ of the original country is the primary factor for an individual to move.”
In its conclusion, they note that formal recognition is the critical first step.
- “Meanwhile, large-scale migration is not taken into account in national adaptation strategies which tend to see migration as a ‘failure of adaptation’. The international community needs to acknowledge formally the predicament of forced climate migrants.”
The IPCC also highlight that numbers of displaced persons may be significantly under-counted owing to large-scale displacement within countries. “Given that the majority of people displaced by climate change will likely stay within their own borders, restricting the definition to those who cross international borders may seriously understate the extent of the problem”.ional borders may seriously understate the extent of the problem”.
Regardless, the term ‘climate refugee’ is not endorsed by UNHCR, and it is more accurate to refer to “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change”. The danger here is that with the lack of a secure definition under international law, climate migrants can fall between the cracks in asylum law, with no institution or country responsible for providing them with basic services. This, in turn, has the potential to be the biggest humanitarian disaster ever recorded – with hundreds of millions of people at risk of climate displacement.
Support and climate action mitigation
Christine Pirovolakis, a senior external relations officer with the UNHCR, in response to my written questions, outlined that:
“We at UNHCR are already seeing first-hand the dramatic consequences of decades of inaction to address the climate emergency. There is a growing interaction between climate change and forced displacement and the need for action has never been more pressing.”
She offered a glimpse of hope though and suggested that action on climate mitigation could ensure the safety of people, “However, the number of people who will be displaced in the context of climate change is not inevitable, but rather depends on the decisions and actions we take today. How quickly can we reduce emissions? How effectively can we secure financing and technical support for climate adaptation in vulnerable regions? The question is not how many will be displaced in the future, but how can we be working to prevent displacement and ensure people can live safely and securely in their communities and on their ancestral lands?”
Pirovolakis also pointed out, “The profound effects of the climate emergency are felt by displaced people all over the world with the latest science highlighting dire impacts in the Sahel, Central America’s ‘Dry Corridor,’ the Horn of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. Communities already struggling are facing unprecedented floods and storms, unreliable rainfall and distress under hotter and drier conditions as their basic needs and rights to water, food, livelihoods, land and a healthy environment are hit hard.”
She stressed the projects that the UNHRC are already involved in mitigating against the risk from the climate crisis, through contribution to reforestation in Cameroon, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, as well as new shelter products that are more appropriate for local cultures.
Potential migrant-friendly locations?
The town of Mongla in Bangladesh, a country already facing climate migration, is being celebrated as a migrant-friendly location. Climate scientist, Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICAAD) commented, “When it comes to adaptation, Mongla is a success story. Changes are coming there as an example of how climate refugees could transform their life through new opportunities, through a new approach of adaptation.’ He continued that ‘With its seaport and an export processing zone and climate-resilient infrastructure, Mongla town has become a different story”.
More information on what steps other countries are taking on climate mitigation will be released on Monday 4 April, with the IPCC Working Group III’s contribution to the sixth assessment report, entitled Mitigation of Climate Change.
At present though, there is no legal ‘home’ for climate migrants in the international community, both literally and figuratively. As Filippo Grandi the UN high commissioner for refugees, warns:
“We need to invest now in preparedness to mitigate future protection needs and prevent further climate caused displacement. Waiting for disaster to strike is not an option.”
As a species, we have always been migrants. With the rising global threat from the climate crisis, we may finally be running out of places to be safe.