The World Is Not Ready For 1.2 Billion Climate Refugees
The number of climate refugees is predicted to hit 1.2 billion by 2050, yet states are still not taking enough action. The Global South will be the most affected, but the West will not be spared.
PARIS — The number of people displaced by environmental disasters is expected to explode in coming years, but governments remain slow to respond.
However, the phenomenon is not new: "Environmental factors have had an impact on migration dynamics since the beginning of humanity," says Alice Baillat, policy coordinator at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC). "The world population has been distributed on the planet depending on the more or less fertile areas. This is why South Asia and the Bay of Bengal are now among the most populated areas in the world."
But climate change is making the situation far worse. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, since 2008, an average of 21.5 million people have been displaced each year because of natural disasters. The World Bank expects there to be 260 million climate displaced people by 2030, and up to 1.2 billion by 2050.
The most affected populations
In August 2022, torrential rains in Pakistan submerged one third of the country. In total, 7.9 million people were displaced and 600,000 took refuge in emergency camps. Hurricanes and storms such as these are all extreme events that force millions of people to flee their homes each year.
Less noticeable, gradual phenomena such as rising water levels and desertification are among the causes of this displacement. In the Horn of Africa, droughts are detrimental to the soil and the population's food needs, drastically reducing the area's livability.
Global warming acts as a risk multiplier, rather than the single factor of displacement. "These migrations must be seen in a complex context where economic and political factors are intertwined," explains Alice Baillat, who points out the level of development of the country, the resources and income of households. "People are affected differently depending on their standard of living and education. For the more well off, it will be easier to leave in advance or to live in more robust housing."
At this stage, the most affected populations are mainly in the poorest or developing countries, which are historically the least responsible for climate change, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America. Exposed to cyclones and hurricanes given their geographical proximity to the equator, these regions also have to deal with a low level of economic development.
The West won't be spared
"When we talk about climate migration, we immediately think of the South. The first image that comes to mind is that of Bangladeshis, barefoot in the water or on the roof of their house. Yet this affects [the West] just as much," says Lucie Pélissier, a solidarity and adaptation consultant. Between 2017 and 2021, she directed the documentary web series "The Climate Displaced", which took her to all corners of the world.
Europe is also suffering its share of consequences. On the continent, 70 million of the 500 million inhabitants live on the coast. In the Netherlands, where 60% of the population lives below sea level, one in two Dutch people are likely to be affected by sea level rise by the end of the century. The city of Venice, some Balkan states and even German islands are facing the same situation.
Spain has been experiencing internal displacement for several years due to drought in the south. Across the Atlantic, the United States is regularly affected by hurricanes.
For the last episode of her series, Pélissier went to Greece, and the Netherlands, focusing on Rotterdam. "The idea was to compare the situation of the Dutch city with Bangladesh," she says. "These two territories are relatively similar as they are very easily flooded, but the resources to adapt are not the same." While 80% of Rotterdam's area is below sea level, colossal resources are being deployed by the city. In total, the country spends 1.1 billion euros each year to deal with rising sea levels.
At first glance, the level of development and the economic and political resources of European countries make them more resilient, but it is not that simple. "Despite the resources available, the most precarious will be in difficulty when faced with natural disasters or extreme climatic events... To date, populations are still insufficiently prepared and protected." Pélissier believes it is necessary to think about a solid insurance system.
A lack of legal protections
In 2007, Ioane Teitiota, an inhabitant of a Kiribati island threatened by sea level rise, fled to New Zealand. Three years later, he applied to the courts for refugee status, given the situation in his country. This application was rejected by the New Zealand Supreme Court on the grounds that the applicant did not meet the criteria for refugee status.
There is currently no international legal obligation for a State to grant climate asylum.
The 1951 Geneva Convention defines a refugee as a person who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."
This text effectively excludes climatically displaced persons, as it does not cite the environmental situation as a factor of persecution. Yet, Alice Baillat points out, "all scientific studies and field observations show that displacements are primarily internal." Generally, the populations affected move from the countryside to urban areas, to reduce their dependence on agriculture and diversify their sources of income, and from arid regions to coastal areas, for access to water.
"There is currently no international legal obligation for a State to grant climate asylum," says Marine Denis, a doctoral student in international public law and environmental lawyer. But Denis points out that viewpoints may be changing. Following the refusal of New Zealand's Supreme Court, Ioane Teitiota appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
After four years of proceedings, his application was again rejected. However, the Committee, in its conclusion, states that "people fleeing the effects of climate change and natural disasters should not be returned to their country of origin if their basic human rights are threatened."
Record-breaking rain led to extensive flooding in Pakistan, claiming over 1,700 lives in 2022.
Developing climate solidarity
Since the early 2000s, many have been calling for an extension of the Geneva Convention to include climate displacement or the creation of a new convention dedicated to this issue. But for Marine Denis, who says that tensions at the borders are increasingly strong, this is a waste of time: "Territories are already becoming uninhabitable in certain regions of the world... Debate on a normative transformation that will probably never happen for political reasons is both naive and dangerous."
So what can be done? Denis recommends making use of existing laws, such as the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 1998, or the 2009 Kampala Convention on the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa.
She also calls for the introduction of a section devoted to climate solidarity within climate negotiations. This would include humanitarian assistance against natural disasters, the notion of the international community's responsibility to assist victims in a much more flexible way than today, as well as the fight against the phenomenon of statelessness. "We are not talking about revolutionary measures that will change the world," she admits. "But it is more pragmatic and easier to bring about."
In 2015, the Nansen Initiative proposed by Norway and Switzerland defined an Agenda for the Protection of climate displaced people. For its implementation, a platform on disaster-related displacement co-managed by the 109 signatory states was developed.
Struck by an internal armed conflict that has devastated the nation for over fifty years, Colombia is one of the countries most affected by forced internal displacement. Against an already tense political and social backdrop and a high level of exposure to disaster risk, climate change is the spark that risks igniting the fire.
While the displaced receive humanitarian aid, the residents receive no assistance, which gives rise to a feeling of injustice and competition.
Clara De la Hoz Del Real is a doctoral student in sociology and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Paris-Saclay. Her work focuses on the study of the displacement of the inhabitants of the town of Campo de la Cruz, in northern Colombia, following a massive flood in 2010.
This historically flood-prone area was severely affected by a particularly intense rainy season, associated with an atypical episode of the La Niña climate phenomenon. "The rainy period, which was supposed to last only a few months, lasted for almost a year," explains the researcher.
In all, more than 13,000 people unprepared for such an exodus found themselves on the roads, left to their own devices. They took refuge in neighboring towns spared by the floods, in makeshift shelters or in schools made available during the school vacations. Although the displaced receive material assistance, Clara De la Hoz Del Real points out an aspect of this phenomenon that has not been given much attention: "This political response takes as its minimalist criterion the response to the physiological and material needs of those affected. This tends to belittle the individual by denying him his role and social place."
Torn from their social, cultural and spiritual environment, the displaced no longer have a reference group, which is essential in a period of survival. They also have to deal with difficulties in integrating into the host communities, which are often historically precarious and neglected by the state: "While the displaced receive humanitarian aid, the residents receive no assistance, which gives rise to a feeling of injustice and competition for survival." Their daily lives become a scenario marked by tensions within and outside the group.
A few months later, the return to their hometown is just as complex. Due to a lack of means, many houses remained as they were after the flood, with the State having focused on the reconstruction of infrastructure. Some people, like farmers, also have to change employment. "These people have to go through a social mourning process," says Clara De La Hoz Del Real. Not only do they not get back to their former lives, but they are not given any psychological support.Over the years, the inhabitants gradually rebuilt their lives. But the researcher insists on the absence of the state in this process: "All this says a lot about the way we build our society. We must not forget that it is the social dimensions of human life that allow us to find a place in the world." Currently, the Colombian government is studying a bill on a specific framework for the legal recognition of the phenomenon of climate displacement in the country.
Learning from the Global South
Beyond the issue of mobility, Clara De La Hoz Del Real's reflections also lead us to rethink our way of living in territories in the context of climate change.
For Alice Baillat, the countries on the front line should not be viewed only through a victimizing lens. Some of them have put in place policies to adapt to climate change that are examples of good practices. "Bangladesh is mostly seen through its difficulties and vulnerabilities. But it is also a great country in terms of disaster risk reduction. Over the years, it has significantly reduced the risk of death from disasters." Thanks to protection and anticipation mechanisms, a cyclone in 2023 would kill far fewer people than a similar event in the 1970s.
It would therefore be possible to draw inspiration from the adaptation policies and resilience of local populations in these countries. Lucie Pélissier reminds us, however, that there is no ideal model: "Each society must find its own ways of adapting to really fit its territories. In some places, moving around is a cultural habit that we don't have in Europe." In Bangladesh, where people live according to the floods over cycles of three to ten years, having mobile homes and making arrangements is a must.
So, the issue of climate displacement raises different debates depending on the territory. To what extent should we relocate? Is it really realistic and conceivable to move entire villages? How can we facilitate mobility and settlement? How will insurance companies take into account the environmental risk to help with reconstruction? "Beyond questions of survival, it will also be important to think about what makes us social," insists Lucie Pélissier.In any case, these measures require real support from the international community. "Even if they are resilient, the most affected countries remain extremely vulnerable to the degradation of their territory," says Alice Baillat. "We must avoid at all costs that these displaced people become illegal migrants who risk their lives by trying to cross the Mediterranean, for example."Pélissier insists on the need to advance the issue of climate financing in order to allow the most vulnerable states to put in place adaptation or migration management policies. And the best way to prevent these risks is still to provide a framework.
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