Marnie Woodmeade

Writer  ~  Researcher  ~  Aspiring Educator

Climate Change Refugees - Who, Where and How?

17 July 2018

Originally written for Frontier

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The United Nations define refugees as people feeling conflict or persecution, and in recent years refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq fleeing war have dominated the news. However, there is a form of conflict that is often overlooked; between the earth’s rapidly changing climate and people that live there. Climate change is responsible for an untold amount of refugees who are forced to flee their homeland due to inhospitable environments.

It is difficult to define who the climate change refugees are and how many there are. Climate change can affect different parts of life simultaneously. While it is obvious that someone who’s home and livelihood has been destroyed by rising sea levels, what about a farmer who’s crops become less and less profitable due to increasingly frequent typhoons? Due to the uncertain nature of climate change and the wide variety of issues that in can cause (unemployment, increased famines and droughts) it is difficult to know exactly how much displacement of people it is directly responsible for. However the current figures or people displaced by extreme weather currently stand at 24 million, a number higher than ever before.

The effects of climate change are also cumulative, so the full extent of the issue is yet to be fully realised. Currently, the majority of estimates are based on the amount that sea levels are predicted to rise, but fails to account for the effect of famines, droughts and destruction of property from increased storms. One thing is certain though, the amount of climate change refugees is set to rise dramatically as experts predict that climate change will create the world’s biggest refugee crisis.

Refugees on a boat Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons |Ggia

While everyone is affected by climate change, only in areas of the globe that are the most acutely affected cause people to drop everything and leave their homes behind. Often instead of people choosing to leave the country, climate refugees will leave to the city to try and find work. This mass urbanisation has a host of issues as it results in extreme poverty in inner cities as they cannot cope with such vast numbers in such a short space of time. This was seen in Dhaka, Bangladesh as after years of floods thousands were forced to relocate, and drove mass amounts of people to live in shanty towns and conditions of squalor.

However this is set to change. As islands like the Maldives and Fiji start to go underwater, residents will be forced onto the mainland. As they are not offered the same protection as refugees escaping a war zone, they may be labelled as an illegal migrant which would have serious consequences. Effects of climate change are starting to be seen particularly acutely in sub-Saharan African countries where people already live in harsh climates. If droughts continue then residents will be forced to leave their homes and they are unlikely to disperse in Africa; they will head north to the Mediterranean.

Heading to the Mediterranean comes along with a few issues. The first of which is due to the current political climate Europe is not particularly receptive of refugees of any kind, particularly if they are perceived as coming over illegally. Islamic refugees especially face prejudice from border control and the residents of whatever country they decide to settle in. Also without the official label of refugee they cannot claim asylum. This will likely result in mass amounts of people being detained or forcibly sent back to the country from which they are fleeing.

Refugee camp

Photo Credit: flickr |DFID - UK Department for International Development's photostream

The increase in air pollution in inner cities may also create climates that become inhospitable. If a major city like Hong Kong, London or New York becomes unliveable then the future of centralised businesses becomes more uncertain. The full extent of climate change is still unknown and it has many unpredictable factors, and the nature and amount of climate change refugees are untold.

In order for the issue of climate change refugees to be tackled the first step is that they must be given the same protection and status as refugees, as they are also being victimised by a force that is out of their control and deserve the same protections. However, the most important lesson that we should take from the increasing number of climate change refugees is that we have to start tackling climate change; millions are already suffering .

As with any other sort of refugees, it tends to be the worst off in society who are worse hit. Small farmers are often the ones who fare the worst from climate change as they are reliant on consistent weather to grow crops. As in any other war, the poorest in society are paying for the mistakes of bg businesses and elites. They should be held accountable for the displacement of people and start to amend the damage done to our climate.

While the exact number of climate change refugees is unclear, it is becoming apparent that climate change refugees come from all over the world and different walks of life. Similarly the numbers of climate change refugees are set to increase exponentially over the coming years, as extreme weather and droughts continue to rise. In order to tackle this problem we must afford climate change refugees the protection they deserve, but more importantly we must start looking after our planet to limit the already unprecedented damage.