“Climate Refugees”: A 21st Century Crisis

Every year, an average of 24 million people are internally displaced by natural disasters.1 As the effects of climate change continue to become more severe, this number could skyrocket to a total of 143 million displaced people by 2050 in some of the worlds most vulnerable regions: sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.2 Natural disasters, desertification, and sea level rise, alongside other problems produced by climate change, cause food and water insecurity that threaten peoples livelihoods and survival, and can amplify or create new social, political, economic, humanitarian, and conflict problems, such as terrorism.

People who have been displaced by climate-related causes are often referred to as ‘climate refugees.’ Yet there is a problem with this label, as these people are not considered refugees under international law. According to the United Nations, refugees are defined as “a person who has crossed an international border ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’”3 This definition means that climate migrants are generally unable to obtain refugee status, unless they are fleeing conflict or violence that is caused by or interacts with climate-related issues. Refugee status is also only applicable to people who cross international borders, while the majority of climate migrants are displaced internally in their countries.4   

In 2018 the U.N. adopted the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The Compact contains strong language acknowledging the threat of climate change, the necessity of mitigating and dealing with the adverse effects of climate change, and the impact that climate change will have on migration. The document lays out plans for understanding, predicting and addressing climate-related migration movements; developing disaster preparedness and resilience strategies; and establishing subregional and regional level mechanisms for dealing with climate-induced migration.5 Unfortunately, the Compact does not grant “specific legal international protection to climate-induced migrants,” according to U.N. official Louise Arbour.6 The Compact is not legally binding, so while it is a step forward, climate migrants are still underprotected in international law.

The recent increase in international discussion concerning climate migrants comes at a time of strong anti-immigration sentiment in European nations and the United States. This anti-immigrant backlash will make it difficult to create new, binding legislation at the international level for the protection of climate migrants. Already, the United States, Australia, and several European Union nations have failed to adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.7

The anti-immigrant climate in the West is highly concerning when considering the large increase of migrants these nations will be seeing in the coming years due to climate change. A study by Columbia University found that “if global temperatures continue their upward march, applications for asylum to the European Union could increase 28 percent to nearly 450,000 per year by 2100.”8 The United States could also face an increase in climate migrants, as the country has historically been the top destination for international migrants.9

While climate-induced migration poses a serious problem, preventive measures to reduce the effects of climate change still hold the utmost importance. The World Bank reports that with global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and inclusive development planning at the national level, the number of people potentially migrating due to climate change could be reduced by as much as 80%.10 Similarly, the U.N. Migration Agency urges people to focus on investing in solutions to climate change in order to minimize the need for climate-induced migration.11



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