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Climate Change Means a Looming Refugee Crisis

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Casey Fischl

There are currently 68.5 million displaced individuals worldwide according to The UN Refugee Agency. Of the many refugees in need of new homes due to violence and persecution in their home countries, only 102,800 have been resettled.

The international community has been either ill-equipped or simply unwilling to welcome these displaced persons. The United States only accepted 22,874 refugees and Canada accepted approximately 40,000 in 2018. While these statistics are unsettling, human migration is projected to increase by the millions in the not so distant future and yet this is an issue that is not being included in international policy agendas.

A 2012 report to the UN General Assembly predicts that up to 250 million people may become displaced by 2050 due to the symptoms of a warming Earth. In 2014, 19 million people from over 100 countries were driven from their homes due to reasons linked to climate change. Despite these alarming numbers, the international community has accomplished very little to mitigate or prepare for the inevitable refugee crisis. Under current international law, people who seek refuge from extreme weather or an environmentally uninhabitable country do not qualify for refugee status. Even the Paris climate agreement fails to address this issue with only 20% of the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) mentioning migration or the legal status of climate refugees.

Environmental factors of migration have complex geopolitical consequences that make it difficult to differentiate them from socioeconomic and political ones. This is part of the reason climate-induced migration hasn’t received the attention it deserves. For instance, the Syrian conflict is the result of many complicated factors, however, research shows that tension in the country began when drought and desertification hit from 2006 to 2009. The impacts of climate change are less entangled with socioeconomic drivers in countries like Bangladesh where nearly 500,000 people flee to the capital, Dhaka, each year due to coastal flooding. Due to a strain on resources from the sheer volume of people in the city, migrants lack access to appropriate water, sanitation, education, and housing. Closer to home, 700,000 people from the drylands relocate each year due to desertification in Mexico. Migration from the Sahel region of Africa is on the rise due to desertification which puts a strain on food security and natural resources.

People will continue to be displaced due to drought, rising sea levels, and erratic weather patterns, however, they won’t be granted refugee status. Refugee status would provide millions of displaced people with the dignity and services that they deserve. It seems an individual who is unable to feed themselves due to desertification or house themselves because of rising sea levels and storm-induced flooding deserves the same protection as someone fleeing the danger or persecution from other humans. While millions of people are facing the loss of the basic necessities for human survival, the international community is not addressing the crisis with the seriousness it deserves.

The wealthy countries of the world should consider how their impact on the environment has contributed to this global, climate refugee crisis. According to the World Bank, in 2014 Bangladesh contributed only .5 metric tonnes per capita to global carbon emissions and Mexico only produced 3.9, while the United States produced 16.5 and Canada produced 15. It is these wealthy countries with the highest carbon emissions that experience less vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. International law and policy must reflect the moral obligations of these wealthy nations to provide aid and shelter to the millions of environmental migrants that are leaving their homes.

The climate change refugee crisis is an urgent one, and the international community’s inability to address it will likely cause serious geopolitical effects in the coming decades.


Bedrosian Center