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CLIMATE REFUGEES: The forgotten victims of climate change

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Written by Anoushka M. Marak

Climate change has become a pressing issue that requires immediate attention and further action. With the sea on fire, the skies heating up, the glaciers melting and oceans acidifying, climate change has engendered different forms of displacement around the world. According to statistics published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, every year since 2008, an average of 26.4 million persons around the world have been forcibly displaced by floods, windstorms, earthquakes or droughts. The phenomenon of ‘environmental migration’ will turn worse in the coming years, owing to climate change. Experts believe that by 2050, more than 200 million people will be forced to flee their homes.

Residents carry their belongings as they wade through muddy floodwater that submerged a village after Typhoon Vamco hit on Nov. 14, 2020 in Rodriguez, Rizal province, Philippines. Ezra Acayan / Getty Images


There is no clear definition for this category of people although the ‘environmental migration’ phenomenon has been in public discourse for quite a long time. However, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) expert Essam El-Hinnawi defined 'environmental refugees' as: '… those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life'.

In other words, climate refugees are the people who are displaced within their country or outside it, due to catastrophic weather and natural events that may be climate-change driven. Data on climate refugees is limited, which is why they are called the “forgotten victims of climate change”. As early as 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that, “The gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration as millions are uprooted by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption.” So far, the national and international response to this full-blown humanitarian issue has been limited, and protection for the people affected remains inadequate. Estimates for international migrants worldwide have continued to rapidly increase in recent years, reaching 258 million in 2017, up from 220 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000.

There is a clear protection gap apropos of 'climate refugees', who are not mentioned in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention). The Convention only covers people who have a ‘legitimate’ fear of being oppressed on racial, religious or national grounds and membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and are unable or unwilling, owing to fear of persecution, to seek protection from their home countries. This definition is not applicable to people displaced for reasons related to the climate crisis. This means climate refugees cannot easily appeal for resettlement in another country. It also means that they cannot be classified as refugees, even though those who remain are 'trapped' in worsening environmental conditions. So, the question arises that where would they settle and how would they survive? What will be their identities and legal statuses? It is high time that the issue is carefully looked into and discussed in detail to reach an effective solution.


The role of extreme weather events in the migration of the population began in India’s past. According to reports, close to 1.5 million people in India are classified as internally displaced every year, mostly for climate change reasons. From several studies and research reports, it is clear, without a doubt, that climate refugees as a phenomenon exists and is growing considerably, affecting countries worldwide including India.

Climate change might induce two types of displacement and migration in India. First, increased migration is likely within India due to the effects of climate change such as drought, desertification, sea level rise, water scarcity and low food productivity, and melting glaciers. Second, climate change might lead to increased flow of migrants from neighbouring countries due to the accelerated effects of climate change. If the sea levels in Bangladesh rise, as it has been predicted, undoubtedly there will be large-scale migration from the country towards India seeking refuge. At present, more than 50 million people are affected by disaster events every five years

Without a proper legal or policy framework in place, dealing with such a crisis would be challenging, and politicisation of the issue cannot be ruled out. Climate change poses a significant threat to the socioeconomic stability and population health of India and the countries that border it. An inevitable event like climate migration has to be addressed by legislative and policy measures — making sure that the refugees get their due rights of settlement and rehabilitation; also ensuring the rights of indigenous people over the land and resources so as to avoid future conflicts between the groups. Furthermore, the global community should endeavour to expand the definition of a “refugee”.

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