One of the biggest humanitarian plights of our times is the refugee crisis, but we tend to have a vision in our heads of what constitutes a refugee.
For example, the Syrian refugee crisis is considered by many — including the United Nations — to be one of the largest displacement emergencies in modern times.
While the concept of refugees, migrants, and displacement are not new, there has always been a largely unseen and unrecognized group of folks who fall within the same category by every definition but the legal one: climate refugees.
What is a climate refugee?
The legal definition of what defines a refugee, according to the United Nations, is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
This legal definition, unfortunately, doesn’t include those who have to flee their homes because of the climate crisis. But it should.
A major cause of displacement is the climate crisis, which has caused some irreversible damage to some homelands, prompting its natives to relocate to a better climate.
Examples include islands being underwater, the destruction of ancestral Indigenous homelands, droughts, desertifications, and more.
As climate change worsens, so do natural disasters that deeply damage the world's natural landscapes and atmospheres.
According to Disaster Displacement, “natural disasters implore millions to leave home every year as a result of environmental degradation altering the landscape or as a result of related conflict, climate change, and displacement.”
Despite the growing population of climate refugees, there's a sustainable lack of resources for refugees seeking shelter from climate effects.
“Climate change [is] now found to be the key factor accelerating all other drivers of forced displacement. Most of the people affected will remain in their own countries. They will be internally displaced. But if they cross a border, they will not be considered refugees,” said António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“These persons are not truly migrants, in the sense that they did not move voluntarily. As forcibly displaced not covered by the refugee protection regime, they find themselves in a legal void.”
How many climate refugees are there?
As reported in 2017, there were 18.8 million records of climate change disaster-related displacement.
In April 2021, the UNHCR released data that claimed the number of people who have been displaced by climate change-related disasters since 2010 has risen to 21.5 million, citing that “in addition to sudden disasters, climate change is a complex cause of food and water shortages, as well as difficulties in accessing natural resources.”
According to the World Economic Forum, there is a prediction that at least 1.2 billion people could be displaced by climate-related events by 2050.
“There's the heartache of leaving home, but also the distress of why that had to be,” Climate Refugees founder and executive director Amali Tower told Teen Vogue.
Climate Refugees is an immigrant, woman-of-color-led organization that advocates for the welfare of global citizens in response to the damages of climate change and those who are looking to escape from it.
They offer education and awareness of the situation, oftentimes with expert commentary and personal stories of those who have been personally affected by climate damage in their homeland.
They also advocate for new policies that will fully recognize the climate refugee crisis on the legislative level, which includes providing “expert inputs to policy, policy statements, writing joint NGO reports, and engaging in direct and public advocacy.”
According to Climate Refugees’ data, “recent trends indicate more internal displacement due to climate-related disasters than conflict, where in fact, of the 30.6 million people displaced across 135 countries in 2017, 60 percent were as a direct result of disasters.”
In addition to the trauma of climate change and resettlement, refugees who seek asylum for environmental reasons also have to navigate the generational trauma of escaping landscape ruin, reports Teen Vogue.
Given the hazardous atmospheric disasters of these situations, at least 90 percent of the burden of disease has been linked to the climate crisis.
What are some of the biggest threats to climate refugees?
Unlike refugees who are recognized by international law, climate refugees have the burden of being an invisible group. Despite that, they still face challenges like being split from family, physical harm, exploitation, forced marriage, and sexual violence.
As writer Alli Maloney reports, because of their legal limbo, many of them live in camps or "spend periods in detention imposed by an unfriendly foreign government."
There's also a dire lack of opportunities for work and schooling, leaving many climate refugees in an economic freefall that could be life or death.
Defined as a threat multiplier by how it trickles down to other issues like water insecurity, climate change's impact has unsettled millions of people into what can only be described as an invisible crisis.
But unlike refugees who flee from recognized wartime conflicts (as with Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine), climate-displaced people are even more failed by systemic failures.
A prime example of climate refugees are the thousands of Bangladeshi teens who are made homeless every year as the result of river-bank erosion, reports Teen Vogue.
As do the one in 10 people who are forced to leave their homeland of Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu as the Pacific Islands drown and sink further into the ocean. Another example is the young adults in Central America who travel in a "migrant caravan" to escape the extreme drought, but the path to safety is also riddled with difficulties imposed by many countries' anti-immigration laws.
“The system [is] trying to prevent them from really escaping the climate crisis and the economic crisis [it stems], finding safety in the U.S. and the direct necessity of migrating because of droughts and not having food or jobs to survive,” De Luna Navarro, an advocate and researcher of displaced young people seeking asylum in the United States, told Teen Vogue.
What are helpers doing for climate refugees?
To combat this rising crisis, advocates are pushing for lawmakers to recognize climate change-related displacement under human rights law, so refugees have access to the same protections.
Though it's a slow-moving process, there are a number of people who are working hard to make this a legal reality.
Thankfully, their efforts are paying off. In January of 2020, the United Nations Human Rights Committee determined that countries may not reject seeking asylum as a result of "climate change-induced conditions that violate the right to life.”
Following that, more than 160 nations joined in agreement with the United Nations Compact For Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration to recognize climate change as a major cause of migration.
A silver lining amid the crisis is the young people who are working hard to combat the climate crisis, even when lawmakers are slow to do so.
Since younger generations are born into the crisis and have a greater awareness of the dangers (many of them living through global natural disasters like flooding, wildfires, and more at such a developmental age), they have become invaluable in the fight for the planet.
“It’s teens who really fill me with hope,'' Tower says.
“They’re so hungry for opportunity. A little younger—it’s way too much. But teens are at the right age, where this kind of change in their lives is integral.”
“This is the moment where they can make an impact.”
A version of this article was published in The Water Edition of the Goodnewspaper in October 2021.
You can get your own Goodnewspaper each month by becoming a subscriber today.