Record Number of Refugees Are On The Move and Climate Change Threatens to Exacerbate Crisis
The climate crisis is creating a new generation of refugees.

There are more displaced people in the world today than at any other time in history. A record 110 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide as of May 2023. Last year, 19.1 million people fled their homes as conflicts, climate shocks and hunger swept across the world, the largest single year increase ever recorded. 

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine caused the largest forced movement of people since World War II – the conflict that spurred the ratification of the UN Refugee convention 70 years ago. 

Record droughts in the Horn of Africa, a renewed war in Sudan and the growing severity and frequency of natural disasters have only added to the growing list of causes for the ever-growing surge. 

“It’s quite an indictment on the state of our world,” said UN Refugee agency head Filippo Grandi. “Unfortunately, in today’s divided world, long-term solutions for people forced to flee remain pitifully scarce.”

The number of refugees has more than doubled in the past decade, rising to 35 million from 15 million in 2011. Seven in ten refugees flee across just a single border to neighboring countries in hopes of eventually returning home. More than half of refugees come from just three countries: Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan.

“The prevailing rhetoric is still that all the refugees go to rich countries,” said Grandi. “This is actually wrong. It’s quite the opposite.”

Around 76% of forcibly displaced people are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, while 70% of refugees are hosted in countries neighbouring their country of origin. 

Turkey is home to the most refugees in the world. It hosts 3.8 million people, the majority of whom are Syrians who fled the civil war. Iran is second, with 3.4 million refugees, mostly Afghans. Columbia, Germany and Pakistan round out of the top five. 

“These are not numbers on a page,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who served as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade before taking over leadership of the UN. “These are individual women, children, and men making difficult journeys – often facing violence, exploitation, discrimination and abuse. Four in ten people forced to flee are children. They deserve a home, a childhood and a future just as much as anyone else.”

The week leading up to World Refugee Day, celebrated on June 20 every year, served as a stirring reminder of the dangers faced by people who leave their countries to find safety for themselves and their families.

Last Tuesday, on what would have been the dawn of World Refugee Day had it been a week later, the Greek coastguard was notified of a vessel carrying hundreds of migrants en route to Italy. Dozens of pleas for help from the dilapidated shipping trawler were recorded by humanitarian search-and-rescue groups over the ensuing hours. 

The ship sank mere meters from a coast guard vessel 18 hours after authorities were made aware of its existence. The wreck claimed the lives of up to 700 men, women and children on board. 

Survivors say as many as 100 children may have been in the hold of the ship when it sank. Yiva Johansson, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, said the incident may be “the most tragic ever in the Mediterranean”. Greek officials continue to contest the chain of events that led to the disaster. 

The Mediterranean Sea, despite its proximity to the European Union, the world’s wealthiest economic bloc, is the deadliest route for refugees in the world. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has recorded over 20,000 deaths on the route since 2014, and another 7,000 people reported missing along the route have never been found.

After years of innumerable tragic headlines reaching the notification screens of people around the world, observers worry the extent of their plight has become normalized. 

“I am struck by the alarming level of tolerance to serious human rights violations against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants that has developed across Europe,” said Dunja Mijatović, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe. “Reports of human rights violations against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are now so frequent that they hardly register in the public consciousness.” 

António Vitorino, who leads the International Organization for Migration that runs the Missing Migrants Project, echoed similar concerns: “I fear that these deaths have been normalized.”

Climate threatens to force unprecedented numbers of people to seek safer ground

If the world can limit warming to 1.5C, the number of people living outside the livable “climate niche” will be reduced by 80% compared to the current 2.7C trajectory.

Weather-related disasters triggered 32.6 million internal displacements in 2022, the highest number in a decade and 41% over the annual average of the last ten years. Unpredictable rainfall and intense droughts across Southeast Asia have already led to over eight million people moving to more hospitable climates in the Middle East, Europe and North America, according to the World Bank

Millions have already been made climate refugees by the current 1.2C in global temperatures. In Bangladesh, 10 million people have fled their homes as a result of flooding and drought. An estimated 2,000 people move to the capital, Dhaka, every day – 70% of them due to weather-related events. But as migrants move to Dhaka in search of safer ground, the city itself is sinking, threatening the livelihoods of its 168 million residents. 

And with the world on track for 2.7C of global heating, these numbers may be just a drop in the bucket by 2050. As the IPCC projects worse fires, longer droughts, and increased flooding, the World Bank estimates 143 million people could be climate migrants by 2050 – four times the record-setting number of refugees in the world today. And some scientific projections make the World Bank estimate look like a best-case scenario. 

If the world continues to warm at the current pace, two billion people will be driven out of the “climate niche” humans have thrived in for thousands of years. The extreme temperatures and weather patterns that result from the warming could lead up to one billion people to leave their homes in search of safer weather, a recent study in Nature Sustainability found. 

An earlier study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020, estimated that 19% of land currently inhabited by people could turn into uninhabitable hot zones by 2070, placing one in every three people in climates that will force them to leave.

The consequences of climate change place people living in conflict-affected and politically fragile regions in particular danger. An estimated 70% of refugees and 80% of internally displaced people today come from countries that are also highly vulnerable to climate change, while 40% of refugees worldwide are hosted in climate vulnerable countries. In 2021, nine in ten refugees who returned home returned to highly climate vulnerable countries. 

“Climate shocks are throwing fuel on the fire of persistent cycles of crisis and displacement,” the UN Refugee Agency told delegates ahead of the UN Climate Summit, COP27, in Egypt last year. “Loss and damage from the impacts of climate change is already a devastating reality for millions of people as climate-fueled crises, food and water insecurity and loss of habitable territory drive new displacement and make life harder for people already uprooted from their homes.”

The Ecological Threat Register, a project run by the Institute for Economics & Peace, estimates that by 2040, more than half of the world’s projected population – 5.4 billion people – will live in countries experiencing water stress. Meanwhile, 3.5 billion people may suffer from food insecurity by 2050, 1.5 billion more than today.

With the prospect of millions of climate refugees on the horizon, the world will need to adjust. Yet for now, the world is moving in the opposite direction. 

“We see pushbacks. We see tougher and tougher immigration or refugee admission rules. We see in many countries a criminalization of immigrants and refugees, blaming them for everything,” said Grandi. “It cannot be just about controlling your borders.

“Leadership is about convincing your public opinion that there are people that deserve international protection.”

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