the news almost on a daily basis recently. Syrians, North Africans and so many others are trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to flee war and poverty and build a new life in Europe or other neighbouring countries such as Lebanon. Half the country’s pre-war population — more than 11 million people — have been killed or forced to flee their homes1,2.
This is a humanitarian crisis at unprecedented levels.
And while war was a key determinant, there is more to the Syrian crisis. In fact, most readers would be surprised to find out that Syria was facing an environmental crisis that resulted in accentuating the impact of war and subsequent refugee crisis.
Syria suffered its worst drought yet from 2006 to 2010, a large portion of its livestock died and around 1.5 million people moved to urban areas. There was a shortage of water in many cities and uneven distribution of water. This bred a lot of discontent, which led to protests which were violently repressed. This series of events are considered as some of the catalysts of the civil war by US climate scientists3.
Climate-induced food shortages
What is more, Syria is not the only country where there was civil unrest or displacement due to deteriorating environmental conditions. Food shortage and decrease in opportunities for sustaining livelihoods is making a lot of Africans migrate to Southern Europe.
A similar story can be told in Bangladesh where storms, floods, and crop damage from rising sea levels are forcing people out of their villages. It is estimated that 400,000 people emigrate each year to the capital Dhaka which is also considered one of the megacities most vulnerable to the effects of global warming4.
Bangladesh has had 70 climate-related natural disasters over the last 10 years 5.
Other worrying stories
There are more examples too:
- The Gobi desert in China expands every year by more than 10,000 square kilometres, threatening villages and fertile soils;
- In Louisiana in the US, around 65 square kilometres of land are lost each year to the sea;
- In Siberia and other regions of the world, the melting of the permafrost soil affects the building ground;
- In the UK, about 10 million people live in flood-risk areas6;
- An even more extreme example is the case of the small island of Kiribati, whose 94,000 inhabitants risk to totally lose their home by 2070 as rising sea levels will mean the island is fully submerged into the water. This led its President to strike a gradual resettlement program, which would see the population slowly relocated to neighbouring islands such as New Zealand 7.
All these changes will lead to population displacement either within the same country or further afield. This is evidence that environmental refugees very much exist and that the problem is not only not going away, but it will worsen as the effects of climate change take a toll on our planet.
Who becomes an environmental refugee?
Environmental refugees are those people who have had to flee their homes and communities due to changes in the environment, such as drought or other natural disasters. A subset of those refugees are climate refugees who more specifically were forced to leave due to the effects of climate change and global warming8.
Researchers at the Environmental Justice Foundation estimate that 10% of the global population is at risk of forced displacement due to climate change5.
At the same time, the estimated number of environmental or climate refugees has been contested: Alex Randal of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, a charity which aims to raise awareness of climate refugees and their need, contested the credibility of a figure that indicated that by 2050 there would be 200 million climate refugees. He argued that this figure includes all people displaced by natural disaster, irrespective of its link to climate change.
While climate change does make some natural disasters more likely, these displacements cannot be attributed to climate change alone9. In addition, it has been argued that the majority of refugees would be displaced internally within their own countries and only perhaps for the short-term.
Still, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) contents that since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people per year have been displaced from their homes by disasters brought on by natural hazards. This is equivalent to one person being displaced every second10.
The lack of legal protection
While there is still some contention regarding the precise numbers of climate and environmental refugees, stakeholders agree this is an issue that needs to be addressed. What is particularly worrying is that this set of refugees’ rights are not recognised by any international treaties.
Understandably, with environmental and climate refugees being a primarily 21st century phenomenon, the Geneva Convention on Refugees, adopted in 1951, does not include any relevant provisions.
To address this, the Nansen Initiative on climate and disaster displacement was launched. Endorsed by 110 countries, the Nansen initiative sets out practices necessary to protect the needs of people displaced across borders in the context of disasters and climate change, in a principled and practical way10.