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The Status of Climate Refugees

We consistently refer to the impacts of climate change in the future tense, but many are present today with real people facing the real consequences of the climate change which they often did not contribute to in the first place.

One such group are climate refugees - a term that is yet to be defined in a harmonious manner. Despite this, estimates reveal that there could be as many as 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050. According to the United Nations high Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an annual average of 21.5 million people have been displaced by weather-related events since 2008 (events that include floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures.

The term climate refugees was first coined in 1985, when Essam El-Hinnawi defined the term as people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of marked environmental disruption. In 2020 two category 4 hurricanes in Latin America led to several people crossing the border into Mexico and heading to the US as extreme weather events meant that they lost their livelihoods, access to clean water and their homes.

Recent trends are now showing that more internal displacement is caused due to climate-related disasters than conflict, as in 2017 60% of the 30.6 million people displaced were as a direct result of disasters.

These are clear examples of climate refugees; however, it has been argued that the definition should apply to a much wider group of people, including those impacted by disruption in their society that could somehow directly or indirectly be related to short- or long-term change in the environment according to the Global Head of Climate Change Resilience services in Zurich Insurance Group. This would extend the definition of climate refugees beyond a dependence on infrastructural and material damage, to the long-term damage that has the potential to destabilise economies, making communities vulnerable to other threats. For instance, as a result of the rising sea levels, the number of vulnerable people living in coastal areas has increased from 160 million to 260 million. Indeed, climate change is serving as a threat multiplier by exacerbating existing risks and creating new ones such as food insecurity, water scarcity and the quicker depletion of resources.

The concept does not exist in international refugee law, as those leaving their countries due to climate change or related disasters do not qualify for protection under international law. This has led to several people calling climate refugees the forgotten victims as they cannot access legal protections to their human rights.

“We need to invest now in preparedness to mitigate future protection needs and prevent further climate caused displacement. Waiting for disaster to strike is not an option.” Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Several other questions arise alongside the unprotected nature of climate refugees. For instance, Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati - an island nation in danger as a result of the rising sea levels, applied for refugee status as a climate refugee with the New Zealand government but his application was rejected and he was repatriated to Kiribati in 2015. In 2016, he filed a complaint with the UN covenant on Civil Liberties, claiming that his right to life had been violated by the repatriation. This was rejected by the Committee, which argued that there was no imminent threat to his life, but that the rising sea levels and other climate-related effects pose a serious threat to the right to life of people living in vulnerable countries.

The plethora of climate-reasons that can lead to an individual, a family, whole communities or even cities to migrate remain unrecognised today, making the climate refugees the forgotten victims. It becomes obvious that the more we feel the effects of climate change as a result of systemic inaction, the more we need to reconsider the ways we will sustainably adapt to such circumstances.


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