Each year, tens of millions of people across the globe are driven from their homes by floods, storms, droughts, and other weather-related disasters. And as the adverse effects of global climate change induce more extreme weather, growing food insecurity, and rising sea levels—that number is expected to rise. Tragically, it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities that are hardest hit.
While often referred to as “climate refugees,” the fact is that those who lose their homes in disasters or who are forced to relocate because of climate change are not recognized as refugees. This is because the 1951 Refugees Convention does not include those fleeing the effects of climate change, but only those fleeing war and persecution. This leaves an enormous gap in international law which Refugees International is leading efforts to address.
In 2009, RI launched the Climate Displacement Program to advocate for improved assistance, protection, and solutions for vulnerable communities and individuals uprooted in the context of extreme weather and climate change. Informed by field-based missions to countries experiencing climate-related humanitarian crises, RI was among the first organizations to boldly call on national governments, UN agencies, donors, and others to address the increasing impacts of climate change on displacement, migration, conflict, and human insecurity.
The Climate Displacement Program was the inspiration of RI's late president, Ken Bacon. Having witnessed the terrible events that unfolded in Darfur when persistent drought fueled ethnic tensions sparking one of the worse conflicts in recent history, Ken saw the need to increase understanding of the complex relationship between extreme weather, climate change, and displacement. Through his engagement in RI’s long history of lifesaving advocacy in conflict areas, Ken understood that advocating for a more effective response to climate-related displacement would draw directly upon the organization’s expertise and demonstrated outcomes. With a founding gift from Ken and generous contributions from the Bacon family and a core group of supporters, the Climate Displacement Program became a reality shortly after Ken's death.
The Climate Displacement Program builds upon RI’s long history of lifesaving advocacy on behalf of refugees and displaced people. We draw upon the organization’s expertise and proven track-record of catalyzing action to better respond to displacement crises. Central to our approach is ensuring that responses to climate-related displacement and migration are informed by our fact-finding missions to the field, inclusive of affected communities, and embrace a human-rights-based approach.
Since launching the Climate Displacement Program, RI has conducted over a dozen missions to countries experiencing climate-related disasters, displacement, and humanitarian crises.
In addition, RI has played a leading role in the development of a variety of initiatives aimed at promoting action to avert, minimize, and address climate-related displacement.
In the Field
Watch Climate Displacement Program Manager Alice Thomas featured in the FRONTLINE PBS documentary “Blackout in Puerto Rico,” for an in-depth look at why Puerto Rico was left struggling to survive after Hurricane Maria.
In March 2019, Cyclone Idai hit the east coast of Africa. It was an unprecedented storm that devastated parts of southern Africa. Photos from Refugees International Senior Advocate for Women and Girls Devon Cone show the region recovering.
When Cyclone Idai roared across Mozambique in March, the storm’s severity surprised everyone. Amid the destruction, Senior Advocate Devon Cone met one woman who lost everything—but was given a new home.
Drought affects 80 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. The government has drawn direct ties between the climate and the country’s economy, food security, and overall stability, so people displaced by climate change-related emergencies could slow Afghanistan’s growth and undermine efforts to reach a successful peace plan.
Refugees International President Eric Schwartz delivered remarks at a Senate Climate Change Task Force session on Climate Change and Refugees.
The Global Compact for Migration will only be effective if countries move forward with its implementation. However, what is important is that the compact’s 23 objectives embody a comprehensive set of best practices for managing migration in a safe, orderly manner which requires the cooperation of countries of origin, transit and destination.
The nations that are attending the Inter-governmental Conference on Migration in Morocco and the UN climate change negotiations in Poland clearly understand what the current U.S. administration does not (or doesn’t want to): Meeting the challenges of international migration and climate change is not a zero-sum game. Refusing to join cooperative efforts to find joint solutions does not make your own problems better, but worse.
A year after Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico, we returned to some of the hardest hit areas to meet with local community leaders, civil society organizations, and affected households where these encounters left us alarmed.
In the face of insufficient assistance from federal and Puerto Rican authorities in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, ordinary people have stepped up to become strong community leaders—ultimately strengthening community resilience and self-reliance. Yet they are largely being left out of recovery plans.
Mongaby interviewed Alice Thomas, RI’s climate displacement program manager, about the growing impact of climate change on the refugee crisis worldwide.
One year ago today, the Trump administration made its ill-advised decision to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris Climate Accord. The decision effectively sidelined the United States on this critical issue, moving the country from a position of international leadership. One year later, the world is moving forward to tackle the climate crisis and related displacement issues.
On April 22, 1970, 20 million people gathered across America marking the first Earth Day and the advent of a global environmental movement. Since then, the United States and other countries have adopted vital international agreements and national laws to better protect our planet. But in 2018, does Earth Day need a make-over? Nearly a half century later, the world faces a new threat that will have far more serious implications not just for the Earth but for human beings as well: climate change.
Six months after Hurricane Maria, the slow response to the needs of the Puerto Rican people continues to be woefully slow. The Puerto Rican and federal authorities' failure to adequately respond has been nothing short of a travesty. Alice Thomas writes that if there is a silver lining to this disaster, it is the incredible dedication of Puerto Rico's civil society groups in working toward the recovery of their communities and their most vulnerable neighbors.
In short, two months after Hurricane Maria pummeled this island, the U.S. response remains too slow and bureaucratic, and lacks transparency and the broad information-sharing that is essential to an effective disaster response.
For the first time in its 38 year history, Refugees International (RI) is conducting a mission to the United States. Over the next week, my colleagues and I will be in Puerto Rico where eight weeks after Hurricane Maria made a direct hit, urgent humanitarian needs remain unmet.
As the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas face the long road to recovery following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, a window of opportunity exists to mitigate the human displacement created by these large-scale disasters and to build resilience to future events. These two priorities should inform how the United States is responding to these types of disasters. This blog outlines some important lessons that must inform the hurricane response in the future if we are going to keep pace with the increasing impacts of climate change impacts on population displacement:
Somalia is now well into its third consecutive season of a severe drought that, in the last seven months alone, has forced more than 760,000 people to flee their homes in search of food and water. Most come from areas controlled by Al-Shabaab or other non-state armed groups, places where the government and humanitarian agencies have limited to no access. The town of Baidoa, retaken from Al-Shabaab in 2012 and now marginally under state control, has become the only means of survival for much of the rural population across the country’s drought-stricken, south central region.
Somalia is again in the throes of another drought that by many accounts is worse than the last. Thankfully, greater government control and a prompt humanitarian response by the government and aid agencies have saved lives, but the scale of displacement is enormous. More than 760,000 Somalis have been displaced across the country since November 2016, 160,000 of them to Mogadishu. Here they are struggling to access assistance and protection in a dangerous and volatile environment.
War and conflict are no longer the primary drivers of displacement and humanitarian crises. More extreme weather and other climate change impacts are increasingly playing a role. In 2016 alone, 24 million people were forced from their homes by weather-related disasters, far more than were displaced by conflict. Meanwhile, more frequent and protracted droughts, especially in poor and unstable countries in Africa and the Middle East, are undermining food security, causing people to migrate in order to survive, and fueling pre-existing social and ethnic tensions.
A Refugees International (RI) team recently returned from Haiti, where they traveled to Les Cayes and Jérémie to assess humanitarian and protection needs stemming from Hurricane Matthew, which devastated parts of the country in October 2016.
In early October 2016, the Southwest region of Haiti was devastated by Hurricane Matthew, a category four storm. Tragically, the areas it hit were among the poorest. The government reported more than 2.1 million people were affected by the hurricane, with 800,000 in need of urgent food assistance. While four months have passed since Matthew hit, conditions on the ground are not much different today. Haiti faces a long road ahead.
Nations will soon meet in Marrakesh to discuss progress on the landmark UN Climate Change Agreement reached in Paris last year. On the agenda will be the increasing impacts of climate change on displacement and migration, including a decision to establish a “Climate Displacement Task Force.”
During the annual May to October monsoon season, Myanmar experiences low-level flooding, which creates favourable conditions for rice cultivation, Myanmar’s leading crop. However, in July 2015, heavier than normal downpours combined with the arrival of Cyclone Komen created unprecedented flash floods, general flooding, and landslides, a national disaster that affected 12 of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions. An estimated 1.6 million people were displaced and more than 20 percent of Myanmar’s cultivated land was damaged.
In September, Refugees International returned to some of the hardest hit areas in Rakhine State, Sagaing Region, and Chin State to see how communities were recovering a year after the flooding.
In July 2015, unprecedented monsoon rains, fueled by a tropical cyclone, caused flash floods that washed away San San Aye’s former home, along with 83 others in her village. More than one and half million people across the country were displaced in the disaster.
Earlier this week, some 9,000 participants from around the world gathered in Istanbul for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS). The Summit was the brainchild of outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who, during his tenure, has witnessed a humanitarian system strained to the point of breaking.
There are close to 60 million people currently displaced by war and persecution, the most since World War II. You have undoubtedly seen the media coverage of the crisis in the Mediterranean that illustrates the enormous challenges refugees face in trying to access protection and assistance. Advocating for life-saving protection for refugees and displaced people has been Refugee International’s mission for more than 35 years. However, at a time when the humanitarian system is near breaking and countries are struggling to meet the protection and assistance needs of millions of people fleeing war and persecution, I am deeply concerned that the U.S. and world leaders are not fully confronting the potential impact of climate change on displacement and migration, and the threat it presents to human security.
This Friday, President Obama and other world leaders will be meeting in New York to sign the historic UN climate change accord reached in Paris last November. With 130 countries standing ready with pens poised – including the world’s two largest emitters, the U.S. and China – there is much cause for celebration. But with numerous scientific studies showing that climate change is happening faster than anticipated, and more still questioning whether the commitments under the Paris agreement will get us where we need to be in order to avoid “dangerous interference with the climate system,” it’s time to get real about whether we’re doing enough to prepare and adapt our communities, sources of income, and ways of life to a warmer, more disaster-prone, and insecure world.
Climate change poses serious threats to agriculture and food security globally. Its impacts on agriculture include, but are not limited to, heat waves, pests, drought, desertification, freshwater decline, and biodiversity loss. The global poor, who are most dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, are most vulnerable to climate change impacts on agriculture. They are also the most likely to be forced from their homes when a drought or flooding wipe out agricultural resources on which they depend.
I’m here at the climate change negotiations in Paris, covering the issue of the impact of climate change on population displacement. In the past week, negotiators have been hammering out a legally binding agreement that aims to limit global warming to 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. For Rae — whose home nation of Kiribati sits at an average of two meters (about seven feet) above sea level — the current draft of the Paris agreement might not be enough to protect his home.
Close to two hundred governments are meeting in Paris over the next two weeks to hammer out an agreement on climate change. Global leaders are attempting to strike a deal that will reduce global carbon emissions and limit global warming to 2 °C by the end of the century. With growing evidence not only that climate change is happening, but also that the 2 °C may not be enough to avert climate change’s worst impacts, the stakes could not be higher.
As record numbers of people around the globe continue to flee war and persecution, there has been growing public concern about whether the world is ready to protect millions more who, in the decades to come, may be uprooted by floods, storms, sea level rise, and other climate change effects. While the issue of what to do about “climate refugees” is by no means new, groundbreaking progress was made last week when more than 110 governments met in Geneva to endorsea “Protection Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displacement in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change. While the event received little fanfare, its importance should not be underestimated. Many times more people displaced each year by floods, storms and other extreme weather events than are uprooted by conflict, and climate change is expected only to increase these numbers.