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World Refugee Day: The migration-climate change nexus

One cannot talk about refugees without highlighting the intersection of climate change, human displacement, and the urgent need for global responses to address the humanitarian impacts of climate-induced migration. 117.3 million people have been forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, and events seriously disturbing public order. Almost three in four of those displaced, lived in countries with high-to-extreme exposure to climate-related hazards.

Climate refugees
Climate refugees

This was the harsh reality for millions worldwide by the end of 2023. People were forced to flee their homes due to droughts, floods, hurricanes, and other climate impacts, making the nexus between climate change, and displacement and migration a reality and a pressing issue.

World Refugee Day provides a crucial moment to shed light on the intersection of climate change and human displacement and reflect on how rising temperatures increasingly and disproportionately affect forcibly displaced people. This year, the focus of the day is on solidarity with refugees. This solidarity should be manifested with an understanding that refugees don’t leave their homes for fun, and be action oriented by actively solving issues that lead to forced migration.

Solidarity cannot exist without also addressing climate change, implementing adaptation strategies to mitigate the drivers of climate migration, and enhancing the resilience of vulnerable people forced to flee in the face of the crisis.

The human face of the climate crisis

“Climate refugees” are people who are forced to move from their homes due to extreme weather events, and other climate related events. The term is not officially recognised in international law, as the 1951 Refugee Convention offers protection only to those fleeing war, violence, conflict, or persecution who have crossed an international border to find safety. As if weather shocks and worsening climatic conditions are not a cause to flee.

Climate change exacerbates existing vulnerabilities and can act as a “threat multiplier,” leading to forced displacement and migration from affected regions. Communities facing environmental degradation, loss of agricultural productivity, water scarcity, and natural disasters are often left with little choice but to migrate in search of safety, livelihood opportunities, and better living conditions. The more than two million people forced to flee their homes across the Horn of Africa, and hundreds of thousands of refugees stranded in the Mediterranean Sea are not spoiled for options. Climate change is a major driver, and for many of them, it has made their land barren, exacerbated social, political, and economic tensions, spread diseases, and increased the risk of malnutrition. Climate Change also exacerbates existing gender inequalities.

Women in many parts of the world are often responsible for securing water and food for their families, which becomes more challenging in the face of climate-related disruptions like droughts or floods. Women and children are particularly vulnerable in forced displacement settings, as access to healthcare, sanitation, and protection services becomes limited, and in most cases, non-existent. Women also play a critical role in climate adaptation and lead resilience-building initiatives in their communities, when they are forced to flee, the knowledge for adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change in the local context is lost.

The silent injustice

Refugees are often from countries facing “a perfect storm of crises” with interlocking challenges such as political instability, economic recessions, natural disasters, and climate change. But these countries have also historically emitted far less greenhouse gases compared to industrialised nations yet are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to geographical factors such as coastal or low-lying areas prone to sea-level rise, economic dependence on climate-sensitive sectors like agriculture, and limited economic and social capacity for adaptation and resilience-building.

This means there is a disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable communities including Indigenous people who have been dispossessed of the resources and infrastructure to cope with extreme weather events, loss of livelihoods, and displacement. Recognising this injustice is essential for shaping equitable responses to climate change and supporting affected communities in their efforts to adapt and thrive in a changing climate.

The disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable and marginalised communities underscores broader issues of global justice and responsibility. It is crucial for the Global North, which has historically emitted the most greenhouse gases, to take greater responsibility for addressing climate change. These countries must not reflect their solidarity in mere slogans and quotes, but rather by dedicating financial resources to stop people from having to abandon their ancestral lands and cultures to flee to places that do not offer ideal or comfortable living conditions.

The wealthiest countries host only 24% of the world’s refugees, the remaining 76% are hosted by poor, low and middle-income countries, where their existing challenges do not magically disappear, but often are forced to endure new challenges.  The time for rhetoric is gone, it is now time for the Global North to scale up climate finance, the $100 billion currently pledged falls short of the urgent and escalating needs of vulnerable communities. This is not just a financial imperative but a moral obligation to support those battered by the consequences of climate change.

The Clarion Call

1.2 billion people could be displaced within 30 years due to climate change. Will the impact of this crisis only receive broader attention when it affects wealthier nations? Will we only address the various connections between migration and climate change when sea levels begin to rise in the West, and people are forced to flee their homes? Will we only create policies and legal frameworks at national and international levels that address the root cause of climate migration when people from richer nations become dispossessed due to a loss of fresh water sources? There is a societal tendency to prioritise or respond more urgently to crises that directly affect affluent or influential populations, but climate change requires global cooperation and should be underpinned by humanitarian principles, and justice.

As climate change becomes a key driver of migration, and families continue to be forced out of their homes, the call this World Refugee Day is for countries driving climate change to take action to end emissions, and transition to renewable energy sources, and to provide fair financing to help vulnerable countries so people can build resilience and are not forced to flee.

On this World Refugee Day, let us stand together, not just in empathy but in solidarity, to build systems that are resilient, and can safeguard peoples land, livelihoods and cultures, while delivering justice to those who have already been displaced.

By Aurelie Kalenga Njimngou, Branch Manager at African Climate Reality Project (ACRP)

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