Who Are Climate Refugees?

More than 20 million people are currently seeking refuge after having lost their homes because of climate change. Climate change causes the displacement of two to three times more people than political and social conflicts. Internationally one person per second is displaced due to climate change.

Climate refugees are people who are forced to leave their place of residence due to circumstances arising from the weather or natural disasters. Most of these people find shelter within their own country (IDPs). While some seek a safe place by migrating to other countries or continents.

The phenomenon of climate refugees is hardly ever discussed in institutional agendas. In the eyes of international law, it is not recognized as a justification for receiving refugee status or applying for asylum. However, with the worsening of weather events, the number of climate refugees is increasing and becoming ever more significant. For this reason, it is important to understand the link between climate change and migration.

Human Impact of Climate Change

Despite the global effort to limit the temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius, climate change has already clearly led to adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people beyond their adaptation capacity. According to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – 6th Report, impacts of climate change were observed in many ecosystems and human systems worldwide. The report highlights the increased adverse impacts on agriculture/crop production, fisheries yields, and aquaculture production. Also on infectious diseases, heat, malnutrition, mental health, displacement, inland flooding, and associated damages. Flood/storm-induced damages in coastal areas, damages to infrastructure, and damages to key economic sectors.

Global Warming

In the near term, global warming is expected to reach 1.5ºC. The impact of this variation will lead to unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards. And present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans. The level of risk will depend on the vulnerability, exposure, level of socio-economic development, and adaptation. The new report concludes with a higher degree of confidence that the mid and long-term impacts are multiple times higher than currently observed.

Climate change is contributing to humanitarian crises where climate hazards interact with the high vulnerability of local regions. According to IPCC, climate and weather extremes are increasingly driving displacement in all regions. Floods and drought-related acute food insecurity and malnutrition have increased in Africa and Central and South America. Non-climatic factors are the dominant drivers of existing intrastate violent conflicts. However, in some assessed regions, extreme weather and climate events have had a small, adverse impact on their length, severity, or frequency, but the statistical association for that was weak. Through displacement and involuntary migration from extreme weather and climate events, climate change has generated and perpetuated vulnerability.


The climate change risk of a region is given not only by its exposure and vulnerability but also by its adaptation capacity. However, the socio-economic development level of a region frequently determines its adaptation capacity. This leads to a severe problem in regions where exposure and occurrence of climate change impacts can not be handled. IPCC states in its most recent report that increasing adaptive capacities minimizes the negative impacts of climate-related displacement and involuntary migration for migrants and sending and receiving areas. This improves the degree of choice under which migration decisions are made. Consequently, it ensures safe and orderly movements of people within and between countries. Some development reduces underlying vulnerabilities associated with conflict. Moreover, adaptation contributes by reducing the impacts of climate change on climate-sensitive drivers of conflict. Risks to peace are reduced, for example, by supporting people in climate-sensitive economic activities and advancing women’s empowerment.

Observed impacts of climate change on human systems

Source: IPCC – 6th Assessment report

Internally Displaced People

The conflict in Syria is shown through a war that has continued since 2011. Many factors contributed to the war, including sectarian conflicts, an unstable government, changes in agricultural policies, and an unprecedented drought. As previously shown, the repercussions of the changes affect unequally at a global level. They intersect with socio-economic and political factors, reaching the most vulnerable in the most disadvantaged communities. The number of internally displaced people in regions such as East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America – areas most susceptible to droughts, cyclones, and monsoons – is continuously increasing. This is predictably creating a population of millions of climate refugees in the coming years. The prediction, by the Ecosystem Threat Register, is that in 2050 1.2 billion people will be displaced as climate refugees.

In addition to triggering the birth of new migration routes, climate change amplifies the phenomena of global social injustice. It does this by creating a population with “forced immobility”. It’s the situation of those who do not have the resources or opportunities to migrate, despite having their homes destroyed. Let’s take Bangladesh as an example, a country with a population of 150 million. It has a low altitude and an extensive watershed that is in constant motion and susceptible to severe cyclones. An estimated 200,000 people are displaced each year due to erosion of the riverbank, and it is difficult to migrate to another country.

Societies and Governments

The problem of rising global temperatures and the gradual rise of sea levels is often overlooked by societies and governments in the Global North countries. Although these countries are among the most responsible for climate change, they are more adapted and also less exposed to its impacts. However, this is not true for a large percentage of the world’s population. Their voice, media impact, and political strength are much lower than the population in developed countries. Therefore, they remain at a low volume, often going unnoticed.

The Impact of Climate Change in Alentejo, Portugal

On the Alentejo coast, water, soil, geological, and biodiversity resources have been frequently unsustainably managed mainly by large productions of intensive agriculture, industries, and tourist enterprises. This management has been carried out to maximize profit in the short term, neglecting environmental maintenance in the long term. Unsustainable agricultural and economic activities are expected to have an impact on the coastal geomorphology, water resources, and biodiversity of the region. They are not frequently consistent with mitigation and adaptation plans and practices. These are essential to face the impacts of climate change in the near and long term. Particularly in a coastal region that is expected to face severe impacts due to sea-level rise and increase in temperatures. 

The impacts of climate change may be intensified by human behavior and territorial management policy. We will gradually make the region less inhabitable and more vulnerable to natural disasters. The vulnerability and intensification of climate change impacts, together with the increasing number of non-sustainable economic practices in the region, are expected to lead to the displacement of the local population g to other areas of the country.

Agricultural Productions

In addition to the obvious mismanagement of natural resources on the Alentejo coast, it is important to note that these intensive agricultural productions, which focus on short-term profit, are frequently associated with poor working conditions and remunerations. In addition, an increasing number of migrants and displaced people were found to be the most contracted and employed under these agricultural productions. A shift and action are necessary to stop this. To stop the agricultural and economical practices which are putting the southern coastal region of Portugal more vulnerable to climate change, and to stop the non-proper employment of migrants and displaced people who came to Portugal to find safe conditions and to run away from vulnerable situations (either climatic, economic, or political).

Image by: Climáximo

What Can Be Done?

All the above-mentioned consequences of climate change are what we are fighting against. We are fighting against this by aiming to keep the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. Even if we fail to achieve this goal, much remains to be done to ensure that the world’s populations have similar access to resources that are necessary for their livelihoods and that they are able to settle in more stable and secure areas. We need to work together for this to happen. Without allowing conflicts to arise and without leaving countries or regions in ruin. So, some can wash their hands off the problem, which is being caused by all of us.

We are supporting Climaximo in their event taking place from the 6th to the 10th of July. Throughout this event, there will be a world café, workshops, and talks, in which HuBB joins with a group discussion to reflect on attitudes towards Global Justice, and on the 9th of July in Sines there will be a protest. You can find more information about the event here.

Want to read more about climate refugees? Read our blog post Environmental Refugees: Reality Check!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of SPEAK

Author: Humans Before Borders

HuBB – Humans Before Borders is a Lisbon and Porto based civil society platform for action against inhumane and illegal treatment of migrants and refugees.

One Reply to “Climate Refugees, Conflicts, and Social Injustice”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *