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Protecting climate refugees

Jan 12, 2009

There exists enough scientific evidence to show that the world’s carrying capacity will be compromised by climate change. Migration and Climate Change published by International Organization for Migration examines development implications of large-scale population movement and responses to these challenges.

Migration and Climate Change

Publisher: International Organization for Migration, 2008

In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration—with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption.

Since then various analysts have tried to put numbers on future flows of climate migrants (sometimes called “climate refugees”)—the most widely repeated prediction being 200 million by 2050.

This report focuses on the possible future scenarios for climate change, natural disasters and migration and development, looking to increase awareness and find answers to the challenges that lie ahead.

In addition to climate change impact caused by sea-level rise, salinization of agricultural land, desertification and growing water scarcity, flooding, storms and glacial lake outburst floods, non-climate drivers, such as government policy, population growth and community-level resilience to natural disaster, are also important. All contribute to the degree of vulnerability people experience.

Temporary migration as an adaptive response to climate stress is already apparent in many areas. But the picture is nuanced; the ability to migrate is a function of mobility and resources (both financial and social). In other words, the people most vulnerable to climate change are not necessarily the ones most likely to migrate.

There is a need for international recognition of the problem, a better understanding of its dimensions and a willingness to tackle it. This should take several forms:

  • The international community needs to acknowledge formally the predicament of forced climate migrants
  • Development and adaptation policies in potential source countries of forced climate migrants need to focus on reducing people’s vulnerability to climate change
  • A great deal more research is needed to understand the causes and consequences of climate migration and to monitor numbers.
  • Practitioners, meanwhile, should develop better communication and working relationships between the different human rights, population, environmental and migration organizations that share a mandate to respond to population displacement.
  • Clearly there has to be a balance of policies that promotes the incentives for workers to stay in their home countries whilst not closing the door of international labour mobility
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