Climate migration is increasing, but not fully recognized by the world

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) – Worsening climate, mainly from burning coal and gas, is uprooting millions of people, with wildfires ravaging California cities, rising seas surpassing island nations and droughts exacerbating conflicts in various parts of the world.

Every year, natural disasters force an average of 21.5 million people from their homes around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And scientists predict that migration will grow as the planet warms. Over the next 30 years, 143 million people are likely to be uprooted by rising seas, droughts, searing temperatures and other climate disasters, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published this year.

Yet the world has yet to officially recognize climate migrants or come up with formalized ways to assess their needs and help them. Here’s a look at climate migration today.


Most climate migrants move within the borders of their home country, usually from rural areas to cities after losing their home or livelihood due to drought, rising seas or other weather disaster. Because cities also face their own climate-related problems, including high temperatures and water shortages, people are increasingly forced to flee across international borders to seek refuge.

Yet climate migrants are not granted refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which provides legal protection only to people fleeing persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group.


It is not easy to identify climate migrants, especially in regions characterized by poverty, violence and conflicts.

While worsening weather conditions exacerbate poverty, crime and political instability, fueling tensions over dwindling resources from Africa to Latin America, climate change is often overlooked as a contributing factor to people fleeing their homelands. According to UNHCR, 90% of the refugees under their mandate are from countries “on the front lines of the climate crisis”.

In El Salvador, for example, every year many people leave villages due to crop failure from drought or floods, ending up in cities where they become victims of gang violence and eventually flee their lands because of these attacks.

“It’s hard to say that someone is moving just because of climate change. Are all those who leave Honduras after a hurricane climate migrants?” Elizabeth Ferris, a research professor at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “And then there are non-climate-related environmental hazards – people fleeing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis – should they be treated differently than those displaced by weather-related phenomena?”

Despite the challenges, it is important that governments identify climate displaced people, Ferris added.

“The whole question of definition is not a trivial question – how can you develop a policy for people if you are not aware of who it applies to?” she wrote.


Although no nation offers asylum to climate migrants, UNHCR published legal guidance in October 2020 opening the door to offering protection to people displaced by the effects of global warming. It said climate change should be taken into account in certain scenarios when it intersects with violence, although it stopped short of redefining the 1951 refugee convention.

The commission acknowledged that temporary protection may be insufficient if a country cannot recover from natural disasters, such as rising seas, suggesting that certain climate-displaced people may be eligible for resettlement if their place of origin is deemed uninhabitable.

More and more countries are laying the foundations to become safe havens for climate migrants. In May, Argentina created a special humanitarian visa for people from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean displaced by natural disasters to allow them to stay for three years.

Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden ordered his national security adviser to conduct a months-long study that included looking at “the options for the protection and resettlement of individuals displaced directly or indirectly by climate change.” A working group was set up, but the administration has so far not adopted such a programme.

Low-lying Bangladesh, which is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, has been among the first to try to adapt to the new reality of migration. Efforts are underway to identify climate-resilient cities where people displaced by sea-level rise, river erosion, cyclonic storms and salt water intrusion can move to work, and in return help their new locales economically.


Political debates about migration have long revolved around locking borders. Climate change is changing that.

With hundreds of millions of people expected to be uprooted by natural disasters, there is growing discussion about how to manage migration flows rather than stem them, as migration for many people will become a survival tool, according to advocates.

“One problem is just the complete lack of understanding of how the climate is forcing people to move,” said Amali Tower, founder and CEO of Climate Refugees, an advocacy group focused on raising awareness of people displaced by climate change. is still this idea in the Global North (industrialized nations) that people come here because they are fleeing poverty and seeking a better life, the American Dream. In Europe it is the same spin of the same story. But no one wants to leave their We must approach climate change as a human security issue and not a border security issue.”


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate commitment here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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