Disaster Displacement and Climate Refugees

The World’s Forgotten Victims

International climate policy is largely concerned with mitigation (reducing global warming) and adaptation (adapting to climate change), with little focus on climate justice and its connection to human rights. Those who bear the least responsibility for climate change suffer its effects the most, undermining their fundamental human rights to life, liberty and security. A large part of this disregarded policy realm is the grim forecast of disaster displacement for millions worldwide. The World Bank in 2018 released a study which found that without urgent global and national climate action, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could see more than 140 million people move within their countries’ borders by 2050 due to climate change, becoming what is termed “climate refugees.”

Who is a Climate Refugee?

A “refugee” is defined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as a person who has crossed an international border “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The 1984 Cartagena Declaration extends the definition in certain contexts to persons fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order.” While arguably, serious climate-induced events which force people to flee should give rise to valid claims for refugee status, refugee status due to climate emergencies does not exist concretely in international refugee law to date. Abnormally heavy rainfall, prolonged drought, desertification, environmental degradation, or sea-level rise and cyclones are already causing an average of more than 20 million people to leave their homes each year (UNHCR, 2022). In 2019, weather-related hazards triggered some 24.9 million displacements in 140 countries (UNHCR, 2021). In this reality, the term “climate refugee” is a term deployed to provoke conversation, challenge international policy, and give voice to persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.

The Sustainable Development Goals

While there are no legally binding international regimes that protect climate refugees, there are voluntary compacts that could be used to support them. Most notably, 193 countries adopted the 2030 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which addresses both migration and climate change. SDG 13 on climate action outlines several targets that address the climate crisis such as:

  • 13.1: Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries. 
  • 13.2: Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning. 
  • 13.3: Improve education, awareness-raising, and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction, and early warning. 

Although the SDGs do not explicitly link climate change and migration, the SDG target 10.7 calls for signatories to “facilitate orderly, safe, and responsible migration of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed policies.” This SDG target is significant as millions of climate-displaced persons are victims of modern slavery, ending up in forced labor or debt bondage, prosituting themselves or forcibly married. “Modern slavery” is what the human rights organization Anti-Slavery International calls “the severe exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain.” Climate refugees can be subjected to violence or threats, become inescapably indebted, or have their passports taken away and face deportation. When people are forced to migrate, the risk of falling into modern slavery increases because of dwindling resoures and constant insecurity along the way. 

Climate Change as a Threat Multiplier

Rising global temperatures and shifting natural systems triggers displacement and worsens living conditions for those who are already amongst the world’s most vulnerable populations. Limited natural resources, such as drinking water, are becoming even scarcer in many parts of the world that host refugees. Crops and livestock struggle to survive where conditions become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. Climate change becomes a ‘threat multiplier’, exacerbating tensions and adding to the potential for conflicts; climate change increases food insecurity, increases challenges to access to livelihoods, and it puts pressures on education, health and social services.

Border Politics

Northern nations can relieve pressures on the fastest warming countries by allowing more migrants to move north across their borders. The alternative is sealing their borders off, trapping hundreds of millions of people in places that are increasingly unliveable– what is known as ‘Lifeboat Ethics’ – saving yourself while others drown. Yet even the most desirable prospect of opening up borders and welcoming climate refugees faces particularly challenges:

  1. The challenge of anti-immigration sentiment that has swept across Europe and the U.S in recent years has made it a challenge for the U.N to even get governments to follow existing refugee protocol, let alone expand it to cover an entirely new class of refugee. Nations are increasingly choosing walls instead of bridges. For example, India has built a fence along most of its 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh, whose people are among the most vulnerable in the world to sea level rise. Anti-immigration rhetoric and immigration policy decisions will have profound and lethal effects for millions worldwide.
  2. Without careful management and planning, an influx of migrants into other nations can become rapidly destabilizing. Trends show that as people run short on food and abandon rural areas, they gravitate towards cities, which quickly grow overcrowded– stretching infrastructure, resources and services to their limits. People begin to congregate in slums, with little water or electricity, where they are more vulnerable to other challenges. The International Committee of the Red Cross warns that 96% of future urban growth will happen in some of the world’s most fragile cities, which already face a heightened risk of conflict and have governments that are least capable of handling it. 

Moving Forward 

Through the past two and half years, the COVID-19 Pandemic has offered a trial run as to whether humanity has the capacity to avert a predictable catastrophe. The climate crisis will test us again, yet at larger scales and with higher stakes. The window for action is closing– hundreds of millions of people will be pushed outside of their homes with every degree of temperature increase. Going forward, certain action steps must be prioritized: 

  1. Refugee and Human Rights Law: The international community must develop enhanced protection for refugees and other people displaced in the context of disasters and climate change, ensuring protection of their natural-born human rights. 
  1. Emergency Preparedness: The international community and national governments must anticipate and prepare for mass emergencies brought on by climate-related and other natural hazards. Disaster preparedness will require strong global partnerships which serve to increase the resilience of displaced people and host communities. 
  1. Climate Migration: The international community and national governments must dedicate greater resources to mitigate climate change migration risks, including migration monitors, providing safer modes of transport, and consolidating and expanding destination country integration resources. 
  1. Adaptive Capacity: The fact of the matter is that most people do not want to migrate– they want to stay where they are. The global community and national governments can help to achieve this by including programs to train and equip farmers for drought tolerance, raise homes out of flood plains, and other measures aimed at increasing communities resilience to climate shocks. Services and policies aimed to help those at risk for displacement must be proactive, not reactive. 


  • Brookings Institute, The Climate Crisis, Migration and Refugees (2019). https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-climate-crisis-migration-and-refugees/
  • Geert Van Dok, Climate Refugees are Increasingly Victims of Exploitation (2021), https://reliefweb.int/report/world/climate-refugees-are-increasingly-victims-exploitation
  • NY Times, The Great Climate Migration (2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/23/magazine/climate-migration.html
  • UNHCR, The 1951 Refugee Convention, https://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html
  • UNHCR, Climate Change and Disaster Displacement, https://www.unhcr.org/climate-change-and-disasters.html
  • World Bank, Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/infographic/2018/03/19/groundswell—preparing-for-internal-climate-migration
Hope Elizabeth Tracey
No Thoughts on Disaster Displacement and Climate Refugees

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