The first official publications from international organizations1 linking the environment to migration were published in 1992. Ever since, little has been done to address the issue, despite the fact that climate change figures top in the international agenda. 

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Still, the term “climate refugee, or migrant” is not a legal term2 and is used only to describe people displaced within, or outside their country due to natural disasters, without at the same time granting them any rights or any kind of safety.

Amnesty International is linking climate change to human rights3, including the right to life, health, food, water and shelter and is urging governments to establish laws to reduce carbon emissions, and to gradually abolish the use of fossil fuels, something which could indeed be a part of the solution. The other part should come from us, the people. We should make more efforts to protect our environment, not only in order to comply with the law, but as a conscious choice of sustaining our own lives, as well as the lives of others, and the life of the Earth itself.

Natural disasters are not, after all, just a natural phenomenon4. They are caused by our own actions, as individuals and as communities. Human activity in the era of the Anthropocene – as scientists call the present geological epoch – is having an impact on the climate, for reasons ranging from the use of fossil fuels, uncontrollable deforestation, to the daily use of plastic bags and the irresponsible use of electricity.

Even though we do not realize the longer-term impact of our actions on  the climate, and also on our lives, the data speak for themselves: in the next decades, the temperature and the sea level will rise, drought and floods will intensify, storms and hurricanes will be even more devastating5, causing a domino effect which will affect food production, diseases, and, of course, as many countries will be directly affected6, it will lead to massive displacement of people within or outside the borders of countries.
Recent history has given us a glimpse of the future. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed 20,000 people and left 2.7 million homeless. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and Rita in the United States7 forced at least 2 million people to leave their homes, while in 2012 in northeast India, the monsoons displaced another 6.9  million.  In total, from 2008 to 2012, 144 million people were displaced8 inside or outside their countries, out of which 98% due to environmental disasters in 2012. In 2014, New Zealand accepted the first official climate refugees from the island of Tuvalu9 which is facing the first problems of the rising sea level. New studies are published daily, while new locations are gradually vanishing10, like the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

It is estimated that 250 million people globally will be forced to leave their homes by 205011 due to climate change, and move towards places and countries with better standards of living. This movement could be directly or indirectly linked even to war, like in Darfur12 or in Syria13. As the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees said, “Climate change can enhance the competition for resources – water, food, grazing lands – and that competition can trigger conflicts”14.

In closing, it is us, people, who should above all protect our planet. Changing our daily habits is a part of the solution, while, of course, the states must take a more active stance towards climate change, a reality which will inevitably create millions of migrants in the coming years.

    1. Migration and Climate Change, IOM (link)
    2. ‘Climate refugees’. Addressing the international legal gaps, Benjamin Glahn, IBA (link)
    3. Human Rights, Amnesty International (in Greek), 2015 (link)
    4. Climate refugee, National Geographic Encyclopaedia entry, 2011 (link)
    5. Climate Change and Forced Migration, IOM Research Series No. 31 (link)
    6. Climate Change, Natural Disasters, Immigrants & Refugees, ELIAMEP 2015, (link)
    7. 2 Million Displaced by Storms, FEMA through Washington Post (link)
    8. Global estimates: People displaced by disasters, IDMC, 2013 (link)
    9. Climate refugee era, Washington Post, 2014 (link)
    10. Interactions between sea-level rise and wave exposure on reef islands dynamics in the Solomon Islands, IOP Institute of Physics, 2016 (link)
    11. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Cambridge University press, p.56
    12. Climate Change and Migration Dynamics, Migration Policy Institute (link)
    13. Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications in the recent Syrian drought, PNAS, 2015(link)
    14. Climate change could become the biggest driver of displacement, UNHCR, 2009 (link)

Folsom Lake Dam– 2011 vs. January 2014 composite
photo from NBC News