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Climate change is forcing more people out of their homes than war

Climate change is a bigger threat to people around the world than war, but new UK laws could criminalise refugees fleeing extreme weather

young boy in Iraq displaced by climate change

A young boy who fled violence in southern Iraq and was supported by the UNHCR. Image: UN Photo/Bikem Ekberzade

Climate change is forcing more people out of their homes than conflict, say experts who are demanding COP26 talks focus more on migration.

The number of displacements caused by extreme weather grew by nearly a quarter in 2019 and 2020, according to new research by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That’s an increase of more than 5.7 million and is set to rise even further as the climate crisis worsens.

There is little protection for people forced to seek asylum in another country as a result of the climate crisis, the experts warned, with existing international law focusing on persecution and discrimination as the cause of displacement.

Despite the 2015 Paris Agreement calling for a climate migrants taskforce to be established, countries around the world have still not agreed on how to ensure those fleeing extreme weather should be protected under refugee law.

“Most of the people we support are from the countries on the front lines of the climate emergency or they are being hosted in states equally impacted,” said Filippo Grandi of the UNHCR.

“They face climate-related disasters like floods, droughts and desertification. This destroys livelihoods, stokes conflict and has forced people to move.”

There could be as many as 216 million people forced to seek safety away from home by 2050, the World Bank estimated.

Extreme weather events have forced around 21.5 million displacements every year over the past decade  – calculated by the UN according to how many times people had to move, rather than how many people were affected. The figure is double the number of displacements triggered by war, according to the study.

Climate change is already “amplifying vulnerabilities” in many parts of the world, Andrew Harper – the UNHCR’s special advisor on climate action – told delegates in Glasgow, with countries already hit by poverty and conflict put under further pressure by weather disasters.

“We can’t wait for more COPs and more unfulfilled commitments,” he added. 

Around 3.5 million people are displaced in Afghanistan, where soaring temperatures and droughts are making conditions even more dangerous for people affected by 40 years of war. Another 1.1 million were forced out of their homes by extreme weather by the end of 2020.

And in Mozambique, 730,000 people have been forced to flee insurgency amid the chaos of cyclones.

Boris Johnson warned last week that failure to take bold action at COP26 could result in mass migration and competition over food and water.

But his government’s upcoming Nationality and Borders Bill could criminalise anyone who arrives in the UK without already holding a valid visa, threatening them with jail for up to four years. The widely-condemned legislation undermines global refugee law just as more people come under threat of being displaced by the climate crisis, UN experts said.

“There are no quick fixes to what is a global problem,” said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UK representative for the UNHCR.

The legislation “seems to be aimed at deterring refugees,” she added, “but there’s no evidence that would be the result.”

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