Environment

Climate refugees are on the front line of a global emergency

As people in the UK lament snow in March and blistering heatwaves, climate refugees are already suffering on the front line

Earth Day

Image: ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE FOUNDATION

Halima fled Somalia to a refugee camp in Kenya after years of drought killed her livestock. A single mother of seven children, she felt that she and her family had to leave to survive when there was no more food or water. Halima and her children are one of several families currently living at the Dadaab refugee camp, and they aren’t the only ones there because of climate change.

“We suffered from four years of drought. We used to cultivate our fields but everything [was] destroyed and because of that, we came to the refugee camps. I’m a mother and a father for my kids, and I don’t have anything for them,” Halima said.

As people in the UK and Europe lament snow in March and blistering heatwaves, those in the global south are on the front line of the climate crisis. Climate refugee is a term coined in 1985 to describe people who have been “forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of marked environmental disruption”. 

Data from the UNHCR showed an average of 21.5 million people have been displaced by climate-related disasters each year, while an Australian think tank estimates a further 1.2 billion people could be displaced as a result of climate change by 2050 – which is when most countries are aiming to have reached net zero emissions. 

“We’ve seen and supported several children who fled their homes because of extreme weather and were forced to accept offers from traffickers to get to somewhere they thought would be safer,” James Kofi Annan told The Big Issue.

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Annan is the founder of Challenging Heights, an organisation aimed at preventing child trafficking in Ghana in collaboration with a coalition of charities aiming to improve children’s lives globally called Family for Every Child. “There was one girl who was displaced by heavy rains and floods and was forced into prostitution,” he said. A boy we helped was living with his family, who were fishermen, but because they couldn’t get enough fish, the boy was sold into slavery. These are just two examples of how climate change is impacting on the vulnerabilities of the people in our communities and driving an increase in human trafficking,” Annan added.

Estimates suggest there are already 40 million climate refugees in the world today. While many in Africa are experiencing drought, people in Bangladesh have been severely affected by the deadly floods which started in May 2022. More than nine million people in north India and Bangladesh were affected when over 53,000 hectares of agricultural land was submerged, forcing families to consider leaving their homes.

Sunati, who lives in north east Bangladesh, said: “The flood has taken away everything from us. There is no food left in our home to feed the children and cattle. We don’t know how we are still alive and how long we can continue like this.”

Countries less affected by such extreme weather are unprepared for mass migration, which is expected to exceed the number of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe in 2015 significantly, when then-PM David Cameron called them a “swarm”. The migrant issue is treated as being a crisis in and of itself.

Currently, climate refugees are not guaranteed the same protected status as other refugees, who are described strictly as “people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This comes as it was revealed the UK spent more than three times its overseas aid budget on housing refugees in 2022. 

Steve Trent, CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, an organisation that campaigns at the intersection of climate and human rights, called the lack of legal protection for climate refugees a “fundamental environmental injustice”.

He told The Big Issue: “Millions of people are forced to leave their homes every year by the climate crisis, but they are slipping through the cracks.” Trent called for a “new legal framework” to be developed to “safeguard the rights of climate refugees, so that anyone who has to take the terrifying step of leaving their home behind can at least do so safely and with dignity. The people who are doing least to cause the climate crisis are suffering its worst effects.”

Zoe Gardner, an independent migration policy researcher, agrees. “We are unwilling to look at ourselves as a global community of human beings and recognise our fortune in being born here instead of somewhere else. We’re responsible for at least some of the reasons why people have to migrate. We have to move towards a world where mobility is freer.”

She said that it is “a complete fiction to imagine that we can prevent people from moving”, especially if current initiatives to reverse the effects of climate change and stay under 1.5 degrees of global warming don’t work – though scientists are optimistic.

“Parts of the world will start to become difficult to live in in the near future, and we have to get serious about addressing how we can manage the climate catastrophe and the migration changes that will come with it,” Gardner said. “There are no borders when it comes to the climate crisis.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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