O'Vert Dose: Climate refugees will soon be in the news

The effects of global warming are driving displacement and migration around the world. Remember that in 2002 alone, climate-related disasters displaced 30 million people, and we expect to have 25 million to 1 billion climate refugees by 2050, which is not without consequences for them, the places they are leaving and places they are heading to.

What does “climate migration” mean?

We speak of climate migration, or climate-induced displacement, when people are forced to leave their homes permanently or temporarily, mainly due to one or more sudden climatic disasters.

Climate refugees are part of a larger group of immigrants known as environmental refugees, which include immigrants forced to flee due to natural disasters, such as volcanoes and tsunamis. The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political refugees fleeing wars and other conflicts.

Climate migration is impacting people and cities today. The latest IPCC report confirms that there is already unequivocal evidence that global warming and its effects are forcing more and more people to leave their homes, seeking safety and a better quality of life.

The main causes of climate migration are extreme storms, floods, droughts and heat waves, not to mention damage to critical infrastructure. In Dakar, Senegal, for example, flooding has already displaced tens of thousands of people since 2005. Sea level rise will become an increasingly important factor in the coming decades.
We use the term “climate migration” to refer to both.

Climate migration generally targets cities

Of those displaced today, most do not cross national borders and 70% have settled in cities – both trends are set to continue. Cities in all countries are likely to be affected, but cities in the South will experience the greatest impacts. To date, rural farming communities in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are already experiencing some of the heaviest climate impacts, shifting households to cities.

Rapid and unplanned urbanization is occurring in areas highly exposed to climate change. An additional 2.5 billion people are expected to live in urban areas by 2050, including more than a billion in low-lying coastal cities. This will obviously increase the risk of displacement and put pressure on local services and infrastructure.

Climate migration will exacerbate inequalities

Low-income households are disproportionately affected by climate migration, and will be the most vulnerable as climate impacts intensify. This is due to systemic inequalities resulting from generations of political, social and economic marginalization.

Many low-income displaced populations have no choice but to settle in informal settlements and underserved areas with inadequate housing and poor social determinants of health. This is particularly true in the cities of the South where a large part of the urban constructions are informal and above all, vulnerable to climatic risks. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the population is expected to double by 2030, rapid rural-urban migration is already driving the expansion of informal settlements in the city’s most climate-vulnerable areas.

Environmental refugees are not protected by international law, they face greater political risks than refugees fleeing their homes due to conflict or political oppression. Unlike traditional refugees, climate refugees can be sent back to their devastated country or forced to live in a refugee camp. Moreover, climate change can increase the number of traditional refugees and increase competition for resources, be it water, food or pasture, and this competition can only trigger conflicts.

In the coming years, scientists warn that human movement within and across borders due to climate change will increase exponentially. This will create new categories of migrants and refugees that will challenge the concepts of citizenship, aid and multilateral cooperation. If countries do not design policies and protocols to deal with these dynamics, conflicts could escalate, economies falter, and human suffering increase dramatically.

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