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Forum on Climate Refugees

Climate refugees

Climate change threatens to cause the largest refugee crisis in human history. More than 200 million people, largely in Africa and Asia, might be forced to leave their homes to seek refuge in other places or countries over the course of the century. Many climate refugees may seek refuge in their own countries; others will need to cross borders to find a new home. Some local refugee crises, in particular in the richer countries in the North, may be prevented through adaptation measures. Many poorer countries, however, are unlikely to be able to initiate sufficient adaptation programmes, and climate-induced migration might be the only option for many communities in the South. In these situations, climate refugees will need to rely on effective protection and support from the international community.

Climate refugees: hotspots and numbers

Most climate refugees will come from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Small Island States. There are different estimates available pertaining to this emerging problem which differ from 50 million in 2010 to hundreds of millions or even one billion by 2050. This shows that more research is needed to determine a more exact number of climate refugees. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is looming crisis which needs to be dealt with rather sooner than later.



Different terms have been used to refer to these future victims of climate change, like “environmental refugees”, “environmental migrants” or  “environmentally displaced persons”. We propose to refer to these people as “climate refugees”, which we define as: 

people who have to leave their habitats, immediately or in the near future, because of sudden or gradual alterations in their natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.

See in more detail discussion in Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas. 2008 (November-December). Protecting Climate Refugees: The Case for a Global Protocol. Environment 50 (6): 8-16.

For more references on this debate, see list of references. 

Global governance institutions

This looming crisis requires solutions. Yet the current institutions, organizations and funding mechanisms are not sufficiently equipped to deal with this emerging problem. The situation calls for new governance. Therefore, we outline a blueprint for a global governance architecture on the protection and voluntary resettlement of climate refugees. With a view to existing institutions, we argue against the extension of the definition of refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and against any role of the UN Security Council. Key elements of our proposal are, instead, a new legal instrument specifically tailored for the needs of climate refugees—a Protocol on Recognition, Protection, and Resettlement of Climate Refugees to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—as well as a separate funding mechanism, the Climate Refugee Protection and Resettlement Fund. The broad predictability of climate change impacts allows for preparation and planning. We have thus framed our proposal deliberatively not in terms of emergency response and disaster relief, but in terms of planned and organized voluntary resettlement programs.    

See in more detail discussion in Environment article. 

Climate refugees: an issue of international security, human rights or development? 

Increasingly the problem of climate refugees is framed in terms of international security or human rights. From an international security point of view, some argue that since climate-related migration may lead to national or even regional or international conflict, it could threaten international peace and security. For this reason, some see a role for the UN Security Council on this issue. At the same time, the problem of climate refugees is also framed in terms of human rights. In this view, human rights law and institutions should be adjusted in order to protect climate refugees.

We prefer to see the climate refugee crisis as a development issue, since climate refugees require protection in the form of long-term voluntary resettlement programs for collectives of people, which can often take place within their own country. Such programmes can more effectively be provided by development agencies than by security or human rights institutions. For additional arguments, see
Environment article.

This does not imply that human rights are not involved, too. Climate refugees have a right to be protected from climate change impacts. Moreover, countries that are responsible for climate change have a moral responsibility to provide victims of climate change this protection. Yet, it depends on what kind of governance mechanisms are attached to such a conceptualization of the emerging crisis. In the end, it is effective institutions that are required. Institutions to protect human rights are not the answer.

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Environment article on climate refugees

Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas. 2008 (November-December). Protecting Climate Refugees: The Case for a Global Protocol. Environment 50 (6): 8-16.

Coordinator of the climate refugee program

Ingrid Boas