Climate refugees: The missing item on the COP27 agenda

A crowd of climate migrant workers hurries to attend to their office in time after the cross of Poshur river by boat at Mongla city in Bagerhat, Bangladesh
16 November, 2022
As top climate talks unfold at COP27, no progress is expected for the millions due to be displaced by climate change. To this day, there is no legal recognition for “climate refugees” and no sustainable funding plan on the table for host countries.

Hunger, rampant desertification, failing harvests and devastating floods were some of the issues that came up on Friday night as a few dozen COP27 participants huddled inside a freezing conference room to listen to a series of heartbreaking stories on climate-induced displacement.

“I’ve seen how droughts and floods that affected my region forced people to constantly move back and forth,” said Apira, a South Sudanese refugee in Uganda.

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Continuous droughts mean our cattle no longer provide milk. They are dying from the lack of fodder. And in the south, where there are better rains, we are plagued by floods,” added Mami, a climate change activist from Niger.

Led by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, the panel gathered speakers from the “frontlines” of climate change.  

One after the other, Mami and Fahmata from Niger, Apira from South Sudan, Iman from Yemen, and Shehab from Bangladesh shared their experiences with a visibly moved but powerless audience.

"Up to 200 million people could be climate migrants by 2050, a ten-fold increase from current refugee and IDP populations"

The youngest panellist was Assad, a nine-year-old Sudanese boy injured by torrential floods that swept away much of his village. Breaking into sobs, the young boy pleaded for “governments” to provide funding for Sudanese children, drawing tears from members of the audience (composed mostly of NGO members and activists) but little reaction from the government delegations he was addressing.

Those were, at the exact same time, locked up in dozens of rooms across the COP venue to negotiate progress on various items listed on this year’s agenda – which does not include climate migration.

This glaring gap raises many questions regarding states’ preparedness to handle the impacts of climate change, particularly for low and middle-income countries in the Middle East, which already host millions of refugees and displaced persons.

A rising issue

In 2021 alone, more than 23 million people were internally displaced by the impacts of climate change, a number “far higher” than those displaced by conflict, according to UN experts. But the issue never made its way on the official agenda of previous climate COPs, despite receiving increasing attention from media and civil society groups.

Supporters of Christian charity Tearfund join climate justice campaigners marching from the Shell Centre to Trafalgar Square to demand urgent climate finance and reparations for loss and damage for global south communities on 12 November 2022 in London [Getty Images]
Supporters of Christian charity Tearfund join climate justice campaigners marching from the Shell Centre to Trafalgar Square to demand urgent climate finance and reparations for loss and damage for global south communities on 12 November 2022 in London [Getty Images]

Part of it owes to strong political opposition from wealthy nations, who have consistently refused to give any legal substance to the term “climate refugees”.

The 1951 Refugee Convention describes refugees as those who left their country of origin “for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order,” a definition which has generally excluded those displaced by natural disasters from receiving refugee status and associated rights.

Climate refugees simply don’t exist in the eye of the law, which means nations spared by the worst impacts of climate change have no responsibility to welcome them.

Aid for the climate-displaced is handed out on a discretionary basis by states who are keen to communicate the support they give to the climate-vulnerable abroad but have so far refused to grant them any rights at home.

But as Western states continue to reject using the term “climate refugees” in binding texts, activists and NGOs argue it is time to revamp a convention adopted in the aftermath of the Second World War and adapt it to our current reality.

“The clock is ticking (…) And with each tick and each tok, it means more conflict, it means more communities fighting each other over shrinking resources,” Agnes Callamard, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, declared on another panel last week.

n recent years, natural disasters -- not conflict -- have been the main driver of displacement in Somalia, that ranks among the world's most vulnerable to climate change [Getty Images]
In recent years, natural disasters have been the main driver of displacement in Somalia, which ranks among the world's most vulnerable to climate change [Getty Images]

Drawing lines between climate and conflict-induced migration are becoming increasingly difficult. Farmer-herder conflicts across the Sahel are arguably fed by climate dynamics.

In Syria and Yemen, the war has compounded environmental degradation, collapsed agricultural systems and generated additional displacement. And across Eastern Africa, war refugees parked in overcrowded camps both suffer from and contribute to environmental degradation, having lost access to their cattle and land.

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The fear of mass migration

To wrangle wealthy states into action, proponents of climate justice now brandish the spectre of mass climate-induced migration towards Europe, arguing it is a reality to contend with.

The ticking clock of climate change means “more people making the dangerous journey to better shores in Europe, only to be kicked out,” Callamard highlighted. “No one in Europe dares to say that actually, migration may be the best adaptation strategy that people have in their hands right now.”

On the sidelines of COP27, Bangladesh’s Minister of Foreign Affairs AK Abdul Momen spoke during a high-level panel on climate and human mobility held on Monday saying, “Migration is increasingly arising as an adaptation strategy.”

The most widely cited figure is that up to 200 million people could be climate migrants by 2050, a ten-fold increase from current refugee and IDP populations. The figure comes from research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international scientific body tasked with monitoring and anticipating the impacts of global warming, but the IOM has warned it might be severely over or underestimated, given the wide range of climate scenarios we face in the coming years.

Still, climate-induced mobility is already putting huge pressure on cities in the Global South as farmers are pushed off their lands. “It is evident that the international community can no longer afford to remain oblivious to this critical issue,” Abdul Momen added, framing mass climate migration as “a global security issue” requiring immediate “corrective action.”

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Similar warnings multiplied throughout the first week of COP27, with little impact. “More than 50 events have been organised over the past two weeks on climate and mobility,” Ugochi Daniels, the Deputy Director-General of the UN’s International Organization on Migration (IOM), said on the same panel.

But the discussions were held mostly at “side events” organised by civil society and international agencies on the sidelines of the summit. These are just ripples on the surface in the political swamp that is COP27, where decisions are adopted by consensus, requiring weeks of preliminary talks to get anything done. “It’s been slowly trickling into negotiation rooms,” Daniels recognised. Too slowly, perhaps, to match the urgency of the crisis.

An unequal burden

Overall, despite attempts to frame climate migration and refugees as a global security issue, hosting the climate-displaced is likely to remain an uneven burden mostly borne by the Global South.

Climate-induced migration is overwhelmingly internal to countries and regions, and pendular – with people moving back and forth from one area to the next as displacement hits. Most of those displaced by natural disasters and seasonal droughts move within their own country, or at most to neighbouring ones.

Only a tiny fraction of those impoverished by drought or floods in the Global South have the resources to undertake a long migratory journey to Europe. In the Horn of Africa, currently battered by drought, tens of thousands have died of hunger without being able to reach the humanitarian aid dispensed in informal displacement camps scattered throughout the country – much less on European shores.

"European states have little to gain by burying their heads in the sand and pretending that climate refugees do not exist, secretly praying that climate migrants remain politely parked in faraway displacement camps in the desert"

This means that relatively less-affected states within regions highly vulnerable to climate change will probably bear the brunt of growing climate migration flows in the coming decades. Fiji, for example, will need to spend the equivalent of its yearly GDP to relocate its population threatened by sea-level rise. It is also preparing to host the population of other Pacific states, like Kiribati.

Whether global support will be available for these low and middle-income host countries is anything but certain. This question forms the backbone of the ongoing global push for a “loss and damage” facility, which should allow climate-affected people to receive unconditional and immediate financial support.

But so far, little progress has been made. Developed countries agreed to put loss and damage on the agenda for the first time this year, on the condition that liability would not be discussed.

In other words, they agreed to discuss “how” to compensate for unavoidable losses caused by climate change, but not “who” would pay for it. Western states have also repeatedly argued that money has run out and advised developing nations to seek loans and grants from private institutions like the World Bank. Yet the World Bank is anything but prepared for the scale of the coming crisis.

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Asked about their plans to support top refugee-hosting countries in coming years, high-level World Bank officials told The New Arab in an interview that “existing mechanisms” allowed refugee-hosting countries to access loans at preferential rates.

In other words: there are no plans on the table to expand existing mechanisms, which have already proven insufficient. The Syrian refugee “crisis” illustrates this well: of the top three countries hosting the highest number of Syrian refugees worldwide, all are enmeshed in a deep economic and employment crisis and two, Turkey and Lebanon, have official policies to return refugees to Syria, often forcibly.

Considering that current support for refugee-hosting countries is already inadequate, what can we expect if forced displacement is multiplied by ten or twenty?

A token victory and a blatant failure

Although the issue of climate refugees might come up behind the closed doors of some negotiation rooms, no one expects meaningful progress or financial commitments on this cause. “It might be mentioned in the final cover decision of this COP, but it will be very watered down,” one journalist with extensive experience covering COPs told The New Arab.

Finally putting loss and damage on the agenda was a victory for developing countries, who want to see money on the table from developed counterparts. But continuing to sweep climate refugees under the carpet has been a long-running failure.

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European states have little to gain by burying their heads in the sand and pretending that climate refugees do not exist, secretly praying that climate migrants remain politely parked in faraway displacement camps in the desert. But they continue to kick the can down the road, given the high political risk many governments will face at home if they are perceived as too “lenient” on migration issues.

At the same time, no one can expect low and middle-income nations to absorb the brunt of migration flows without proper support, which international financial institutions are not yet ready to provide. The question of how it will be spent and managed to ensure it does not get pocketed by kleptocratic elites is a whole other can of worms.

This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.

Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais