Climate exodus: The unfolding crisis of climate displacement

8 min read
Dubai, UAE
06 December, 2023

Joelle Hangi is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo displaced to Kakuma camp in Kenya.

Speaking to a packed room at COP28 on Monday, she recounted a time when she had taken her child to the hospital, only to learn that heavy rains had swept away her home.

“From the distance, you can think [climate change] is a joke, it’s acting and it's a movie. But when you’re living it, that’s when you understand that it's a reality,” she said. “It's making us change places and look for safety again and again, so the move has never stopped.”

"Estimates suggest that 1.2 billion people are at risk of displacement due to climate-related issues, such as rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and land degradation, by 2050. This is 13% of the global population"

As our global climate continues to warm at an accelerating rate, the world has witnessed an unprecedented surge in environmental catastrophes. 

This year is set to be the hottest year on record. More and more people around the world now live on the frontlines of climate disaster.

The climate crisis has already uprooted millions of lives, creating a burgeoning population of climate refugees who have fled their homes in search of safety and stability.

Despite being one of the defining challenges of the climate crisis, climate displacement has been largely absent from international negotiations.

Environment and Climate
Live Story

At the UN climate summit, COP28, currently underway in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), there are dozens of side events discussing climate mobility, but the issue has just barely entered the official agenda. 

“Climate-induced displacement hasn't had a home in the international framework, not in the climate space, not in the migration space, and not in the refugee space,” said Amali Tower, founder of the human rights group Climate Refugees, explaining the nexus of climate change, security, and inequality.

“Luckily, at the UNFCCC here, they have started to make these connections. And that has been a long fight from the Global South,” she told The New Arab at COP28. “It's found a home in the loss and damage agenda.”

In August, a World Bank report estimated that in Bangladesh alone there are expected to be 19 million internal climate refugees
In August, a report by the World Bank estimated that Bangladesh alone could have up to 19 million internal climate refugees in the near future [Getty Images]

A coming climate exodus

In 2023, the number of people forcibly displaced due to conflict, persecution, poverty and natural disasters worldwide reached a record high of 114 million, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. At least 60% of them live in the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change.

Within this group, the number of climate-displaced people has been rapidly increasing. In 2022, more than 32 million people were displaced by weather-related events, an increase of 41% from 2008. This includes natural disasters, but also more incremental, long-term forms of climate impacts.

“In a rapid disaster context, it's much easier to sort of see the climate connection, but in a situation of drought, rising sea levels, you know, things that are incremental, a little bit harder to unpack the climate component,” Tower explained.

“Imagine how much more displacement is happening or forced migration, even in climate context, that we're not quite gathering and documenting.”

Environment and Climate
Live Story

Estimates suggest that 1.2 billion people are at risk of displacement due to climate-related issues, such as rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and land degradation, by 2050. This is 13% of the global population. 

“We have to know that the climate crisis is real. It can affect any one of us at any time,” said Ahmed, a Somali youth activist who was displaced from his village as a young child due to climate change. 

Speaking on the same panel as Hangi, Ahmed told the audience how Somalia is particularly vulnerable to climate change, as an agricultural and herder society that faces regular periods of drought and flooding.

Environment and Climate
Live Story

Global South and lower-income countries are disproportionately affected by climate-induced displacement and are bearing the burden of the climate crisis despite contributing only a fraction of current and historical greenhouse gas emissions.

In September, torrential flooding exacerbated by climate change devastated the city of Derna in Libya, destroying 25% of the city’s infrastructure and displacing over 40,000 people.

The catastrophic months-long flooding in Pakistan in 2022 affected 33 million people, destroying 2 million houses and displacing eight million people. 

In eastern Africa, a prolonged drought that started in 2020 put 23 million people at risk of famine. Today, the flooding that has marked the end of the drought has displaced more than one million across Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.

And the threat of climate change is growing. In September, the UN’s first Global Stocktake found that the world is far off track to meet the threshold of 1.5°C set out in the Paris Agreement agreed on at COP21. 


As world leaders gather in COP28 for a fortnight of crucial climate negotiations, climate experts have cautioned that time is running out to take action to avert catastrophic climate impacts, ones that will force more and more people to flee for their survival.

“Clearly, climate-induced migration is not just a humanitarian issue, it is also a security issue, a development issue, and a human rights issue,” said Rabab Fatima, UN representative of states most vulnerable to climate change and permanent representative of Bangladesh, on another panel.

“If we neglect to act now, we risk a crisis of unprecedented scale, with serious consequences for peace, prosperity and stability worldwide.”

Climate refugees in legal limbo

In the face of this escalating issue and the displacement of millions, a stark reality emerges: the absence of specific legal protections for climate refugees under international law.

Existing international frameworks, most importantly the 1951 Refugee Convention, do not recognise climate refugees as a distinct category.

The Convention defines a refugee as someone with a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. But those fleeing the impact of climate change are not included. 

"The world’s biggest polluters spend 2.3 times more fortifying their borders than they do on climate finance"

In the eyes of the law, climate refugees simply don’t exist.

This is not simply an oversight. Wealthier nations have deliberately worked to exclude climate-related events from the categories of events that offer legal protections and thereby place responsibilities on the international community. 

This is tied to the fear of mass migration. Without any formal recognition as refugees, wealthier nations have no obligations towards climate refugees, something activists and NGOs are working hard to change.

While most climate refugees remain internally displaced within their countries, as the number of climate-displaced grows, more and more will be forced to flee beyond their national borders. 

“Nobody wants to be forced to leave their home. But in the absence of adequate climate adaptation, we have not supported the right to stay. If migration is a right, then there's also the right for me to stay in my home. Right?” Tower said.

“Especially polluting countries in the Global North need to recognise that what is happening today is forced migration because of their inaction on climate mitigation and climate adaptation.”

Without legal protections, these refugees face heightened vulnerabilities, including the risk of exploitation and human trafficking, as well as discrimination, psychological distress and social isolation, with little avenues for recourse.

In Somalia, youth who face displacement are vulnerable to “ a very powerful network of human smugglers” who promise them a better life in the Middle East or Europe, explained Ahmed. 

But instead of establishing an international framework and strengthening protections, wealthy nations exacerbating the climate crisis have responded with increased militarisation, fortifying their borders and tightening immigration laws to keep climate refugees out. 

According to a report from the Transnational Institute, the world’s biggest polluters spend 2.3 times more fortifying their borders than they do on climate finance. 

“What that says is that polluting countries prioritise border security over human security,” said Tower.

Environment and Climate
Live Story

Refugees at the forefront of climate resilience

Despite the inaction of the international community on climate displacement, refugees and displaced people have taken the lead in innovating solutions to tackle climate change and increase community resilience.

Speaking on the same panel as Hangi and Ahmed, titled “Displaced people taking action on Loss & Damage: Local solutions on the climate frontlines”, Grace Dorong, a refugee from South Sudan, spoke about her NGO Root of Generations, which she founded to inspire young women in her country. 

Iman al-Hamli, a refugee from Yemen, shared how she set up a solar-powered microgrid to bring clean energy to rural parts of the country after being displaced by conflict.

Environment and Climate
Live Story

Their stories show how those most affected can be those leading the movement for climate adaptation and resilience. 

“We should be intentionally carving out spaces for [impacted] people to be included,” said Tower. “Right now, they're completely sidelined.”

Ahmed echoed this sentiment and called for coming UN climate summits to be held in the most climate-vulnerable countries so that world leaders can experience what it's like to be at the forefront of environmental collapse.

The New Arab will have continuous coverage of COP28 from Dubai. Click here for more

Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist writing about Middle East politics, borders and migration, environment, and media representation. She is a Deputy Editor with The New Arab's editorial team

Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat