By 2050, over 100 million people are expected to be forced to leave their homes due to climate change, according to a new report released by World Bank. The hardest hit will be the developing world, specifically Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, which make up 55 percent of the developing world. These climate refugees would be seeking refuge from extreme flooding, crop failures, water scarcity/drought and an increase in the frequency of natural disasters in their home countries.

But what exactly is a climate refugee? Surprisingly, there is no single definition and the phrase itself varies in usage; they are referred to as climate refugees, climate migrants, environmental refugees or environmental migrants. The United Nations cannot agree on a term either—they disagree that “climate refugee” should be the coined phrase because the agency responsible for handling refugees, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), is already stretched too thin in dealing with refugees fleeing from violence, war, and persecution. Because of this, these climate refugees are also granted no protection under international law. To make matters worse, plans to manage the influx of new residents are relatively nonexistent.

Refugees in Dolo Odo camp
Refugees at Dolo Odo camp, Ethiopia,:
In 2011, approximately 1,700 refugees arrived weekly seeking relief from a devastating drought. (U.S. Embassy/Ethiopia via USAID)

As people flee their homes, a strain is put on the destination city. Dhaka, Bangladesh is a popular example of this. As the coastal communities of the country sink deeper and deeper underwater, people seek shelter in the slums of the capital city that is already bursting at the seams. This is a pattern that all countries should be prepared for, according to retired US military corps brigadier general Stephen Cheney. “If Europe thinks they have a problem with migration today … wait 20 years,” he told The Guardian. “See what happens when climate change drives people out of Africa – the Sahel [sub-Saharan area] especially – and we’re talking now not just one or two million, but 10 or 20 [million]. They are not going to south Africa, they are going across the Mediterranean.”

When combined with a country’s preexisting social, economic, and political issues, climate change has the potential to spark severe consequences for unprepared nations.

Steps to improve this situation include bolstering the infrastructure, social services, and employment opportunities of major cities that are the recipient of these refugees. The UN’s Global Compact for Migration recently called for its members to “cooperate to identify, develop and strengthen solutions, including planned relocation and visa options” for climate migrants. An article from The Economist argues that state-led solutions, rather than international agreements, will better serve these groups. As an example, New Zealand is the first country to create special visas for those seeking asylum from climate change. Thus far only 100 visas will be issued annually, but this decision sets a precedent for other countries to follow.

Despite the grim realities of climate change, there is hope: Experts are optimistic that, pending cooperation and immediate action, the number of climate refugees can be cut down by 80 percent.  According to Kristalina Georgieva, World Bank chief executive officer, there is a small window to prepare countries for this new norm right now, before climate change worsens. In a statement, Georgieva emphasized that “steps cities take to cope with the upward trend of arrivals from rural areas and to improve opportunities for education, training and jobs will pay long-term dividends.”


Sources and Further Reading

Cities need to prepare now to take in millions of climate change refugees

The Refugees The World Barely Pays Attention To

143 Million People May Soon Become Climate Migrants

Why climate migrants do not have refugee status

Climate change ‘will create world’s biggest refugee crisis’