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Climate refugees: when the climate crisis forces people to leave their homes

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It is estimated that every year tens of millions of people are forced to leave their homes due to the consequences of climate change. These numbers are set to increase as the climate crisis we are facing gets worse.

Author / translator FAIR SEA

It is estimated that every year tens of millions of people are forced to leave their homes due to the consequences of climate change. These numbers are set to increase as the climate crisis we are facing gets worse.

Nowadays, people who flee their country due to environmental conditions that are no longer compatible with life (droughts, floods, extreme events) are not considered refugees according to the Geneva Protocol. A broad international debate is underway on this issue, which also involves the city of Trieste as the end point of the Balkan Route.

Through the CREATE project, co-funded by the Central European Initiative, the OGS contributes to this reflection with a role-playing game based on methods of informed discussion involving school teachers and students. The game, available online for free, can be downloaded by anyone to lead a group-debate that can raise public awareness on this issue.

Created 13 September 2022
Last edited 9 November 2022
Topics Climate, Politics, Sustainability

Policy positions

Policy position 1

Climate migrants must not be recognised as climate refugees andhe Geneva Convention should not be updated or modified to include this new category. In fact, it is too difficult to prove that the migration has occurred as a result of climate change.

Policy position 2

Climate migrants must be recognised as climate refugees. Developing countries often do not have the economic resources to adapt to climate change, so industrialised countries, which are responsible for climate change, should help bear its consequences.

Policy position 3

Since it is widely demonstrated that there is a strong link between climate change, conflicts, hunger and economic crisis, countries need to find a common solution to host people migrating for environmental and climate related reasons, as much as people fleeing for reasons related to conflicts and discriminations.

Policy position 4

National borders don’t have any reason to exist anymore. Since the effects of climate change don’t respect any political border, there’s no reason to still have frontiers that limit people’s freedom of movement. States must develop burden sharing and solidarity mechanisms to tackle migration flows.

Story cards


I am Veronika, I am 39 years old and I am a Hungarian politician. I joined the Hungarian National party in 2012 and still believe in our vision and ideas. I am still working hard for the future of my country and my fellow citizens, but what we hear today is only related to issues such as refugees, climate change, and renewable energy.
Climate change has always existed and I belive that this concept is just exploited to justify illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants are increasing also thanks to the new Balkan route which, through Eastern European countries, brings millions of migrants to our country's doors. So how can we stop this uncontrolled and illegal immigration? We must create an effective border measure that serves the interest of the whole EU, not just member states of the first arrival. As far as the so-called “climate refugees” are concerned, they do not qualify for protection under international law. Therefore, why should we accept them in our country? Instead of inciting illegal immigration, we should help them in their homes.

Veronika Török a 39-year-old politician of the Hungarian nationalist party

I am Nooa and I am 42 years old. I was born in Tuvalu, a small Pacific island halfway between Australia and Hawaii.
Due to the rise in sea level that has led to other islands becoming uninhabitable, the population of my island has increased from 1,500 to 50,000. We didn’t have freshwater and growing crops became difficult; meantime violence and social tensions were a daily occurence. It was predicted that in 10/15 years Tuvali would become uninhabitable, what were my perspectives if I would have decided to stay? I moved and asked for humanitarian protection in Australia and finally, after one year, I received the decision; my application was rejected. I think this is an unfair decision. I believe that States that have enriched themselves using unsustainable energy practices must remedy historic injustices and support countries where climate change has shown its devastating impact. There is still time for the government to act to relocate the population but for this to happen, industrialised states need to take responsibility and welcome climate refugees like myself.

Nooa Tong, a 42-year-old climate refugee escaping from Tuvalu

I’m Amina and I’m 40 years old. I'm a mother and farmer in Somaliland.
This year, the lack of rain and rising temperatures meant that my cattle no longer had much pasture to graze on. In addition to selling milk from my cattle, I also depend on my crops, and without water, I have lost my entire livelihood. I have seen severe droughts in recent years, but from my point of view this one was the worst. There are many people who cannot cook and many others who cannot get water because the sources are far from them, so we are forced to move all the time. I was forced to make a dangerous journey to find a place to stay, ending up in a temporary camp for displaced people. Unfortunately, women, especially due to climate change, are more at risk of violence and sexual abuse as they are forced to leave their homes and take refuge in unsafe places

Amina Rambow, 40-years-old mother and farmer

I am Cambodian and I live with my parents in a small house.
This year thousands of people have been affected by storms and floods related to climate change that have damaged their homes and forced them to leave. Our house has been regularly hit by storms and floods. In past years, water came to our feet and, together with my parents and the help of neighbours, we managed to remove it by filling some buckets. The damage was minimal and no one ever thought of death. The last time it happened, my house flooded and the water was up to my waist. I helped to take my younger siblings to higher ground, but I fear they will drown next time. The fear of losing my little sister was great, in those moments the water was so strong that it took everything out of hands. My family has been displaced for weeks and forced to live in a tent without food for several days.

Rwizi Niakaté, 13-years-old, Cambodian Boy

I am a human rights activist and a member of the “Terra Promessa” association in Italy. Disasters and climate change are a growing concern. Since 2009, an estimated one person every second has been displaced by a disaster, with an average of 22.5 million people displaced by climate or weather-related events since 2008. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN's science advisory board, projects an increase in the number of displaced people over the course of this century. The majority of the people of concern to our association are concentrated in the most vulnerable areas around the world. Climate change will force people into increasing poverty and displacement, exacerbating the factors that lead to conflict, rendering both the humanitarian needs and responses in such situations even more complex.
We are deeply concerned about the massive protection challenges raised by disasters and climate-related displacement, and work with other agencies and a range of partners to protect those at risk.

Roberta Scudo, 25-years-old - Human Rights Activist

My name is Hamad Kharim, I am 25 years old and I am a Pakistani refugee. I was 22 when “my story” began; I moved from Pakistan to Turkey then to Slovenia and, after three years from my official departure day, I arrived in Trieste. I decided to talk about my story because I finally managed to receive a residence permit as an asylum seeker for humanitarian reasons; officially I am escaping from war but, in the meantime, my country is constantly under pressure also due to climate change. The monsoon season is causing natural disasters and millions of people are forced to leave the country and migrate to Afghanistan or, like my family, to Turkey. Many ask me why I decided to leave my country and flee, many do not understand how a person can decide to leave for an unknown destination. However, when the choice is between life or death, the decision is very simple. Migrating is not a dream, it is a hope for a better life. If in your country there is war, poverty and equally the concern that any rain could turn into an uncontrolled flood, what would you do? Wouldn't you leave it all behind?

Kharim Hamad, a 25-year-old Pakistani refugee regularly living in Italy

I am Davide, I am 58 years old and I work at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
As a representative of an International Organisation what can I say is that international policy and law are built, still today, on the false assumption that displaced people and refugees can return to their place of origin when conditions improve. This cannot hold for many of those affected by climate change. Climate-induced migration is a broad phenomenon that defies existing definitions. That’s why I emphasize the importance of developing a climate refugee policy under international law. We need to invest now to be prepared for the future; Waiting for disasters to strike is not an option. Climate crisis is a human crisis, it is driving displacement and makes life harder for those already forced to flee. Regardless of these considerations, the term “climate refugee” is not endorsed by UNHCR, and it is more accurate to refer to “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change. If we recognize and accept climate-induced migration we will be able to prevent illegal immigration.

Davide Rossi, 58 years old working at UN High Commissioner for Refugees

I am a scientist and I graduated in climatology in 2017. For me, climate has always been a topic close to my heart. Ever since I was a child I have had care and respect for nature, in fact I have carried on this passion of mine by turning it into a job. From the industrial revolution to now the health of our planet has deteriorated, I realise that explaining this to our society is very difficult, but the deterioration is evident through climate change. People do not understand that there is no time to think, no way to take time to look for a solution because there is only one solution, stop polluting! Climate change is not a joke. If we don't decide to put a stop to it, it will get worse and worse, and the people who will lose out will not only be the developing countries, but the entire planet. In the future, climate change threatens to devastate many more lives. For example it is estimated that up to 600 million more people in Africa could suffer from malnutrition as agricultural systems collapse due to the impacts of climate change, so now or never we need to take action!

Gina Campbel, 45-years-old, Environmental Scientist



The notion of climate refugees has not been fully recognized in international refugee law. Therefore, people who leave their countries in the context of climate change or disasters do not qualify for protection under international law. There are some commonly used definitions that include concepts such as environmental migrants, environmental refugees, environmentally/climate displaced persons but none of them is recognized in international law.


Internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or coerced to flee or abandon their homes or places of habitual residence in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, human rights violations or man-made natural disasters and who have not crossed internationally recognised State borders.


Environmental migrants are persons who are forced to leave their homes, temporarily or permanently, and to move within their home country or abroad due to sudden or progressive changes in the environment. The definition recognises that environmental migrants do not only displace due to extreme climatic events, but also due to the slow deterioration of environmental conditions and that migration can be both short-term and long-term.


Reached in 2010 they represented a key step forward in capturing plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They included finance, technology and capacity-building support to help developing countries meet urgent needs to adapt to climate change. Although these Agreements distinguish three different types of climate change induced mobility that is displacement, migration and planned relocation they remain not binding agreements.


Is the displacement caused by situations where people are forced to leave their homes because of a disaster or to avoid the impact of an immediate and foreseeable natural hazard. The UN Refugee Agency identifies specific types of assistance, such as activities to reduce and prevent the negative impacts caused by environmental disasters, technical and legal support to areas affected by natural disasters and the promotion of policies.


Climate migration is a subcategory of environmental migration. It defines a singular type of environmental migration, where the change in the environment is due to climate change.


In the context of disasters or environmental degradation, including effects of climate change, this notion refers to a planned process in which persons or groups of persons move or are assisted to move away from their homes or place of temporary residence, are settled in a new location, and provided with the conditions for rebuilding their lives. The term is used to identify relocations that are carried out within national borders.


Everyone fleeing persecution or serious harm in their own country has the right to ask for international protection. Asylum is a fundamental right granted to people who comply with the criteria set in the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees. It is an international obligation for State parties, which include EU Member States. In your opinion, are the conditions governing the right of asylum always fully respected nowadays?


The Geneva Convention defines refugee status on the basis of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. The convention has no provision for climate change as a reason for people to flee their country and seek asylum elsewhere. In your opinion would it be appropriate to revise this definition including environmental/climate-related reasons?


Climate change is estimated to have substantially increased risk across 5% of conflicts to date. However the climate-related events that may lead to displacement, disproportionately impact some regions more than others. According to surveys, the countries most vulnerable to climate change tend to be in the global south, where many already are experiencing armed conflict.


Climate change acts as a stress multiplier to factors driving modern slavery. It is demonstrated that the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather disasters are having a devastating effect on food security and on the livelihoods of those already living in poverty and marginalisation. These situations create circumstances where vulnerable communities are coerced into slavery and slavery type practices.


Climate change mobility may occur within or across international borders. To date, this mobility has been mostly internal and increasingly an urban phenomenon, with many of those displaced and migrating moving to urban areas. As seen today, refugee camps and shelter villages are typically set up not far from the site of the calamity.


It is the difference between the number of persons having entered the territory and the number of persons having left the territory in a year. The concept is independent of nationality. According to a study on the net migration balance of different regions between 2015 and 2020, Europe is estimated to have a net migration surplus of 6.81 million people. This figure is the highest of all, even if compared to North America which stops at 5.98.


The term is commonly understood as the temporary stay of migrants in one or more countries, with the objective of reaching a further and final destination. The transit migration is based on transit countries, countries that migrants cross on their way to their country of destination even if many migrants do not have a clear destination when they start travelling. In your view, can transit migration facilitate irregular/illegal immigration?


Nobody leaves home if she/he is comfortable in his/her home. Escaping for a better future is possible, where life is simple and carefree. Thus begins the journey of many young people who leave with a wealth of dreams and hopes. The reality they face is far from their dreams. Many fail to start the journey, many have to come back and many others lose their lives in the hope of building a better future for themselves and their families.


Climate change, despite being a visible and increasingly tangible phenomenon, is always a subject of political debate. The political thought of the parties often turns out to be opposites. Nationalist parties, which are generally opposed to the arrival of migrants and the recognition of refugees, also refuse to accept the notion of climate refugees. As a result, these political groups are mainly the most sceptical.


It is the cross-border movement of people, including refugees fleeing persecution and conflict and people seeking better lives and opportunities. Although some are entitled to protection under international law, they may often be exposed to multiple rights violations along their journey. Moreover, refugees and migrants travel along similar routes, using similar means of travel and wholly or partially assisted by human smugglers.


Trapped populations are those who do not migrate, yet are situated in areas under threat, at risk of becoming ‘trapped’ or having to stay behind, where they will be more vulnerable to environmental shocks and impoverishment. In the context of climate change, some populations might not be able to move due lack of resources, disability or social reasons (e.g. gender issues), and others might choose not to move due cultural reasons.


There is no international mechanism or institution dealing with the task to find a solution to climate-induced migration and the responsibility to prepare the world for larger numbers of people in protracted or permanent displacement falls within the G20. The concern on how to define climate refugees under international law has been shifting the focus away from the reality: people need to migrate or flee for climate reasons.


Xenophobia , the fear of the different is the set of negative and unfavorable emotions triggered when one is faced with people with different characteristics, such as skin color, religious belief or sexual orientation. Generally human beings are afraid of everything that is unknown and different.


The Balkan Route became famous with the 2015 European “refugee crisis”, when hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants attempted to travel to Northern Europe crossing Eastern Europe countries. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency reported 55,310 irregular arrivals to the EU via the Western Balkan route in 2021 up until 15 December. How can we deal in cases of mixed migration?


It is the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate change agreement and its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2°, preferably to 1.5°, compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century. Do you think that countries are respecting these parameters?


The phenomenon of undocumented immigrants that illegally enter in a State without inspection, is also known as “illegal immigration”. Most of the irregular migrants originally enter the EU legally on short-stay visas, but decide to remain in the EU for economic reasons once their visa expires. Compared to 2020, 2021 statistics showed a 57% rise in irregular migration to Europe and a 38% rise compared to 2019.


Climate change warms up the atmosphere. The air can hold 7% more water vapour for every one-degree Celsius rise in temperature. When this air rapidly cools, water vapour turns into droplets which join together to form heavy rainfall.
Such heavy rains in a short period of time can cause flash floods, which are especially dangerous for countries that are not used to dealing with this intense phenomena.


Desertification has already reduced agricultural productivity and incomes and contributed to the loss of biodiversity in some dryland regions.
Desertification is land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas, collectively known as drylands, resulting from many factors, including human activities and climatic variations.
This implies the need to move from their native countries to places where it is easier to live.


Small island states are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Although not all of them are among the world's poorest, they need help to become more resilient to the effects of climate change, including rising sea-levels.
Small islands are disproportionately affected by current hydro-meteorological extreme events, both in terms of the percentage of the population affected and losses as a percentage of GDP.


Hazards resulting from the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as abnormally heavy rainfall, prolonged droughts, desertification, environmental degradation, or sea-level rise and cyclones are already causing an average of more than 20 million people to leave their homes and move to other areas in their countries each year.


Highly climate vulnerable countries host 40% of refugees and are home to 70% of people internally displaced by conflict or violence. While these populations are often highly exposed and vulnerable to climate-related shocks, they have fewer resources and support to adapt to an increasingly hostile environment. This raises concerns about the right to equality and non-discrimination.


When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon. This exacerbates climate change, while climate change in turn exacerbates land degradation in many different ways.


Roughly 500 million people live in areas that experience desertification. Drylands and areas that experience desertification are also more vulnerable to climate change and extreme events including droughts, heatwaves, and dust storms, with an increasing global population providing further pressure.


Growing the same kind of crops in the same place, season after season, and fertilising them with chemicals, using artificial pesticides, depletes the nutrients that the plant needs to grow. The crops become weak, stunted and can be attacked by pests and diseases. A weaker soil can become dry, impermeable, infertile, more susceptible to erosion, flooding, and landslides caused by extreme weather.


Pest invasions in Africa and Asia have also been linked to climate change. For example, the locust swarms of 2019 and 2020 that plagued East Africa devastating thousands of hectares of natural vegetation, pastures and crops, are thought to have been a result of heavy rains and unusual storm activity in the region.


Climate change can force mass migration when people’s food and water supplies become scarce or when their homes and livelihoods are destroyed. An average of 26 million people flee their homes every year due to climate-related disasters.Of these displaced people, 80% are women. The majority of climate-related displacements are internal, which means that extreme weather conditions remain within their country borders.


Climate change-related events - whether slower onset disasters like droughts or sudden ones like hurricanes or cyclones - often means that women’s homes and neighbourhoods can become uninhabitable. As a result women and girls may be forced to migrate to camps for displaced people where they can be exposed to violence.


Climate-induced displacement is on the rise. Last year, climate-related factors resulted in the displacement of around 16.1 million people. It is estimated that, by 2050, between 150 to 200 million people are at risk of being forced to leave their homes as a result of desertification, rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions. This is not just a problem in fragile states.


Many people are displaced during and after disasters. Displacement can lead to an increase in both violence itself, and the visibility of pre-existing violence, due to overcrowded and unsafe living conditions in evacuation centres, temporary housing, and shelters. Women staying in shelters are often exposed to rape, harassment, discrimination and violence and have limited access to reproductive health services.


Sea-level rise is another threat. Over the past 30 years, the number of people living in coastal areas at high risk of rising sea levels has increased from 160 million to 260 million, 90% of whom come from poor developing countries and small island states. For example, in Bangladesh it is predicted that 17% of the country will be submerged by the rise in sea level by 2050, and 20 million people living there will lose their homes.


The problem is water. Salt water from the sea can intrude into the freshwater of the various deltas, to the point that people's crops and products simply cannot survive.
For this reason, there are millions of farmers suffering huge losses. The higher salinity levels are due to several factors, including the lack of fresh water flowing downstream in the delta and the deepening of the riverbed.


Another key factor is the decrease in the amount of sand, silt and gravel-the sediment-that is deposited on river beds. Upstream dams interfere with the natural flow of water and block the flow of sediment downstream. In this way, the riverbed deepens, allowing larger amounts of heavier seawater to enter. Erosion of the dikes lets in more salt water and makes the delta barren.


Floods are among the most widespread natural hazards
affecting people around the world.
Findings suggest that 1.47 billion people, or 19% of the world's population, are directly exposed to substantial risks during
1-in-100-year flood events. Most of the people exposed to flooding, about 1.36 billion people, are located in South and East Asia.
China (329 million) and India (225 million) account for more than a third of global exposure.


Foodborne trematode infections cause 2 million life years lost to disability and death worldwide every year.
People become infected by eating raw fish, crustaceans or vegetables that harbour the parasite larvae.
Foodborne trematodiases are most prevalent in East Asia and South America.
Foodborne trematode infections result in severe liver and lung diseases.


Currently, 60 percent of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are zoonotic in origin. Many EIDs originate in wildlife, and the emergence of these diseases is often due to dynamic interactions between humans, wildlife and livestock populations, and a rapidly changing environment. Emerging zoonoses pose an immense and growing threat to global health, economy and security.


In many parts of the world, insects that live or breed in water carry and transmit diseases such as dengue fever. Some of these insects, known as vectors, breed in clean rather than dirty water, and household drinking water containers can serve as breeding grounds. Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to the transmission of diseases. An estimated 829,000 people die each year due to unsafe drinking water.


Melting glaciers add to rising sea levels, which in turn increases coastal erosion and elevates storm surge as warming air and ocean temperatures create more frequent and intense coastal storms like hurricanes. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are the largest contributors of global sea-level rise. Right now, the Greenland ice sheet is disappearing four times faster than in 2003 and already contributes 20% of current sea-level rise.


Cyclones constitute devastating natural phenomena and can produce a wide variety of short- and long-term impacts on the landform characteristics. Tropical cyclones are one of the natural catastrophes that cause major environmental and socio economic disasters. For example in India, the cyclone's seasons are divided into pre-monsoon (April–May) and post-monsoon (October–December), the most frequent that cause adverse impacts.

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