New York, 27 January 2022 (TDI): Climate change has increased disaster displacement, which has exacerbated one of the most significant crises of our time. Although these profound effects impact entire populations, they are disproportionately felt by vulnerable populations in some of the most fragile and conflict-affected countries.

Climate change is having an adverse impact on economic refugees, internally displaced persons, and stateless individuals. Most people live in climate hotspots, which makes it difficult for them to adapt to an increasingly hostile environment.

During the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), the UNHCR expressed its hope that all parties would work toward achieving a global net-zero carbon footprint, mobilizing financial resources, and adapting to protect communities and natural habitats.

The UNHCR strongly encourages all parties to combat the growing and disproportionate effects of the climate emergency on the world’s most vulnerable countries and communities, especially those displaced and their host communities. The climate crisis is caused by a human crisis. The result is standard displacement and makes the lives of those who are already forced to flee even more difficult.

Refugees and other people who have been displaced by climate change are provided with protection and assistance by the UNHCR, which also helps them become more resilient to future disasters.

Climate change has many negative consequences, including displacement, deteriorating living conditions, and hindering the return of displaced persons. Limited natural resources, such as water, have become even more scarce in many parts of the world those host refugees.

Crops and livestock are at risk of dying when weather conditions are too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. The impact of climate change can be multiplied in such circumstances, exacerbating tensions and increasing the possibility of conflict.

The increased intensity and frequency of severe weather events, such as abnormally excessive rain, prolonged droughts, desertification, environmental degradation, sea-level rise, and cyclones, is already forcing more than 20 million people to leave their homes and relocate to other areas within their country each year.

People are forced to cross borders due to climate change and natural disasters. In such cases, international protection may be required. Therefore, human rights law and refugee law play a significant role in this area.

A majority of the UN General Assembly voted in December 2018 to affirm the Global Compact on Refugees, which addresses this growing concern. According to the report, “climate change and environmental degradation are increasingly interrelated with the drivers of refugee movements.”

UNHCR’s role in dealing with climate change and disaster-related displacement:

Andrew Harper was named as the Special Advisor on Climate Action by the High Commissioner for Refugees in January 2020. UNHCR’s engagement in climate emergencies is driven by him. He serves as a global advocate and provides oversight for UNHCR’s climate action agenda.

UNHCR’s climate action focuses on three key areas:
  1. As a part of UNHCR’s efforts to protect refugees and other people forced to flee due to disasters and climate change, the organizations provide advice, guidance, and support to the international community.

  2. UNHCR strives to improve the predictability of UNHCR engagement to anticipate and prepare for emergencies related to climate change and other natural hazards, including by engaging in strong partnerships.

The objective is to increase displaced people’s preparedness for and resilience to climate change, as well as reduce environmental degradation.

  1. Climate change and environmental degradation are a few of the environmental challenges facing the region that UNHCR addresses.

UNHCR’s role within the Global Protection Cluster is to assist and protect people who are forcibly displaced within their country and are unable to return home.

The organization can deploy teams to assist with registration, documentation, the reunification of families, shelter, basic hygiene, and nutrition.

By participating in global policy processes, UNHCR has increased public awareness of climate change as a driver of displacement and the need for refugees and other displaced persons to be protected during disasters.

In 2015, UNHCR became a member of the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD), which strengthened its collaboration with states and partners, including the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Development Programme, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The PDD initiative supports the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Paris Agreement through a state-led effort.

Support for operations, legal and normative guidance, disaster risk reduction, alternative energy, and environmental sustainability are some of the fields of cooperation, with the release of Words into Action guidelines being one of the latest examples.

“Climate Refugees”?

The term refugee refers to a person who has crossed an international border due to a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion (1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees).

In some circumstances, a person fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order” may also fall under the definition (1969 OAU Convention, 1984 Cartagena Declaration). Often, climate change affects people living within their own countries, which leads to internal displacement before it presents a problem of displacement across borders.

However, there may be instances where the 1951 Refugee Convention refugee criteria, or the broader refugee criteria applicable to regional refugee law frameworks, may apply. It is possible, for instance, for people to have a valid claim to refugee status in situations where climate change interacts with armed conflict and violence.

Legal Considerations have been issued by the UNHCR to guide interpretation and facilitate international discussion on such claims in 2020, building on its study, “In Harm’s Way.”

However, UNHCR does not endorse the term “climate refugees,” and it would be more accurate to refer to “people displaced as a result of disasters and climate change.”