The migration situation in Europe is tense, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has only added to the numerous migratory flows across the continent. Climate change is now emerging as one of the most important new factors in future migration and is at the heart of many issues. Climate change and environmental degradation are having an impact on the uprooting of people. The International Organisation for Migration defines climate refugees as follows: “Environmental refugees are persons or groups of persons who, primarily for reasons related to sudden or gradual environmental change adversely affecting their lives or living conditions, are forced to leave their homes or leave them on their own initiative, either temporarily or permanently, and who, as a result, move within or out of their country. The predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leave little doubt that – desertification and rising sea levels will push not millions, but tens or even hundreds of millions of refugees onto the roads within the next few decades. In 2018, the first projections indicated 143 million displaced people. It is now 1.5 times that number. A stark reminder of the human toll of climate, especially on the world’s poorest people, those who contribute least to its disruption,” comments Juergen Voegele, Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank.
In the six major regions analyzed, mainly Africa and Asia, the African population is the most affected, especially in the Maghreb, which is experiencing increasing water scarcity, and in the sub-Saharan region, where desertification and famine will threaten even more. In total, 105 million Africans are expected to flee untenable conditions. In Asia, Bangladesh alone would account for half of South Asia’s migrants, with 13.3 million. Highly vulnerable to rising waters, the country experienced its worst floods in 2020, with three-quarters of its territory underwater. The issue of climate refugees can be approached in two different ways: prevention and dealing with the consequences. The World Bank report argues that countries need to start now to reduce greenhouse gases, close the development gap, restore vital ecosystems and help people adapt. The World Bank argues that, if implemented, these measures could reduce climate migration by 80%. That is 44 million people by 2050. Filippo Grandi, the UN Commissioner for Refugees, said: “We need to invest now in preparedness measures to mitigate future protection needs and prevent further climate-related displacement. Waiting for disasters to happen is not an option.” Moreover, it is important to point out that the African continent’s responsibility for current climate change is very limited, emitting less than 4% of the carbon produced on the planet, while being the continent most exposed to its consequences and also the least well equipped to contain them. According to the NGO GermanWatch, five of the ten countries in the world most vulnerable to global warming are in Africa. This is a reality that has been regularly recalled during international climate negotiations on this subject since 1992, which has led to the establishment of a system of international aid from rich countries to the least developed countries. Unfortunately, the issue of climate migration suffers from the lack of a real ad hoc international legal framework, the lack of a dedicated international and national budget and governance, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is often powerless, and the wishes of certain countries or regions could be interpreted as ecological interference, which is currently very limited by the law. Thus, the importance of global climate policies and international aid is emphasized to enable populations at risk to have access to sustainable alternatives. As the failure of numerous COPs has shown, no ambitious policy has been decided on at the international level which in any case does not provide a sustainable solution.
The term ‘climate refugees’ is a misnomer, as the authorities prefer the term ‘refugees’. The term “climate refugee” is a misnomer, as the authorities prefer to use the term “migrants” rather than “refugees”, not only because of the adjective “climate” but also because the term “refugee” refers to a person who benefits from a status established by the 1951 Geneva Convention, the conditions for which are strictly defined: the person must be the object of persecution in his or her country of origin and wish to leave it; the refugee may also claim international protection (unlike “economic” migrants, whose reception is the responsibility of the host states). However, the environmental migrant does not have an official status and, contrary to the idea put forward above, the situation is likely to persist in today’s security context: think of the difficulty of states in both the European Union and the United States in managing refugees displaced by conflicts.
Of course, it is necessary to ask where these climatically displaced people will go, and the most logical answer would be to stay as close to home as possible, as only 20% of migrants go beyond their region of origin. However, a large part of the areas at risk are in Africa, and the continent’s major cities such as Abidjan, Johannesburg, and Nairobi are already subject to growing demographic pressure, and African cities offer difficult reception conditions. Several specialists interviewed refuse to associate global warming with a large-scale migration wave from the south to the north. Regretting that we “underestimate the capacity to adapt” of these populations, which are used to environmental changes, these researchers fear that the “fear of migrants” will become a driving force for action in favor of the environment.
These migrations require a radical change, a political, societal, economic, and ecological change that unfortunately does not receive the attention and care it needs. It is necessary to review the way the most polluting countries produce and live because it is those countries that exploit and benefit the least from global economic growth that will pay the price. So if risk prevention is not engaged upstream, it will be vital to allow millions of climate refugees to move around the world as smoothly as possible.