Population migration forced by climate change has already become one of the major crises of our times. Till recently, however, these people were being viewed as a peripheral concern for the international community. But, their sheer size, mainly due to the increasing impact of global warming, has now brought them to the fore as one of the most critical issues on the international political agenda.
Global warming leads to sea-level-rise, taking away the living space and source of livelihood of millions of people. The UN Climate Change Science Panel says that the seas are now rising at an unprecedented scale. Between 2006 and 2016, the sea-level rise was 2.5 times faster than it was for almost the twentieth century.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2018 Special Report, with the help of a model-based projection, shows the global mean sea level rise (relative to 1986-2005) of an approximate range of 0.26 to 0.77 millimetre by 2100 even if there is only 1.5C increase in global temperature.
The rising sea forces more people to move from the low-lying coastal areas of many countries and many small island countries. A World Bank study in 2019 had estimated that sea levels rising of one meter would directly displace 56 million people, and five meters would affect 245 million people in 84 developing countries.
Sea is also warming much more than it used to be before, leading to an increased number of tropical storms and severe coastal flooding. Climate change also alters the usual rainfall pattern, which leads to increased flooding, drought, and soil erosion in tropical and arid regions of the world.
More than 7000 natural disasters have been recorded in the last two decades, killing 1.23 million people. Extreme weather events are also occurring more often. In 2019 alone, there were 820 natural disasters, which was three times more than what it was 30 years ago.
Globally 24.9 million people were newly displaced by natural disasters in 2019 alone across 140 countries and territories. This size of displacement was the highest figure recorded since 2012. The number of people displaced by natural disasters is three times higher than the number of people leaving their homes due to violent conflicts.
There are many estimates regarding the size of the climate-induced population migration the world will witness in the future. For the last 2-3 decades, several forecasts have been made. Still, there are no reliable estimates of climate change forced migration as the future estimates vary from 25 million to 1 billion by 2050; however, the most commonly given estimate is 200 million.
There is indeed a lack of agreement over the number of climate migrations in the future. Moreover, there is no clarity of how many from them will move beyond their national borders. But, there is no doubt that climate change is already displacing many people and forcing them to move to other countries and regions in search of survival.
Large-scale population migration
The increasing threat of climate-induced migration needs to be taken more seriously by international and regional organisations. The multilateral efforts only can motivate, coordinate, and implement a practical approach to address the unavoidable and ever-increasing climate forced large-scale population migration.
This fast-emerging crisis demands an urgent relook at the conceptual fiat of the term ‘refugee’ and engaging in a sincere and coordinated effort to make the necessary adjustment to include climate forced migration.
There is an ongoing collective global effort to address the burden-sharing of refugees. On December 17, 2018, the UN General Assembly affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees, which provides an outline for international organisations and other key stakeholders to support host countries and communities, help refugees lead productive lives, and work for safe and dignified return of the refugees.
The Global Compact is a significant milestone in getting a broad global consensus on collective action on forced-migration-related challenges.
Climate change-induced forced migration is not included in the definition of a refugee as established under international law, which are the most widely used instruments providing the basis for granting asylum to persons in need of protection.
International refugee agencies in the past have not been able to save the lives of many environmentally displaced people in the South due to the absence of their mandate.
In this context, the 2015 ruling of the Supreme Court of New Zealand is quite significant. Though the top court of New Zealand recognised the genuineness of a Kiribati man’s contention of being displaced from his homeland due to sea-level rise, it could not grant him the refugee status, reasoning that he wouldn’t face prosecution if he would return home.
The increasing threat of climate-induced forced migration needs to be taken seriously by the international community. Numerous countries and organisations have already realised that only a coordinated action can motivate and implement a practical approach to address climate refugees’ inevitable and growing challenges.
So, there is a need for the collective demand for the definitional fiat of ‘refugee’ to be expanded to address the increasing challenge of climate-forced population displacement within the Global Compact framework.
Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.