Experts say extreme weather is a growing danger to displaced people and could force more to flee homes
Governments must get to grips with the links between the climate crisis and the plight of migrants around the world, experts have said, as increasingly extreme weather is a mounting danger to already vulnerable displaced people, and is potentially pushing more people to flee their homes.
Migrants and displaced people number more than 100 million around the world, mainly in developing countries, and are among the populations most at risk from extreme weather.
However, little work has been done on addressing the plight of migrants afflicted by climate breakdown, or on the risk that more extremes of weather will push more people into moving. The subject received little mention at the Cop27 UN climate summit in Egypt late last year, and experts are hoping for greater focus in 2023.
David Miliband, the chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, said: "We have done a really bad job of working together on this. That's especially damaging given that these [migrants and displaced people] are the most vulnerable people, in conflict-driven parts of the world. These people have done the least to contribute to the climate crisis, but are among the most severely impacted."
At Cop27, governments agreed that the poor countries worst afflicted by climate breakdown should receive funds for "loss and damage", to help them recover and rebuild after extreme weather. Details on how the new global fund should operate are still to be worked out this year, but it must include some form of provision for migration, experts told the Guardian.
"There is no doubt that some of the drivers of refugee numbers are conflict and climate change," said Miliband. "Climate change has a direct and indirect effect on migration, and forced migration. It generally leads to internal displacement, to migration flows within countries."
About 55 million people around the world are internally displaced within their own countries, more than the number who are fleeing across borders. Last year, the total number of forcibly displaced people around the world - including refugees fleeing across international borders - topped 100 million for the first time, according to the UN.
Miliband warned that poor countries needed more funds to protect themselves from the effects of extreme weather, to help prevent people being forced to flee. "We must build resilience in these countries," he said.
However, he added that scare stories of climate breakdown creating a new refugee crisis were overblown. "I don't go for this language of climate refugees, as most are within [their own country] borders," he said. "But conflict and climate come together - climate change fuels conflict, and is a conflict multiplier."
Ugochi Daniels, the deputy director general of the UN's International Organization for Migration, also wants to see more focus on the links between the climate crisis and displacement.
"We at IOM are extremely pleased with the collective solidarity that Cop27 delivered," she said. "The inclusion of migrants in the preamble [to the agreement] marks a significant step forward on the recognition of the centrality of human mobility towards successful adaptation [to the impacts of extreme weather]."
She praised the resolution to set up a new loss and damage fund. "We see those developments as critical, in the years ahead, to save lives and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, in particular in vulnerable countries."
On current forecasts, more than 200 million people are likely to be displaced around the world by 2030, by a variety of factors including the climate crisis. Most of them are likely to stay within their country borders, but the impact will be vast.
"The impact of the climate crisis on human mobility is significant, and that must be recognised," said Daniels.
The plight of women also needed more attention, she added. "There are particular impacts on women and children. Women are often in a vulnerable situation, and have less access to resources, whether that's money, land, education or health, and they are often in care-giving roles or bear the burden for their families."
Andrew Harper, the special adviser on climate action at the office of the UN high commissioner for refugees, said rich countries must start taking seriously the need to help poor countries adapt to the effects of extreme weather, of which the consequences were now obvious. "Ignorance is no excuse any more; we are seeing disasters now on a daily basis," he said. "One person was displaced every second last year. At what point do we start taking this seriously? When it's two people a second?"
Climate-related disasters last year included devastating floods in Pakistan that left more than 20 million people dependent on humanitarian aid, and severe droughts in the Horn of Africa, where close to 150 million people are facing extreme hunger.
"Climate change has turbocharged extreme weather events," said Harper. "And those extreme weather events are in turn displacing people."