Environmental Migration and Climate Refugees


Climate Refugees are migrants who are forced to leave their homes due to environmental changes which compromise their security, wellbeing and livelihood. These changes are primarily linked to one of the three impacts of climate change: extreme weather events, global warming and rising sea levels. In the last 6 years, approximately 140 million people have been forced to migrate due to climate-related disasters, and this number will only expand into the future. At present, the United Nations estimate that by the 2050, one in 30 people could be displaced, many as a direct result of environmental change. Accordingly, senior policy officials such as Brigadier General, Stephen Cheney, are preparing for a great “humanitarian crisis of epic proportions”.


One place that truly feels the weight of the looming crisis is the Maldives, which rises only 2.4m above sea level. The country’s former president, Mohamed Nasheed, foreshadows a dramatic humanitarian crisis and has publicly challenged high-pollution nations by saying that “you can drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions so that the seas do not rise so much… or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can let us in”. Yet, this migration crisis is not localised to countries of the Arabian sea. In fact, the pressures of migration are being realised by senior figures around the globe including the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who is anticipating the extent of future catastrophe:


While the direct environmental effects of climate change will create an enormous wave of climate refugees, there are secondary effects which will amplify the damage. Senior military leaders have predicted that global warming will exacerbate the existing security threats of the world by provoking conflicts through excess migration. As testament, leading military commentators have already suggested that global warming will amplify the war in Syria as well as the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency in sub-Saharan Africa by increasing migration and political uncertainty.


Between 2006 and 2011, massive expanses of Syria suffered through extreme, chronic drought which was worsened by climate change. That drought increased poverty, especially in rural and agricultural regions, which was a significant driver for the thousands of Syrians who were forced to migrate closer to the country’s capital. The US Centre for Climate and Security even suggested that “internal displacement may have contributed to the social unrest that precipitated the civil war”, which manifests itself as the current refugee crisis in the Middle East. The most haunting part is that this script is likely to play out in other nations faced with climate-induced migration, with the most vulnerable and impoverished nations set to be the first victims.

Syrian migrants making the journey into Europe to escape the political and environmental instability. Source: Nine O’Clock News

Leading security experts are already seeing the impacts of climate change through the changes in mass migration patterns, especially from the Sahel region of Africa. A Senior Fellow at the Centre of American Progress, says that the “desertification and lack of water” in the region is “contributing to human mobility”, which is ultimately putting pressure on the final destination of many refugees – Europe. Indeed, failing crops, dying livestock and conflicts over scarce resources are increasing poverty and forcing environmental migration. 

The poorest regions of Africa are suffering the real extent of climate change through exacerbated drought, and this chronic effect is driving thousands of migrants into neighbouring regions which are also entrenched in poverty. Amidst this, richer countries are responding by limiting migrant intake, building walls and closing their doors. Since those displaced by climate-related crises have no legal standing under the existing refugee and asylum laws – these people are living testament to the harrowing impacts of climate change, and are left to bear the true weight of our environmental destruction.



1.  McCarthy JJ. Climate change 2001: impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability: contribution of Working Group II to the third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press; 2001.

2.  Unit EaCI. Military experts: Climate change could lead to humanitarian crisis. 40 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3UD; 2016 [cited 2017 20/02/2017]. Available from: http://eciu.net/press-releases/2016/military-experts-climate-change-could-lead-to-humanitarian-crisis

3.  Farbotko C, Lazrus H. The first climate refugees? Contesting global narratives of climate change in Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change. 2012;22(2):382-390

4.  Chowdhury A. The coming crisis. Himal Southasian. 2009.

5.  Doyle T, Chaturvedi S. Climate refugees and security: Conceptualizations, categories, and contestations. The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. 2011:278-291.

6.  Naser MM. Climate change, environmental degradation, and migration: a complex nexus. Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol’y Rev. 2011;36:713.


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