Climate Refugees – A Looming Crisis


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Climate change has become a burning issue that needs immediate attention and further action. Climate change is causing drought, coral reef bleaching, more powerful storms and sea-level rise. With the rise in climate change disasters, the number of people is rising who are choosing to leave their homelands to escape climate-related economic issues and health hazards. But the question arises that where they would settle? Even if they settle somewhere, how will they survive? What will be their identity and legal status? Will they be treated at par with the general citizens? All these fundamental questions point to a looming crisis that is yet to take a form of a full-blown global humanitarian issue. It is time that the issue is carefully looked into and discussed in detail to reach an effective solution soon.

This topic of “Climate Refugees – A Looming Crisis” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

Who are climate refugees?

  • There is no international definition of ‘climate refugees’, however, the concept was first introduced by Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute in the 1970s, wherein he used the term ‘environmental refugees’ to denote the forced migration of people due to environmental degradation and natural disasters.
  • In other words, these are the people who are forced to migrate to other places or cross borders due to catastrophic weather and natural events that may be climate-change driven.


  • Archaeological evidence suggests that human settlement patterns have responded repeatedly to changes in the climate.
  • There is evidence that the emergence of the first large, urban societies was driven by a combination of climatic and environmental desiccation.
  • During the 4th century CE, growing aridity and frigid temperatures from a prolonged cold snap caused the Hun and German hordes to migrate across the Volga and Rhine into milder Gaul.
  • Similarly, in the 8th century CE, Muslim expansion into the Mediterranean and southern Europe was, to some extent, driven by drought in the Middle East.
  • Migration is (and always has been) an important mechanism to deal with climate stress.
  • Pastoralist societies have of course habitually migrated, with their animals, from water sources to grazing lands in response to drought as well as part of their normal mode of life.
  • But it is becoming apparent that migration as a response to environmental change is not limited to nomadic societies.
  • In short, people have had to move for environmental reasons for thousands of years and the recent statistics point to a sobering picture of such migrants in the coming future.

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What do the global statistics say?

  • Data on climate refugees is limited, which is why they’re called the “forgotten victims of climate change”.
  • As early as 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that the greatest single impact of climate change might be on human migration—with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption.
  • In the mid-1990s, it was widely reported that up to 25 million people had been forced from their homes and off their land by a range of serious environmental pressures including pollution, land degradation, droughts and natural disasters.
  • As per data of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), released in April 2021, the number of people displaced by climate change-related disasters since 2010 is 21.5 million.
  • Over the past 30 years, the number of people living in coastal areas at high risk of rising sea levels has increased from 160 million to 260 million, 90% of whom are from poor developing countries and small island states.
  • Hazards resulting from the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as abnormally heavy rainfall, prolonged droughts, desertification, environmental degradation, or sea-level rise and cyclones are already causing an average of more than 20 million people to leave their homes and move to other areas in their countries each year.
  • As climate change worsens storms and droughts, climate scientists and migration experts expect the number to rise.
  • As per the Ecosystem Threat Register (ETR) released in September 2018 by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), at least 1.2 billion people could be displaced by these threats by 2050. 

Major regions experiencing such events

  • Numerically and geographically, South and East Asia are particularly vulnerable to large-scale forced migration due to sea-level rise. Six of Asia’s ten mega-cities are located on the coast (Jakarta, Shanghai, Tokyo, Manila, Bangkok and Mumbai).
  • China, meanwhile, has 41 per cent of its population, 60 per cent of its wealth and 70 per cent of its megacities in coastal areas.
  • In Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of people are routinely uprooted by coastal flooding, many making a treacherous journey to the slums of the capital, Dhaka. It is predicted that 17% of the country will be submerged by the rise in sea level by 2050, and 20 million people living there will lose their homes.
  • More than 98 per cent of the 30.7 million new displacements in 2020 were the result of weather-related hazards such as storms and floods and concentrated in East Asia and Pacific and South Asia.
  • The urban area of Venice, Italy, is also threatened by sea-level rise. Venice is an ancient city built on a series of islands in a lagoon on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. The city has always been threatened by storms and storm surges. Venice’s main “streets” are canals and smaller waterways. It is said that flooding has become more frequent in this region in the last century.
  • Many other coastal cities throughout the world are located in low-lying areas vulnerable to sea-level rise: Manhattan, New York; London, England; Shanghai, China; Hamburg, Germany; and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • Millions more are vulnerable in Africa, particularly around the Nile Delta and along the west coast of Africa. Changing patterns of rainfall would have particularly serious impacts on food security in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya each lose more than 1,000 square kilometres (386 square miles) of productive land every year to desertification.
  • These residents on the edge of the Sahara Desert may move to cities in the Maghreb, a region of northwest Africa. They may also choose to move to the more developed countries of Europe.
  • Residents near the Horn of Africa are especially vulnerable to drought and desertification.
  • Thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians, threatened by starvation and poverty, have already fled to refugee camps in Kenya.
  • In West Africa, the almost total disappearance of Lake Chad because of desertification has empowered terrorists and forced more than four million people into camps.
  • Small island states around the world are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise because in many cases (the Bahamas, Kiribati, the Maldives and the Marshall Islands) much of their land is less than three or four metres above present sea level.
  • The Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, is perhaps the country most threatened by sea-level rise. The Maldives rises only 2.4 meters (8 feet) above sea level at its highest point. Sea level rise will likely create climate refugees because of changes in both economy and habitat.
  • In the United States of America, an estimated 2,300 Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria are still looking for permanent housing, while government officials have spent years working to relocate more than a dozen small coastal communities in Alaska and Louisiana that are disappearing into the rising sea.
  • Half the population of the Caribbean lives within 1.5 km of the shoreline.
  • As per a study conducted by Columbia University, if global temperatures continue their upward march, applications for asylum to the European Union could increase 28 per cent to nearly 450,000 per year by 2100.
  • As per a World Bank report, within three of the most vulnerable regions — sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America — 143 million people could be displaced by these impacts by 2050.

How does climate change aggravate this situation?

  • Climate change will cause population movements by making certain parts of the world much less viable places to live; causing food and water supplies to become more unreliable and increasing the frequency and severity of floods and storms.
  • Changing rainfall patterns and a more intense hydrological cycle mean that extreme weather events such as droughts, storms and floods are expected to become increasingly frequent and severe.
  • According to the 2007 IPCC report of the Second Working Group, less rain would have particularly serious impacts on sub-Saharan African agriculture which is largely rain-fed.
  • The same report says that crop yields in central and south Asia could fall by 30 per cent by the middle of the 21st century.
  • Meanwhile, melting glaciers will increase the risk of flooding during the wet season and reduce dry-season water supplies to one-sixth of the world’s population, predominantly in the Indian sub-continent, parts of China and the Andes.
  • Melting glaciers will increase the risk of glacial lake outburst floods particularly in mountainous countries like Nepal, Peru and Bhutan.
  • Large delta systems are at particular risk of flooding.
  • The area of coastal wetlands is projected to decrease as a result of sea-level rise.
  • If the high emissions scenario and the high climate sensitivity continue, then the wetland loss could be as high as 25 per cent and 42 per cent of the world’s existing coastal wetlands by the 2050s and 2100s respectively.

What are the implications of such movements?

  • Environmental refugees are not protected by international laws. Therefore, they face greater political risks than refugees who flee their homes due to conflict or political oppression. 
  • Unlike traditional refugees, climate refugees may be sent back to their devastated homeland or forced into a refugee camp.
  • Those climate refugees who are internal migrants (rural and coastal residents who are forced to migrate to urban areas within their country) face numerous problems. Their skills are not relevant in urban areas and thus they face livelihood crises.
  • Climate refugees who migrate outside their home countries face difficulties as they must adjust to different laws, languages, and cultures. They may also encounter conflict with indigenous residents.
  • Educational and health care systems must adjust to a sudden, new population. They need to bear the additional pressure on their resources.
  • Climate change may also trigger conflict amongst the population as climate change may enhance the competition for resources like food, water and grazing lands.
  • Climate change-induced migration may make the Millennial Development Goals harder to achieve. In long term, climate change migration could roll back much of the progress that has been made so far.
  • The phenomenon may hinder development in the following ways:
    • Climate refugees may increase pressure on urban infrastructure and services.
    • An increased population may undermine economic growth.
    • Lead to worse health, educational and social indicators.
    • Risk of conflict among migrants themselves.
  • The issue may lead to increased frequency and severity of disease outbreaks.

Climate refugees and international law

  • Although people fleeing from places, where they face risks arising from the impacts of climate change, are often referred to as “climate refugees”, on most occasions they do not fall within the scope of the refugee definition in Article 1 of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
  • There are no legally binding agreements obliging countries to support climate migrants.
  • The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has thus far refused to grant these people refugee status, instead designates them as “environmental migrants,” in large part because it lacks the resources to address their needs.
  • Regional refugee instruments like the 1984 Cartagena Declaration and the 1969 OAU Convention offer a wider definition of protecting refugees fleeing conditions that “seriously disturb public order” but these regional instruments long pre-date when climate change was not a global concern.

What could be done?

  • The global community should endeavour to expand the definition of a “refugee.” This may help them in getting access to financial grants, food aid, tools, shelter, schools or clinics. Providing legal recognition to them must be the top priority.
  • The affected countries and regions may endeavour to adapt to climate change-driven extreme events by making a series of cost-benefit decisions. These adaptation techniques may help them in reducing their vulnerability to climate change events.
  • Those countries which are less affected may formulate immigration policies on climate refugees.
  • The UN SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) may be of greater help as they address both migration and climate change. Several of the 169 targets established by the SDGs lay out general goals that could be used to protect climate migrants. These include:
    • 13.1: Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries
    • 13.2: Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning
    • 13.3: Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction, and early warning.
  • Although the SDGs do not explicitly link climate change and migration, SDG target 10.7 calls for signatories to “facilitate orderly, safe, and responsible migration of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed policies.” 
  • Those regions which are greatly affected may be provided help by the richer countries.
  • Dedicating greater resources to mitigate climate migration is also part of an effective solution.
  • Last but not least, the global community must take immediate steps to address climate change.

India and climate refugees

  • India was the seventh most affected by the devastating impact of climate change globally in 2019 according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021.
  • The uneven monsoon across the country and extreme climate change-driven weather events are a matter of serious concern. This may force people to migrate internally within the Indian territory.
  • Along with this, it is predicted that climate refugees from Bangladesh alone might outnumber all current numbers of refugees worldwide and these displaced people will seek shelter internally, as well as in neighbouring countries like India.
  • From several studies and research reports, it is undisputedly clear that climate refugees as a phenomenon exists and is growing considerably, affecting countries worldwide including India.
  • If the sea levels in Bangladesh rise, as has been predicted, undoubtedly there will be large-scale migration from the country towards India seeking refuge.
  • Given this situation, India needs to contemplate. Without a proper legal or policy framework in place, dealing with such a crisis would be challenging, and the politicisation of the issue cannot be ruled out.
  • From a humanitarian point of view, India would have no alternative but to accept and rehabilitate the refugees.
  • Such sudden settlement and rehabilitation drive of refugees has the possibility of a fresh conflict between the refugees and indigenous people.
  • At this point of time, when mass migration of climate refugees is imminent, safeguards to the fragile indigenous population become necessary to avoid future conflicts in the region. 
  • This requires legislative and policy measures so that the refugees get their due rights of settlement and rehabilitation; also ensuring the rights of indigenous people over the land and resources to avoid future conflicts between the groups.
  • To ensure this, Indian lawmakers need to come up with a climate refugee framework and constitutional guarantee.
  • Such measures will pave the way for the looming crisis that the world faces.


When the world is grappling with such a burning crisis like climate change, it is difficult to avoid its ramifications. Therefore, formulating policies and plans unitedly to minimise the loss and reduce vulnerability will be the way forward. This will require a multi-pronged and multi-sectoral approach by all the stakeholders.

Practise Question

Q. Who are climate refugees and why do they need immediate protection?

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