Climate Refugees – the hour of Europe?

The world is not ready to receive the millions of climate refugees that will come as a result of global warming in the years to come. The EU is yet far from addressing the issue with concrete policies, but a light was lit when the EU last month submitted a report on ‘Climate Change and International Security.

The UN estimates that there will be up to 50 million environmental refugees by 2010, and much needs to be done to protect this particular group of refugees, who is not yet recognized through international conventions or treaties. 

The International Organisation for Migration has the following working definition on environmental refugees, as ‘persons or groups who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country.’

There are of course many reasons why people flee and often it is the sum of various factors such as conflicts, poverty and unemployment. But more and more research indicates a relation between environmental degradation and the above-mentioned factors. Climate change/global warming is leading to increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, droughts, floods and more, which forces people to flee from their homes.

Some facts on Climate Change and refugees

  • Careful estimates fear that up between 200 million will be forced to flee their homes as a direct effect of global warming in the next decades.
  • Around 100 million people worldwide live below sea-level and are subject to storm surges and raising sea levels[1]. Another 600 million people live in low-lying costal zones.
  • In Asia, changes in the monsoon rain and decrease of melt water from the Himalayas will affect more than 1 billion people, likely to induce more migration.

Lets use the desertification as an example to explain how climate change acts as threat multiplier, which worsens existing trends and conflicts around the world.

Desertification and Climate Change

Desertification is mainly a ‘man-induced phenomenon, resulting from overgrazing, deforestation, unsustainable water management, and unsustainable human settlement’[2]. This is enforced by climate change, which in many areas lead to less rain and warmer temperatures, thus speeding up the process of desertification and droughts. This will again lead to reduced areas suitable for agriculture, reducing the length of the growing season, reducing yield in semi-arid and arid areas[3]. Once farmers make less food, they make less money and are threatened by poverty. Food-prices are thus rising and expected to raise more on the world market as a result of the decreased food production. We have already seen grave examples of this year with food crisis in 37 countries around the globe as a result of increased food prices. 

Drought in African countries will lead to increased migration

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that climate change will play a significant role in reduced agricultural outputs and increased migration, particular in Africa. There are 90 million people living in Western- and Central Africa who are dependent agriculture as livelihood. If the land they are living off is destroyed by drought, it will force them to move. It is furthermore expected that water-scarcity and land overuse in North Africa will degrade soils, and could lead to the loss of 75 % of arable rain-fed land, according the EU-report. Desertification can ‘trigger a vicious circle of degradation, migration and conflicts over territory and borders that threatens the political stability of countries and regions’. It is expected that these changes will lead to mass-migration, and Europe must be prepared.

International recognition of climate refugees is necessary

One of the major challenges in relation to climate refugees is that they are not yet recognized by international agreements and conventions. This means they are not entitled to aid from UN agencies, nor refugee protection when they arrive to safe-countries. With an estimated 50 million refugees by 2010, is there a real need for recognizing these refugees in the Geneva Convention for Refugees and in other relevant international treaties. The EU should push for more international recognition, more aid and help to climate refugees.

The EU-report concluded that Europe “must expect substantially increased migratory pressure”. The EU could therefore do some groundbreaking work by recognizing climate refugees and adopt the appropriate measures in the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) that is under construction. The Comprehensive Migration Policy should also take climate refugees into its equation. The approach of the EU must also been seen in relation to its trade, aid and development policies, as migration and climate change is related to all of them. 

And it goes without saying that the EU must use all its strength on pushing for the best possible climate agreement towards the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen.


As this topic will be the focus of my Master Thesis at LSE am I very interested in comments, discussion and ideas on “Climate Refugees and the EU response”.


Further reading:



[1] Larry West. ‘Scholars predict 50 million Environmental Refugees by 2010′. – 05/02/2008.[2] From an address made by Deputy Executive Secretary of UNCCD, Mr. Kalbermatten, from a conference 19th of February. Conference of the Human Security Network, Geneva.[3] Michelle Leighton. Lecture ‘Desertification, Climate Change and Migration: Perspective on the African continent’.  19th of February, Conference of the Human Security Network, Geneva.       

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