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Resilient and Responsible Smart Cities pp 135–141 Cite as

The Climate Change Impact on Refugee Camps, Al Za’atari Case Study

  • Laila Ashour 23 ,
  • Rawan Khattab 23 , 24 ,
  • Amro Yaghi 23 &
  • Hadeel Qatamin 25  
  • Conference paper
  • First Online: 31 March 2023

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Historically, the Arab region has witnessed several refugee influxes between different countries when refugees aimed to secure their lives and to escape wars and conflicts. Jordan, in particular, received several refugee waves in the past century. These include Palestinian refugee waves due to the Israeli-Arab conflict in Palestine, Iraqi refugee waves due to the Gulf war and the American invasion to Iraq, and recently, Syrian refugee waves due to the Syrian crisis in 2011. Therefore, Jordan hosts a rich map of refugee camps across the Kingdom, which are built under emergency situations to respond to the sudden influx of refugees. With the time and resources constraints in place, these camps are often built fast and at low costs. Al Za’atari refugee’s camp, which is the biggest camp for Syrian refugees worldwide, is established near Mafraq governorate in a desert environment. While being put up in harsh desert habitats, the densely populated camp is facing multiple environmental challenges. Among the main critical factors that influence camps' vulnerability to environmental threats is the design quality of the built environment inside camps; as the urban formation and shelter design specifications play a major role in enhancing camp sustainable development. The desert conditions of the al Za’atari location undergo noticeable changes in extreme weather due to climate change. Hence, indoor and outdoor conditions reinforce camp vulnerability to climate change challenges, which requires further analysis and exploration. Therefore, this research paper aims to investigate the mutual relationship between the Za’atari camp and the environmental threats. The methodology involves reviewing the literature to enhance the camps-built environment response to these environmental challenges. Finally, the paper concludes with suggested practices which improve the quality of life for refugees in Za'atari camp, these include vernacular architecture for thermal comfort and green solutions for delivering basic services.

  • Climate change
  • Syrian refugees
  • Climate vulnerabilty
  • Environmental threats
  • Zaatari refugees Camp
  • Sustainable development
  • Vernacular architecture
  • Environmental marketing

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Laila Ashour, Rawan Khattab & Amro Yaghi

University of Petra, Department of Architecture, Amman, Jordan

Rawan Khattab

Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development, Amman, Jordan

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Ashour, L., Khattab, R., Yaghi, A., Qatamin, H. (2023). The Climate Change Impact on Refugee Camps, Al Za’atari Case Study. In: Krüger, E.L., Karunathilake, H.P., Alam, T. (eds) Resilient and Responsible Smart Cities. Advances in Science, Technology & Innovation. Springer, Cham.

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How Can We Protect “Climate Refugees”?

Pakistan Flooding

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Ana martín gil, kelsey norman, ivonne cruz, share this publication.

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Ana Martín Gil, Pamela Lizette Cruz, Kelsey Norman, and Ivonne Cruz, "How Can We Protect 'Climate Refugees'?"  (Houston: Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, October 13, 2022), .


Climate change and environmental changes are increasingly prominent drivers of migration. The great majority of individuals displaced find refuge within their own country, while some are forced to cross international borders. [1] By 2050, according to the World Bank’s Groundswell report, up to 216 million people across six world regions could be forced to move internally within their countries due to slow-onset effects of climate change such as water scarcity, lower crop productivity and rising sea levels. [2] By region, approximately 86 million individuals could be displaced within sub-Saharan Africa, 49 million in East Asia and the Pacific, 40 million in South Asia, 19 million in North Africa, 17 million in Latin America, and 5 million in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. These estimates paint a startling picture for displacement over the next several decades if government inaction on the intersection between climate, development, human rights and migration policies continues. Perhaps most importantly, migrants who leave their homes due to climate change are currently unprotected by international law or the domestic policies of most receiving countries.

The United Nations has defined a disaster as a “serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts.” It also defines the adverse effects of climate change as “changes in the physical environment or biota resulting from climate change which have significant deleterious effects on the composition, resilience or productivity of natural and managed ecosystems or on the operation of socio-economic systems or on human health and welfare.” [3] These changes contribute to the complexity of internal and cross-border migration, displacement and other forms of human mobility. Global warming is expected to worsen extreme weather events — including heavy rainfall, droughts, heatwaves and tropical storms. [4] Since mid-June 2022, for example, Pakistan has experienced heavy monsoon rains and the worst flooding the nation has seen in over a decade. [5] Currently, one third of the country is under water, and extremely heavy rains have impacted over 33 million people. [6] According to Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority, there have been over 1,700 deaths, more than 12,000 people injured, 1.1 million livestock lost, over 2.1 million houses damaged, and over 500,000 people forced to seek shelter in relief camps. [7] Extreme weather events can hinder swift humanitarian responses, exacerbating issues such as food insecurity and threatening the health and livelihoods of vulnerable populations. [8] In this case, Pakistan hosts around 1.3 million Afghan refugees, 420,000 of whom live in the most heavily affected provinces. [9] There is a dire need for greater international cooperation, along with adaptive policies and action for future preparedness. If not, climate-related challenges, losses and damages — ecological, human and economic — will continue.

The international community must prepare for individuals displaced internally or across borders in the context of climate change. This report investigates the possible pathways forward to ensure that individuals displaced by climate change have adequate legal protection. We begin by examining the forecasted implications of climate change as well as the complexity of quantifying and defining “climate refugees.” Second, we assess possible pathways for protection at the international, regional and individual country levels to determine how various systems of refugee protection could be extended to include individuals fleeing climate change. Finally, we discuss best ways forward for policy approaches and practices that are climate-resilient and inclusive.

Forecasted Implications of Climate Change

It is important to distinguish between climate processes and climate events. Climate processes happen at a slow pace and cumulatively, bringing serious implications for food and human security. Examples include sea level rise, the salinization of crop lands and desertification. In contrast, climate events are sudden environmental disasters that reap geophysical havoc, affecting a vast number of people in a short period of time. Examples include flooding, hurricanes, typhoons and other storm-like occurrences. [10] Different countries and regions have varying adaptation capacities and abilities to respond to climate processes and climate events, ultimately determined by the quality of their economic, human development and governance practices.

According to the 2022 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people are living in countries with high human vulnerability to climate change. [11] Weather change patterns are making certain parts of the world uninhabitable as their populations are constantly in a battle against time and water accessibility to grow crops. In many cases, affected communities must endure long drought spells or severe flooding, making food and water supplies undependable. Climate change disasters in physical forms manifest through the following categories, bringing devastating human, economic, material and environmental losses: 1) floods, heavy rains and strong winds; 2) coastal storms and sea level rise; 3) impacts of increased carbon dioxide concentrations; 4) droughts; and 5) extreme heat. The adverse effects of climate change also create a series of human rights impacts through the intersection of gender, race, class, indigenous identity, age, disability, income, migratory status and geographical location, potentially creating further vulnerability. [12] As depicted in Figure 1, disasters continue to trigger most displacements worldwide, with 23.7 million recorded in 2021. [13]  

Figure 1: Internal Displacements Worldwide 2012-2021

Climate migration Figure 01

For example, climate projections report that by 2050, the number of people at risk of floods will increase from the current level of 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion, and 3.2 billion people will live in water-scarce areas. [14] Frequent clustering of cities on coastlines and unregulated urban growth will also increase individuals’ vulnerability when natural disasters strike. [15] Small island states such as Samoa, Niue and Vanuatu, Kiribati, Palau and the Solomon Islands are more at risk than others, facing higher annual average loss and damage from cyclone impact, warming oceans and rising sea levels. [16] The Pacific region reports that in the last three decades, disaster-related losses amounted to approximately US$3.3 billion, affecting at least 6.3 million people. [17] For agriculture and fishing-based communities, these disasters create a human security risk that threatens basic livelihoods by reducing arable land and decreasing fishing stocks, in addition to the effects of coral bleaching and the loss of ecosystem services. There are also non-economic losses and damages related to cultural sites that are being eroded by storm surges and rising sea levels, as well as the loss of life, human health, biodiversity and territory. [18] Food crises linked to repeated weather extremes, such as prolonged droughts are also issues of grave concern, with many children at great risk of food insecurity, malnutrition and starvation, particularly in East Africa, South and Central America, and Central Asia. [19] Finally, heat waves in southern Asia and the Middle East have disproportionately impacted individuals already living in poverty, particularly women and those in low-income employment. By 2030, the unavoidable economic losses due to climate change are projected to reach between $290 billion and $580 billion. [20]

The Difficulty of Defining “Climate Refugees”

At present, individuals who migrate due to climate change impacting their livelihood or safety are not entitled to protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which form the backbone of most asylum systems worldwide. Many argue that opening the UN Refugee Convention and revising the definition of who classifies as a refugee could result in an even narrower definition given today’s highly politicized climate. [21]

Despite a lack of agreement over its definition, the term “climate refugee” has gained popularity in recent years and is now used by politicians, international organizations, NGOs, academics and media outlets. Along with the broad category of “refugee,” the terms “climate refugee” and “climate migrant” have been racialized and stigmatized over the last decade. [22] Some argue for a broader, more encompassing concept. For example, the International Organization for Migration uses the term “environmentally displaced persons,” which it defines as “persons who are displaced within their country of habitual residence or who have crossed an international border and for whom environmental degradation, deterioration, or destruction is a major cause of their displacement, although not necessarily the sole one.” [23] Others are skeptical of the extent to which climate-induced migration poses a threat, arguing that in the cases of floods and other environmental havoc, the vast majority of people move short distances internally and at times temporarily –– such as to the next neighborhood, village or town –– and that most people living in developing countries do not have the resources to move longer distances or across borders. [24] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has thus been hesitant to extend the term “refugee” to people displaced externally and internally due to climate disruption, arguing that those displaced as a result of environmental change can still rely on the protection of their national governments, whereas traditional refugees cannot. [25] In the absence of an agreed upon definition, we discuss the different options available to provide protection to individuals displaced by climate change.

Scales of Protection: The Use of New and Existing Legal Pathways for Individuals Displaced by Climate Change

The processes and frameworks currently available to address individuals displaced by climate change include an extensive list of partnerships, commissions, conventions, standards and cross-cutting agendas. However, international law still has no clear mechanism or legally binding solutions for these individuals. The following sections address the different scales of protection currently available, including at the international, regional and individual country levels. 

International Responses

A clear international framework that regulates the protection of individuals displaced by climate change is yet to be developed. However, the international community has taken several steps in recognizing the importance of climate-induced displacement in the last decade.

The Nansen Initiative, launched by the Norwegian and Swiss governments in 2012, was one of the first initiatives that focused on recognizing and protecting individuals displaced by climate change at the international level. The initiative involved regional consultations with governments and civil society actors, including in the Pacific, the Horn of Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia and South Asia. Their efforts resulted in a non-binding agenda endorsed by 109 states in 2015 to fill the legal protection gap for individuals displaced by climate change. [26]

The Task Force on Displacement (TFD), created in 2015 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), currently represents the most advanced example of a broad global policy framework integrating human mobility and climate change dimensions. [27] In its first phase, the TFD developed a set of comprehensive recommendations “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.” [28] Currently in its second phase, the TFD’s objective is to implement such recommendations, including developing national and subnational legislation, policies and strategies to reduce climate-induced displacement and enhancing research, data collection, risk analysis and information sharing to understand and manage human mobility driven by climate change. [29]

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, endorsed in 2018, acknowledged the urgent situation of migrants being displaced because of climate change, and included a call to “develop coherent approaches to address the challenges of migration movements in the context of sudden-onset and slow-onset natural disasters.” [30] More recently, in May 2022, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants announced that his forthcoming report to the 77th session of the General Assembly, which opened on September 13, is dedicated to the issue of the impact of climate change and the protection of the human rights of migrants. [31]

The UNHCR also took a stand on the issue of climate migration when it released a statement titled, “Legal considerations regarding claims for international protection made in the context of the adverse effects of climate change and disasters,” in October 2020. The document states that people fleeing in the context of the adverse effects of climate change and disasters may have valid claims for refugee status under the 1951 Convention. [32] This paper constituted an important step by the UNHCR in acknowledging the diverse consequences of climate change and disasters — including the growing prevalence, spread and severity of new and reemerging diseases, food insecurity, famine, water scarcity and exposure to exploitation and trafficking. It also highlighted that the adverse effects of climate change and disasters are often worsened by other factors such as poor governance, public disorder, fragile ecosystems, socio-economic inequalities, xenophobia, and political and religious tensions, which in some cases can lead to violence. These compounding factors may compel individuals to leave their country and seek international protection. However, this guidance and current international refugee law may only be applicable in limited situations where the adverse effects of climate change collide with other factors, such as violence and conflict, and does not provide a solution for displacement due to slow-onset climate change or climate processes.

As noted earlier, none of these instruments or reports are legally binding for states, which are ultimately the arbiters of protection for individuals displaced across borders. As such, international actors have emphasized that states must be the entities to extend legal status to those displaced by climate change. Until further coherence on global instruments can be achieved, the domestic implementation of regional agreements and actions taken by individual countries provide the most relevant levels of protection, as detailed in the following two sections. [33]  

Regional Responses

The UNHCR handbook suggests that since it is the role of states to widen the definition of refugee status, the push to address climate-induced migration must come from individual states or regional coalitions. [34] The UNHCR handbook clearly articulates, “primary responsibility lies with States for preventing displacement when possible and, when it cannot be avoided, for protecting displaced people as well as finding durable solutions for their displacement.” [35]

Several regional mechanisms and frameworks provide broader definitions of refugees and migrants who have the right to seek protection compared to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. As a result, they provide a higher chance of recognition for individuals displaced by climate change — but they also come with their own subset of challenges.

One of the oldest regional protection instruments is the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. It has been ratified by 46 African countries, making its provisions legally binding domestically. [36] This convention broadens the UN definition of a refugee to include every person who has to seek refuge in a different country due to “external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality.” [37] Although there is no specific mention of climate change or environmental disasters, it could be argued that these phenomena constitute a serious disturbance to the public order of a country. Nonetheless, the OAU Convention does not guarantee safeguard for individuals fleeing due to climate change, as climate change and environmental disasters are not listed as qualifying conditions to obtain refugee status. This means refugee claims from these individuals are assessed on a case-by-case basis.  

Another regional instrument is the Cartagena Declaration, adopted by the Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama in 1984. Its definition of refugees is similar to that of the OAU Convention, considering refugees those who “have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” [38] Once again, the definition does not explicitly mention fleeing due to climate change or environmental disasters as a valid claim to obtain refugee status, but it could be framed within the “other circumstances” category. Although the Cartagena Declaration is not legally binding, 15 Latin American countries have incorporated its broader refugee definition into their national law or practice, making it one of the most relevant instruments in regard to climate-related displacement in the region. [39] The Cartagena definition is used prominently; for example, as of 2020 Mexico and Brazil have granted refugee status to more than 12,000 and 46,000 Venezuelan refugees, respectively, using the Cartagena Declaration’s broad definition. [40] If this definition can be used to provide protection to those who normally would not qualify for refugee status under the Refugee Convention, it is reasonable to believe that individuals displaced by climate change could also be included under this category.

The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Africa (2009), known as the Kampala Convention, is also worth mentioning as it is the only binding agreement on IDPs. [41] The Kampala Convention has been ratified by over 30 African countries and is the only binding agreement that explicitly mentions “natural or human-made disasters, including climate change” as one of the reasons why IDPs should be entitled to protection. [42] The inclusion of climate change as a qualifying reason for obtaining protection is a great step forward, especially since, according to predictions, most individuals displaced by climate change will end up being internally displaced and never cross international borders. However, 13 years after the adoption of the convention, states have fallen short at implementing its provisions at the national level. Only Niger has adopted a law on the protection of IDPs, and four additional countries have drafted laws for the implementation of the convention. [43]  

More recently, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Eastern Africa, composed of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda, adopted the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons in the IGAD Region. The protocol was endorsed by the committee of ambassadors, ministers of interior and ministers of labor of the IGAD states, and it recognizes “the adverse effects of climate change and environmental degradation as important drivers of displacement and migration.” It therefore provides protection to citizens of IGAD states who are “moving in anticipation of, during or in the aftermath of disaster.” [44] Although challenges remain regarding the national ratification process and the implementation of the protocol, it could offer solutions to countries that are severely affected by drought and environmental degradation, making them more prone to outward migration. [45]

Another regional framework is the Arab Convention on Regulating Status of Refugees in the Arab Countries, adopted by the League of Arab States in 1994. Although this convention was never ratified by the League of Arab States, and therefore is not legally binding, it includes natural disasters as a qualifying reason to apply for refugee status. It defines a refugee as “any person who unwillingly takes refuge in a country other than his country of origin or his habitual place of residence because of sustained aggression against, occupation and foreign domination of such country or because of the occurrence of natural disasters or grave events resulting in major disruption of public order in the whole country or any part thereof.” [46] Several countries of the League of Arab States, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have also not yet recognized the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is especially concerning since these countries are major migrant and refugee-hosting states. [47]  

Other regional frameworks are being discussed, such as the Pacific Regional Framework on Climate Mobility, developed over the last two years through consultations and research. [48] Over 100 state and non-state actors from the Pacific met this summer to discuss the draft documents and consider how the framework will be reflected in national policies. [49] If this framework is finalized and its provisions are adopted as national policies, it will be an important step toward finding solutions to climate-induced displacement — particularly because Pacific island countries are among the most affected by climate change due to sea level rise. In fact, eight islands in the Pacific have already been submerged, and two more are rapidly disappearing. [50]

In theory, these frameworks have the potential to offer broader opportunities to protect individuals displaced by climate change — but in practice, it is difficult to assess their effectiveness. First, climate change intersects with other drivers of migration — including economic factors — making climate-induced migration difficult to quantify. Second, data on displacement across borders due to disasters or climate events are available to a small extent, but data on displacement due to slow-onset climate change, or climate processes, are almost non-existent from a quantitative perspective. [51] An exception is the availability of quantitative data on internal displacement due to disasters, as the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center has been monitoring displacement linked to disasters for over 20 years. [52] Lastly, there is little, if any, global data available regarding how many individuals are able to obtain protection through the regional frameworks described — with very few exceptions such as data on the number of humanitarian visas granted in Argentina and the number of individuals granted temporary protected status (TPS) in the United States. [53]  

Individual Responses

As highlighted above, several Latin American countries have incorporated the broader refugee definition of the Cartagena Declaration into their national law or practice. In 2011, Mexico passed the Law on Refugees, Complementary Protection and Political Asylum, which includes the Cartagena refugee definition. Furthermore, Mexico’s “Regulations of the Migration Law” provide protection for humanitarian reasons to individuals fleeing disasters in their country of origin. [54] It is unclear how often individuals displaced by climate change are able to obtain protection in Mexico, but between 2006 and 2017, Haitians affected by the 2010 earthquake and 2016 hurricane were able to obtain refugee status on the ground of “other circumstances” that have seriously perturbed public order. [55]

Argentina, which also uses the broader definition of refugee in the Cartagena Declaration, took a significant step in 2022 toward the protection of individuals displaced by environmental disasters. The country recently announced a special humanitarian visa to facilitate regular admission of individuals from Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean who are fleeing socio-natural disasters, for a period of three years. [56] This step is significant, as these regions have been gravely affected by climate change. Extreme weather events such as torrential rain and flooding followed by long droughts have already affected 2.2 million people in the region known as the “Dry Corridor” — comprising Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. [57]

New Zealand operates a labor migration scheme with the island nations of Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and Kiribati through an agreement known as the Pacific Access Category. The agreements are small in scale — only 250 people each from Fiji and Tonga and 75 each from Tuvalu and Kiribati are accepted each year — but they still represent an avenue through which individuals might migrate regularly. [58] In 2017, New Zealand considered developing experimental humanitarian visas for Pacific Islanders affected by climate change. However, they were never implemented, as Pacific Islanders wanted to avoid the stigma of refugee status and asked the New Zealand government to reduce emissions, provide other legal migration pathways and support adaptation efforts. [59]

Lastly, the United States does not have a federal framework that addresses climate-induced displacement, though there are some provisions that offer protection to migrants fleeing disasters, such as temporary protected status (TPS) and deferred enforced departure (DED), which allow individuals who are already present in the U.S. to stay in the country because of ongoing conflict or environmental disasters, among other factors, in their countries of origin. [60] Yet these two instruments are only temporary and apply exclusively to individuals who are already in the United States. As such, they do not provide a regular pathway for individuals displaced by climate change to be admitted into the United States. The Biden administration has expressed increased interest in finding solutions for climate-induced displacement. In February 2022, President Biden signed the executive order “Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration,” directing the national security advisor to draft a report on climate change and its impact on migration. [61] This report provides a helpful overview of the current protection landscape for individuals displaced by climate change, as well as policy recommendations for the U.S. government, but it has not yet resulted in any policy changes.

The idea of protecting the rights of individuals displaced by climate change is not yet fully accepted within international law. As a result, the available options for protection are haphazard and uneven, varying according to geography, region and even temporality. This report assessed the different levels of protection currently available, ultimately arguing that the domestic implementation of regional agreements and the pathways offered by individual countries offer the best ways forward at present.

Broadening protection beyond existing pathways will entail a rethinking of migration as a climate change adaptation strategy and not simply as a “crisis.” [62]   Historically, migration has been a mechanism of societies to respond to climate stress. While migration is not usually the first adaptive response to climate change, it can become a necessity when other means of adaptation — such as selling crop yields or livestock — become insufficient, and individuals can no longer rely on their governments for assistance or are unable to support themselves or their families. [63] Not without reason, the UN Human Rights Council declared in 2021 that a healthy, sustainable and livable environment is a human right, acknowledging that the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, our health, well-being and survival all depend on a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. [64]

It is also important to note the general trend of wealthy countries in the Global North looking to countries in the Global South to host refugees. Countries in the Global South will be most impacted by climate change and disasters, and yet they have fewer economic and technological resources to implement mitigation techniques. While countries in the Global South have generally been those to adopt more expansive refugee definitions — including regional definitions like the Cartagena Declaration or the OAU Convention — it should not be solely up to these countries to “solve” the issue of individuals displaced by climate change, especially considering that the Global South already hosts more than 80% of the world’s current refugees. Moving forward, whether at the international, regional or individual country level, it is important that collective efforts include climate-resilient policies and responses that are inclusive and provide targeted investments and developmental assistance for the countries and regions most impacted by climate change.


The authors would like to thank Alizay Azeem, Emelia Gauch and Sophia Lima for their research assistance.

[1] M. McAuliffe and A. Triandafyllidou, eds., World Migration Report 2022. International Organization for Migration (IOM), Geneva, 2021, . 

[2] Viviane Clement et al., “Groundswell Part II: Acting on Internal Climate Migration,” World Bank, 2021, .

[3] United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, “Disaster Terminology,” n.d., ; United Nations, “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,” 1992, .

[4] Tim Gaynor, “‘Climate change is the defining crisis of our time and it particularly impacts the displaced,’” UNHCR, November 30, 2020, .

[5] Sara E. Pratt, “Devastating Floods in Pakistan,” NASA Earth Observatory, August 31, 2022, .

[6] Imran Mukhtar, “‘Start my life from zero’: Poor Pakistanis face heavy cost of floods,” Reuters, September 5, 2022, .

[7] NDMA (Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority), “Daily SITREP No 116 Dated 7th October, 2022,” ; NDMA, “Monsoon 2022 Daily Situation Report No 93,” September 14, 2022, .

[8] Clement et al., “Groundswell Part II.”

[9] UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), “UNHCR rushes aid by air and road after Pakistan floods; steps up Afghanistan relief,” September 6, 2022, .

[10] Ian Fry, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change,” United Nations General Assembly, July 26, 2022.

[11] IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), “2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, In Press.

[12] S. Nazrul Islam and John Winkel, “Climate Change and Social Inequality,” Working Paper 152, United Nations, Department of Economics and Social Affairs, October 2017, .

[13] Disasters included in this report are geophysical (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides) and weather-related (storms, floods, wildfires, droughts, landslides, extreme temperatures, cyclones and other storms) events. See IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre), Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID) 2022, May 2022, .

[14] United Nations, “Water and Climate Change,” n.d. .

[15] National Intelligence Council, “Structural Drivers of the Future Demographic Trends: The Future of Migration,” April 2021, .

[16] Leila Mead, “Small Islands, Large Oceans: Voices on the Frontlines of Climate Change,” March 2021, International Institute for Sustainable Development, Brief #15, .

[17] Sabira Coelho, “Background paper for the Pacific Regional Policy Dialogue on Climate Mobility,” September-December 2020, International Organization for Migration, ; Debarati Guha-Sapir, Pascaline Wallemacq, Philippe Hoyois, and Regina Below, “Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2016: The Numbers and Trends,” CRED (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters), October 2017, .

[18] Coelho, “Background paper for the Pacific Regional Policy Dialogue on Climate Mobility.”

[19] United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, “Drought in numbers,” May 11, 2022, .

[20] Tracy Carty and Lyndsay Walsh, “Footing the bill: Fair finance for loss and damage in an era of escalating climate impacts,” Oxfam International, June 7, 2022, .

[21] Elizabeth Ferris and Jonas Bergmann, “Soft law, migration and climate change governance,” Journal of Human Rights and the Environment 8, no. 1 (2017): 6-29, .

[22] Lydia Ayame Hiraide, “Climate Refugees: A Useful Concept? Towards an Alternative Vocabulary of Ecological Displacement,” Politics (February 2022), .

[24] Hein de Haas, “Climate refugees. The fabrication of a migration threat,” Hein de Haas (personal blog), January 31, 2020, .

[25] Joanna Apap, “The concept of ‘climate refugee’: Towards a possible definition,” EPRS: European Parliamentary Research Service, Belgium, 2019, .

[27] Mariam Traore Chazalnoel and Dina Ionesco, “IOM Perspectives on Climate Change and Migration,” International Organization for Migration (blog), January 12, 2019, .

[28] International Organization for Migration, “Task Force on Displacement,” n.d. .

[29] UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), “Report of the Task Force on Displacement,” September 17, 2018, .

[30] Apap, “The concept of 'climate refugee'”; “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration,” July 13, 2018, 9, .

[31] United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, “Report on the impact of climate change and the protection of the human rights of migrants,” last updated May 24, 2022, .

[32] The paper notes that, like any other claim, it must show the claimant meets the criteria in Article 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention, or be compelled to seek protection outside their own country due to events seriously disturbing the public order under Article I(2) of the 1969 OAU Convention and Conclusion III(3) of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration. See UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), “Legal considerations regarding claims for international protection made in the context of the adverse effects of climate change and disasters,” October 1, 2020, .

[33] International Organization for Migration, “Mapping Human Mobility (Migration, Displacement and Planned Relocation) and Climate Change in International Processes, Policies and Legal Frameworks,” August 2018, ; Chazalnoel and Ionesco, “IOM Perspectives on Climate Change and Migration.”

[34] Frances Nicholson and Judith Kumin, “A guide to international refugee protection and building state asylum systems,” Inter-Parliamentary Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Handbook for Parliamentarians no. 27, 2017, .

[36] African Union, “List of Countries Which Have Signed, Ratified/Acceded to the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa,” May 16, 2019, .

[37] OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, adopted by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government at its Sixth Ordinary Session, Addis-Ababa, 10 September 1969, .

[38] Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama November 22, 1984, 36, .

[39] Valentina Canepa and Daniela Gutierrez Escobedo, “Can Regional Refugee Definitions Help Protect People Displaced by Climate Change in Latin America?” Refugees International (blog), February 16, 2021, ; Luisa Feline Freier, Isabel Berganza, and Cécile Blouin, “The Cartagena Refugee Definition and Venezuelan Displacement in Latin America,” International Migration 60, no. 1 (2022): 18-36, .

[40] Canepa and Gutierrez Escobedo, “Can Regional Refugee Definitions Help Protect People Displaced by Climate Change in Latin America?”; Feline Freier, Berganza, and Blouin, “The Cartagena Refugee Definition and Venezuelan Displacement in Latin America.”

[41] Megan Bradley, “A Landmark for Human Rights: The Kampala Convention on Internal Displacement Comes into Effect,” Brookings Institution (blog), December 6, 2012, .

[42] UNHCR,“UNHCR welcomes Ethiopia’s ratification of Kampala Convention,” February 14, 2020, ; African Union, African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention), adopted by the Special Summit of the Union Kampala, Uganda 23rd October 2009, 13, .

[43] Eve Massingham, Angela Cotroneo, Livia Hadorn, and Alexandra Ortiz, “The Kampala Convention: key recommendations 10 years on,” Geneva, Switzerland: International Committee of the Red Cross, December 2019, . 

[44] IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development), “Protocol on Free Movement of Persons in the IGAD Region,” February 26, 2020, Khartoum, Sudan, 2, 11, .

[45] European Commission, “EUTF supports the Protocol on the Free movement of Persons in the IGAD region,” December 13, 2021, .

[46] League of Arab States, Arab Convention on Regulating Status of Refugees in the Arab Countries, 1994, .

[47] Maja Janmyr, “The 1951 Refugee Convention and Non-Signatory States: Charting a Research Agenda,” International Journal of Refugee Law 33, no. 2 (June 2021): 188–213, .

[48] ICAAD (International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination), “ICAAD Joins CSO Partners at the First-Ever Regional Climate Mobility Dialogue,” June 2022, .

[49] ILO (International Labour Organization), “High-level Dialogue on the New Regional Framework on Climate Mobility concludes,” June 24, 2022, .

[50] John Podesta, “The climate crisis, migration, and refugees,” Brookings Institution, July 25, 2019, .

[51] International Organization for Migration's Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, “Types of Migration: Environmental Migration,” last updated June 21, 2022, .

[52] IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre), “Displacement, disasters and climate change,” n.d, .

[53] Ibid; International Organization for Migration's Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, “Types of Migration: Environmental Migration.”

[54] Simon Behrman and Avidan Kent, eds. Climate Refugees: Global, Local and Critical Approaches, (Cambridge University Press, 2022). See Reglamento de la Ley de Migración, Diario Oficial de la Federación, September 28, 2012,

[55] Behrman and Kent, eds. Climate Refugees: Global, Local and Critical Approaches.

[56] Boletín Oficial de la República Argentina, “Dirección Nacional de Migraciones,” May 16, 2022, ; Argentine Republic, “Migraciones anunció ante la ONU un visado para desplazados por desastres socio-naturales de México,” Centroamérica y el Caribe, May 19, 2022, .  

[57] World Food Program, “The Dry Corridor,” n.d, .

[58] Suong Vong, “Protecting Climate Refugees is Crucial for the Future,” Humanity in Action, May 2017, .

[59] Helen Dempsten and Kayly Ober, “New Zealand's ‘Climate Refugee’ Visas: Lessons for the Rest of the World,” Center for Global Development (blog), January 10, 2020, .

[60] Erol Yayboke, Trevor Houser, Janina Staguhn, and Tani Salma, “A New Framework for U.S. Leadership on Climate Migration,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 23, 2020, .

[61] The White House, “Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration,” October 2021, .

[62] Clement, et al., “Groundswell Part II.”

[63] Oli Brown, “Migration and Climate change, 2008,” International Organization for Migration, Migration Research Series No. 31, .

[64] UNCHR, “Right to healthy environment,” April 12, 2022, .

This material may be quoted or reproduced without prior permission, provided appropriate credit is given to the author and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed herein are those of the individual author(s), and do not necessarily represent the views of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

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Who takes responsibility for the climate refugees?

International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management

ISSN : 1756-8692

Article publication date: 21 September 2017

Issue publication date: 2 January 2018

“No climate change, no climate refugees”. On the basis of this theme, this paper aims to propose a method for undertaking the responsibility for climate refugees literally uprooted by liable climate polluting countries. It also considers the historical past, culture, geopolitics, imposed wars, economic oppression and fragile governance to understand the holistic scenario of vulnerability to climate change.


This paper is organized around three distinct aspects of dealing with extreme climatic events – vulnerability as part of making the preparedness and response process fragile (past), climate change as a hazard driver (present) and rehabilitating the climate refugees (future). Bangladesh is used as an example that represents a top victim country to climatic extreme events from many countries with similar baseline characteristics. The top 20 countries accounting for approximately 82 per cent of the total global carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) emissions are considered for model development by analysing the parameters – per capita CO 2 emissions, ecological footprint, gross national income and human development index.

Results suggest that under present circumstances, Australia and the USA each should take responsibility of 10 per cent each of the overall global share of climate refugees, followed by Canada and Saudi Arabia (9 per cent each), South Korea (7 per cent) and Russia, Germany and Japan (6 per cent each). As there is no international convention for protecting climate refugees yet, the victims either end up in detention camps or are refused shelter in safer places or countries. There is a dire need to address the climate refugee crisis as these people face greater political risks.


This paper provides a critical overview of accommodating the climate refugees (those who have no means for bouncing back) by the liable countries. It proposes an innovative method by considering the status of climate pollution, resource consumption, economy and human development rankings to address the problem by bringing humanitarian justice to the ultimate climate refugees.

  • Displacement
  • Climate change
  • Climate justice
  • Climate refugee

Ahmed, B. (2018), "Who takes responsibility for the climate refugees?", International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management , Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 5-26.

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Bayes Ahmed

Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial & non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at .

1. Introduction

The International Federation of the Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political refugees trying to avoid wars and conflicts ( IFRC, 2009 ). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed that around 36 million people were displaced by natural hazard related disasters in 2009, and the number will increase to at least 50 million by 2050 ( UNHCR, 2016 ). The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) (2015) stated that more than 1.5 billion people were affected by disasters worldwide from 2005 to 2015. In addition, around 144 million people were displaced by disasters in between 2008 and 2014, and many of them were exacerbated by climate change with increasing frequency and intensity. Climate change and associated incremental level of extreme climatic disasters are now being widely accepted as a threat for mankind ( Hulme, 2016 ; IPCC, 2014 ). It is also acknowledged that communities in vulnerable regions are already facing limits in their capacity to adapt with those incremental climatic disasters ( Dow et al. , 2013 ). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) as one of the most dominant factors for global warming and consequently causing climate change ( IPCC, 2014 ). In particular, CO 2 emissions from cities are considered the single largest human contribution to climate change ( Duren and Miller, 2012 ). On an interesting note, as per the World Bank database 2014, only 10 countries emit 69 per cent of the world’s total of CO 2 , whereas 20 countries are responsible for producing 82 per cent of world’s total CO 2 emissions ( Table I ).

Bangladesh will be among the most affected countries in South Asia by an expected 2°C rise in the world’s average temperatures in the next decades, with rising sea levels and more extreme heat and more intense cyclones threatening food production, livelihoods and infrastructure as well as slowing the reduction on poverty ( The World Bank Group, 2013 ).

Around 34 million people will be affected and 22,000 sq. km. land area will be inundated by 150 cm of sea level rise that will occur in about 150 years or even earlier ( UNEP, 2014 ).

The extreme climatic events are responsible for migration and conflict in Bangladesh. This migration would be enough to cause conflict in today’s tumultuous environment in South Asia, add a few hundred million people to the mix, and it will be a ticking time bomb ( Litchfield, 2010 ).

In this article, Bangladesh is used as a case study. Bangladesh has been severely affected by climate change in recent decades, and it represents centuries of deprivation as a result of colonization, imposed war, economic repression and fragile governance that are considered as the root causes of vulnerability ( Wisner et al. , 2004 ; Lewis, 1999 ). The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) confirmed that the global level of CO 2 has passed 400 parts per million (PPM) for the first time (that is the point of no return) because of industrialization and fossil fuel burning, whereas the safe level of CO 2 in the atmosphere is 350 PPM ( NASA, 2013 ). This will worsen the impacts of climate change in present world and generations to come; and ultimately will trigger climate refugees. Therefore, it is high time to address these issues and develop a framework for taking the responsibilities by the liable countries in a common global platform.

planned relocation and resettlement;

resettlement instead of temporary asylum;

collective rights for local populations;

international assistance for domestic measures; and

international burden sharing.

There is also an urge to recognize climate refugees in international law and develop a convention for them. In reality, the liable countries are mistreating climate refugees in the absence of a formal recognition system ( UNHCR, 2016 ).

In contrast, the aim of this concept paper is to develop a method for taking responsibility of climate refugees by the top climate polluting countries. In this article, climate refugees are defined as “people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming” ( National Geographic Society, 2016 ). This paper also takes into account the history of oppression that made Bangladesh socio-economically vulnerable to tackle upcoming disasters by hindering the preparation of emergency management plans and disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies. For example, Hurricane Matthew, which struck Haiti in October 2016, killed at least 1,000 people, displaced 175,000 people, affected 894,057 children, placed 80,600 people at the extreme level of food insecurity, resulted in 5,840 suspected cholera cases (until 5 November 2016) and affected approximately 2.1 million people. The same intensity hurricane caused much less damage in the USA ( OCHA, 2016 ), a country that has much better emergency management, warning and evacuation plans as compared to Haiti. Hence, the question – “Why is Haiti lacking DRR plans?” It is obviously related to past oppressions by various colonisations and wars that made Haiti a vulnerable country to address the disasters. It proves that the historical past, geopolitics, uninvited wars, economic repression, governance, external forces and cultural aspects are vital in analysing vulnerability and its relation to disasters ( Wisner et al. , 2004 ; Alexander, 2000 ; Hewitt, 1983 ; Lewis, 1999 ; O’Keefe et al. , 1976 ; Kru¨ger et al. , 2015 ).

2. Theoretical framework

2.1 who consumes the planet’s resources.

With increasing human activities, the consumption of resources and production of wastes are increasing simultaneously. The ecological footprint helps to calculate human pressure on the planet. The consumption pattern of the earth’s resources on a world map reveals that the citizens from the most industrialized countries are consuming more, and the least developed countries have less impact on the planet. The bio-capacity per person on earth is currently 1.7 global hectares, which should be equal to the world’s ecological footprint. Bangladeshi citizens use almost 50 per cent less resources than the planet’s average. On the contrary, a total of approximately 5.5 planets would be required to fulfil the Australian citizens’ resource needs ( Global Footprint Network, 2016 ). In other words, if everyone lived the lifestyle of an average UK standard, then three additional planets would be needed. Hence, it has to be asked – “How is it possible that the citizens of industrialized countries are surviving? Where are they getting the additional resources from? Are they doing any harm to planet earth? Who is going to suffer ultimately?”

2.2 Who causes climate change?

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of GHGs are the highest in history (2000-2010) (p. 2).

An increase in warm temperature extremes, an increase in extreme high sea levels and an increase in the number of heavy precipitation events are evident in a number of regions (e.g. all these events are already distinct in Bangladesh) (p. 7).

Continued emissions of GHGs will cause further warming and it would cause increasing likelihood of severe and irreversible impacts on people and ecosystems (p.8). Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks (p.13).

The global mean surface temperature change for the end of the twenty-first century (2081-2100) is projected to likely exceed 1.5°C to 2°C, extreme precipitation events over the wet tropical regions will very likely become more intense and more frequent, the global ocean will continue to warm and the sea level will continue to rise at the rate of 8-16 mm/year (pp.60-62).

About 70 per cent of the coastlines worldwide are projected to experience significant increase in sea level rise (p.62), and this applies to the coastlines of Bangladesh.

Despite a number of mitigation policies undertaken, it is clear that the negative impacts of climate change are mounting alarmingly ( Kelman, 2010 ). It is mentioned “climate change can make some hazards worse, for example, tropical cyclones seem to be decreasing in frequency but increasing in intensity due to climate change” ( Kelman, 2016 ). This kind of less frequent cyclone with higher intensity has the greatest potential to initiate catastrophic disasters. It is also obvious that:

[…] coastal Bangladesh will be seriously affected by climate change over the next decades, with elevated air and sea temperatures, sea-level rise and more intense cyclones all threatening livelihoods and lives ( Ahmed et al. , 2016 ; Brammer, 2014 ).

To tackle the negative impacts of climate change on local communities and vulnerable groups (including the coastal communities, small island states, women, youth, indigenous people, poor people, disabled and the elderly), the “Climate Justice” initiative brought some hope. The climate justice concept with a formal framework first came into light at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Bali in June 2002. The 27 principles of climate justice were developed by a coalition at the summit ( CorpWatch, 2002 ). It added:

[…] the biggest injustice of climate change is that the hardest hit are the least responsible for contributing to the problem, and climate change is being caused primarily by the industrialized and transnational corporations ( CorpWatch, 2002 ; Before the flood, 2016 ).

The principles highlighted on getting rid of climate change impacts, reducing the GHGs, influence of the transitional corporations on decision-making, lack of liability of the fossil fuel and extractive industries and arranging compensation for the climate victims. It also calls for a ban on new fossil fuel, nuclear power and large hydro schemes exploitation. Instead, generating sustainable energy resources, increasing the need for women’s rights, promoting relevant education, consuming resources sensibly and creating a healthy planet for the future generations are required ( CorpWatch, 2002 ). Principles 7, 8 and 9 of the document call for the recognition of an ecological debt that the industrialized governments and transitional corporations owe the rest of the world, identifies them liable for all past and current life-cycle impacts and affirms the rights of the climate change victims and associated injustices to receive full compensation, restoration and reparation of loss of land, livelihood and other damages ( CorpWatch, 2002 ; Goodman, 2009 ). This conveys the idea of bringing justice to the ultimate climate victims – the climate refugees. One central theme of climate justice is taking responsibility of the climate refugees by the polluting countries, and rehabilitating them properly ( Okereke, 2010 ). This is the core concept of this paper, based on the principles of climate justice.

2.3 Impacts of climate change in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of the countries in the world worst hit by climate change. Due to the changes in rainfall and temperature pattern, hydro-meteorological disasters are becoming more frequent in Bangladesh, e.g. cyclones, tidal surges, flooding, sea level rise, coastal and riverbank erosion, ground and surface water scarcity, salinity intrusion, drought, heat stress and rainfall induced landslides and flash flooding. The climate induced extreme weather events and associated disasters are causing problems such as land soil degradation, loss of crops and agricultural productivity, food insecurity, water borne diseases, threatening livelihoods, gender inequality, stress on human health, human displacement and migration, social instability, unemployment, poverty and ultimately triggering conflicts ( Ahmed et al. , 2016 ; McPherson, 2015 ; Shamsudduha, 2013 ; Watts et al. , 2015 ).

For example, hundreds of villages and several districts were severely affected by flooding in Bangladesh in July 2016. The disastrous situation lasted for few months, and approximately 4 million people were stranded by floodwater, losing their houses and crops. As a result, they were forced to leave their homesteads and take temporary shelter in nearby highlands (in highways), where they live under appalling conditions, with serious threats from road traffic accidents and other health hazards. They have lost their livelihoods, schools are closed, their houses are destroyed and many are without hope. It will likely take these refugees some months to recover even partially from these shocks; and by the time they are settled-down, it appears that another similar intense-disaster is knocking at the door. On the other hand, the tropical cyclones and associated tidal surges are usual in the coastal region (with approximately 580 km of coastline) of Bangladesh that has nearly 28 million people with an average density of 853 people per sq. km. The magnitudes of increasing global warming are causing serious problems to the coastal communities ( Ahmed et al. , 2016 ; Mallick et al. , 2017 ) by triggering frequent tropical cyclones and coastal area inundation. Almost every year, the coastal communities or the coastal rural villages are washed out by cyclones. Most recently, monsoon rains have triggered flooding across 19 districts (out of 64) in north-eastern Bangladesh and killed at least 120 people as of 21 August 2017. Hundreds of villages are now under water and at least 50 million people are seriously affected. Again, deadly landslides triggered by torrential monsoon rains in south-eastern Bangladesh are estimated to have claimed at least 160 lives in June 2017. This landslide disaster occurred just two weeks after the Cyclone Mora killed 9 people and caused significant damages in the coastal belt of Bangladesh ( ReliefWeb, 2017 ). Thus, river flooding, flash flooding, landslides, storm surges and cyclones devastate at least one-third of Bangladesh each year. Climate change impacts have the potential to exacerbate this catastrophic hydro-meteorological disaster scenario in Bangladesh.

It is estimated that around 6 million people were either seriously affected or displaced by the climate-induced disasters in Bangladesh in recent years ( UNU-EHS, 2015 ). The displaced population from the disaster hit areas or the climate refugees were forced to leave their homes, migrate to urban areas and end up living in slums that are highly exposed to other hazards like flooding and water pollution ( Martin et al. , 2012 ). The major cities in Bangladesh are getting bigger due to this excessive in-migration and population pressure, and are expanding rapidly. This is causing unplanned urbanization, degrading the natural vegetation and water bodies. The largest cities are now highly vulnerable to urban life problems like waterlogging, flash flooding, encroachment of floodplain areas, development of informal settlements, urban heat islands, urban landslides, traffic jams, air and water pollution and scarcity of drinking water, even as the city dwellers lack other city life facilities ( Ahmed and Dewan, 2017 ; Alam and Mullick, 2014 ; Ahmed, 2015 ; Ahmed et al. , 2013 ). All these problems are evident in Dhaka city, the capital of Bangladesh. As a result, Dhaka was ranked as one of the worst liveable cities in the world in previous consecutive years ( Ahmed and Ahmed, 2012 ; McPherson, 2015 ). Hence, extreme climate disasters in the rural parts of the country are indirectly making the major urban agglomerations highly vulnerable to urban disasters ( Figure 1 ).

2.4 The forgotten past

Today, Bangladesh is listed as one of the least developed countries in the world. The Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of Bangladesh is only US$1,190, as compared to US$60,100 for Australia in 2015 ( World Bank, 2016 ). No country becomes poor and vulnerable in a day; and in the case of Bangladesh, it was a result of centuries-long history of invasion, colonization, unwanted and imposed wars and systematic oppression, thus forcing the people to become socio-economically vulnerable. Historical states/dynasties (currently part of modern countries) that invaded Bengal between 600 AD and 1800 AD can be listed as follows: 610-625 Kannauj (India), 740 Kannauj (India), 741-750 Kashmir (India/Pakistan/China), 780-790 Tibet (China/India/Bhutan), 840-850 Gurjar Dynasty (India), 891-915 Gurjar Dynasty (India), 1020-1081 Chola Dynasty (India), 1203-1338 Delhi Sultanate (India), 1212-1264 Kalinga (India), 1353-1355 Delhi Sultanate (India), 1358-1359 Delhi Sultanate (India), 1528-1666 Portuguese Empire, 1539-1555 Shuri Dynasty (India), 1576-1711 Mughal Dynasty (India), 1610 Dutch Empire, 1690 British Empire, 1692 French Empire, 1757 British Empire, 1763 Dutch Empire and so on ( Stewart, 1813 ; Majumdar and Sarkar, 1943 ; Majumdar, 1977 ).

Most notably, Bangladesh as part of the Indian subcontinent, suffered approximately 200 years of British subjugation (including 100 years of East Indian Company’s military dominance) from 1757 to 1947. Out of thousands of problems triggered by the British Empire, the most significant one was the Great Bengal Famine (1769-1773) that caused at least 10 million deaths and the population of Bengal was declined by a third. As mentioned by Sir William Wilson Hunter in his book, The Annals of Rural Bengal in 1897, “In the cold weather of the 1769, Bengal was visited by a famine whose ravages two generation failed to repair” ( Hunter, 1897 , p. 19). During the British colonization era, most of the disasters were man-made. For example, back in the 1770s, the indigo planting (also known as capitalist plantations) became commercially profitable because of its demand for blue-dye in Europe. Hence, Bengal peasants were forced to cultivate indigo by the British indigo planters, instead of food crops. It caused the peasants to become landless, and subsequently severe food crises emerged as the lands became arid and the profits all went to England. Following the Indigo Revolt of Bengal, the Indigo Commission was formed in 1860 to inquire into the grievances. The commission chairman described it as - “a system of bloodshed”, and confessed “not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood” ( Bhattacharya, 1977 ). Disputes like these were followed by the great famines of 1866 (claimed 135,000 lives), 1876-1878 (5.5 million people died), the Indian famine of 1896-1902 (19 million) and other famines ( Currey, 1979 ). Lastly, the Bengal Famine of 1943 caused at least 1-3 million deaths, which was mentioned as “possibly the biggest famine in the last hundred years” ( Sen, 1977 ). Interestingly, the then British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill said, “Britain could not spare the ships to transport emergency supplies” and he is still blamed for allowing more than a million deaths due to starvation. Today, it is well accepted that “the British Empire was based on the exploitation, murder and devastation of people across the globe” ( Andrews, 2016 ).

India’s (Bangladesh was a part of it) global share of economy dropped to 4 from 23 per cent during the British Colonization ( Tharoor, 2016 ). After the partition in 1947, Bangladesh faced 24 years of economic oppression by West Pakistan that ended after nine months of a bloody liberation war with 3 million deaths in 1971 ( Liberation War Museum, 2016 ). Just before the liberation, on 12 November 1970, the coastal area of Bangladesh was struck by a devastating cyclone killing at least 300,000 people ( Huq, 2016 ). The freshly liberated country was then war-torn and suffering from an acute economic crisis with no preparations to tackle the disasters. Later, the country faced another famine in 1974 that caused the loss of 27,000 lives ( Currey, 1979 ). Floods and droughts along with the long-lasting unwilling wars, geopolitical unrest and questionable governance were the root causes of these famines, cyclones and flooding disasters in Bangladesh. At present, there is no war in Bangladesh, and the country is addressing similar disasters seamlessly, but the impacts of climate change are striking the country’s territory in a much more brutal way, putting the local communities in a miserable situation with reduced adaptation capability. Though Bangladesh has now managed to get rid of the foreign invasions, the extreme climatic events and associated incremental disasters due to external forces like climate change are now compared to modern day colonization as it is damaging the national economy and livelihoods.

2.5 Rising from the ashes

The combination of 315 years of British enslavement and Pakistani Army Dictatorship left the Bangladeshi people with nothing to fight the imposed poverty ( Tharoor, 2016 ). In the last few decades, Bangladesh has moved forward quite progressively. The country’s life expectancy at birth has increased to 72 years in 2014 (82 years for Australia in 2014) from only 46 years, back in 1960. In Bangladesh, the gross enrolment at primary school, for both sexes, was only 55 per cent in 1970, but that has increased to 112 per cent in 2011 ( The World Bank, 2016 ), surpassing most of the developed countries (in Australia 106 per cent, and in the USA 100 per cent).

Over the past few decades, Bangladesh has also achieved remarkable progress in public health and the empowerment of women. According to Amartya Sen:

[…] it is important to understand how a country that was extremely poor a few decades ago, and is still very poor, can make such remarkable accomplishments particularly in the field of health, but also in social transformation in general ( Sen, 2013 ).

Numerous government programmes, the poverty alleviation initiatives undertaken by the world’s largest non-governmental organization (NGO) originated in Bangladesh – BRAC – and the micro-credit revolution by the Grameen Bank (bank for the poor) made it possible to achieve these goals in a relatively short time. As the founder of Grameen Bank, Professor Muhammad Yunus first introduced lending micro-credits to rural women without any financial security to fight poverty. It helped them get access to credit, ushered women empowerment and reduced poverty – for which Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2006, the first Bangladeshi to achieve this prestigious award. His pioneer initiative, the “Social Business” concept, is also helping in eradicating unemployment from Bangladesh ( Yunus, 2003 ).

In recent times, Bangladesh has also managed to reduce the drought-related food crisis as farmers are growing four varieties of crops in a year. This magical “four crop rotation” has partially solved the famine problems in the high areas of the country’s north. Hence, Bangladesh has progressed with ensuring food security more than ever before ( Seraj, 2016 ). Bangladesh has also progressed substantially in addressing disaster risk reduction in the coastal region. For example, most recently during Cyclone Roanu, which hit the coast of Bangladesh on 22 May 2016, around 26 people died. In 1970 and 1991, cyclones of similar strengths killed around 300,000 and 100,000 people respectively. This reduction in deaths has been possible because of the initiatives undertaken by the government, such as constructing embankments and cyclone shelters in the coastal areas, developing reliable early warning systems, training the local communities to tackle the disasters and creating alternative livelihood options ( Ahmed et al. , 2016 ). Despite bitter experiences in the past, Bangladesh is progressing well, with a vision to eradicate poverty by 2021. But the unexpected and enforced global-warming-related extreme climatic events are hindering the country’s sustainable development progress. At present, the increasing number of climate-change-related disasters is causing more problems than ever ( Afsar, 2003 ; Dasgupta et al. , 2009 , 2016 ). This issue needs to be addressed seriously to ensure the pace of improvement works accomplished by Bangladesh in recent decades is maintained, and for ensuring a sustainable development.

2.6 Combating climate change

Just 62 individuals (down from 388 individuals in 2010) had the same wealth as the bottom half of humanity.

Since 2010, the wealth of the richest 62 people has increased by 45 per cent; and the wealth of the bottom half dropped by 38 per cent.

This squeezing trend of global economy is horrifying, and it indicates that the rich are getting richer and poor are becoming poorer; and the world’s net wealth is being concentrated. Professor Muhammad Yunus had pointed out this problem and asked for a review of the world’s current economic system. This is an example of how the current global economic system can make other countries economically vulnerable. In addition to this, over exploitation of resources and, thus, emissions of CO 2 by the industrialized countries trigger climate change. The IPCC as part of its future pathways for adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development has clearly signposted that, “adaptation can reduce the risks of climate change impacts, but there are limits to its effectiveness, especially with greater magnitudes and rates of climate change” ( IPCC, 2014 , p. 79). This scenario applies to Bangladesh, and the county is now seeing an overwhelming increase in the number of climate refugees than previously recorded. It is becoming impossible for the climate victims to return to their normal livelihoods in the disaster affected areas ( Siddiqui et al. , 2014 ). The biggest challenges in the upcoming years to combat climate change and implement effective initiatives like the COP21 agreement include the global monopoly of the economic system, and the negligence by a major portion of politicians and corporations ( Johnston, 2016 ). Figure 2 depicts how Bangladesh (a victim country for an example) became socio-economically vulnerable after centuries of inflicted wars and tyranny by the developed world, and how Bangladesh is now facing discriminating problems because of the climate-change-induced extreme events that are externally being triggered by the same developed world. This vicious cycle of oppression, disaster and poverty is hindering the overall sustainable development and DRR progress in Bangladesh.

2.7 Addressing climate refugees and climate migration

It is projected that over the next 40 years (from 2011 to 2050), around 16 to 26 million people are likely to migrate long-term from areas affected by inland flooding, storm surges and riverbank erosion in Bangladesh. Among them, a significant portion would migrate solely due to climate change, and the remaining, due to the current context of climatic disasters, economic needs and population growth. These figures are expected to be even larger considering the shorter term and circular migration ( Siddiqui et al. , 2013 ). It proves population movement or migration due to extreme climatic events in Bangladesh is becoming evident. Every year millions of Bangladeshi migrate both internally and internationally for various reasons. Many of those climate extreme displaced people later convert as labour migrants and move internationally. The labour migrants contribute significantly to the national economy by sending remittances that are higher than direct foreign investment ( Siddiqui 2010 ). Traditionally, migration is treated with fear, but the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) at University of Dhaka has suggested that migration should be considered one of the climate change adaptation techniques ( Siddiqui, 2010 ). RMMRU found that a major section of people move from rural to urban areas due to environmental or climatic stresses. Such migration should not be treated as a failure to adapt locally; rather, it should be well accepted as a survival strategy ( Siddiqui et al. , 2014 ).

Recent estimates suggest that by 2050, one in every 45 people in the world ( Brown, 2008 ) and one in every 7 people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change ( CDMP II, 2014 ). In the context of Bangladesh, climate refugees are those who have lost their homestead, arable land or livelihoods in the rural settings after extreme climatic disasters. In most cases, climate refugees internally migrate to urban areas in search of livelihoods and living. In the long run, they convert to economic migrants, and many of them travel to foreign countries as labour migrants. As climate-induced displacement is evident at the national and international levels, climate migration should be treated with respect under the present global warming and climate change context. Climate refugees should also be entitled to democratic accountability, ecological sustainability and social justice ( CorpWatch, 2002 ). In 2015, the Government of Bangladesh developed a “National Strategy on the Management of Disaster and Climate-Induced Internal Displacement (NSMDCIID)” to address the multiple human rights challenges faced by the migrating people in the aftermath of climatic disasters ( NSMDCIID, 2015 ). This is a great achievement in terms of recognizing the climate refugees and climate migration in Bangladesh, although it only concentrates on internally displaced or migrated population caused by climatic hazards. This should be considered the first milestone, but there is still a need to develop such formal strategies through international consensus to share the burden and responsibilities of climate refugees by the top climate polluting countries ( Table I ).

3. Methodology

The primary aim of this paper is to propose a model for resettling climate refugees in the liable countries that are producing most CO 2 and thus polluting the climate. There is an international convention (i.e. 1951 Refugee Convention) for a refugee who has been forced to flee her or his country because of armed conflict or prosecution ( UNHCR, 2016 ). Yet, there is no international convention for the climate and associated economic refugees ( Biermann and Boas, 2010 ). Hence, climate refugees face greater political risks than refugees who flee their homes due to conflict or political oppression ( National Geographic Society, 2016 ). Climate refugees have no place to go and ultimately end-up in refugee detention camps ( Warner, 2010 ). The 44th US President Barack Obama was highly concerned about the increase of extreme climatic events due to climate change, and the consequent influx of the huge number of climate refugees is being considered as a serious threat to US national security ( Before the Flood, 2016 ).

In a world of “polluters pay”, it is the liable countries that need to take responsibility for climate refugees. It is also well accepted that achieving resilience is the possible solution to address these problems, but resilience is a multi-scale agenda ( Ahmed et al. , 2016 ). Resilience varies from global to individual level. For example, since the great Bhola cyclone in 1970, vulnerable communities in Bangladesh have learned how to cope with the changing climate and frequent natural hazards like flooding, cyclones and drought. To tackle the catastrophic problems numerous international and national organizations are also working at local level ( Table II ). Now the country has emergency management and contingency plans at community level, many of the community people are trained and they have alternative livelihood options ( Ahmed et al. , 2016 ). In contrast, there remains no international recognition for climate refugees and climate financing. Consequently, due to the mismanagement at global and regional stages, the overall resilience process is being hampered at household to individual level in Bangladesh ( Table II ).

On the basis of the above discussions, a total mismanagement is apparent in achieving global level resilience, which results in the need for the development of an action plan for addressing problems associated with climate refugees ( Platje and Kampen, 2016 ). Amnesty International estimates that climatic extreme events will increase the number of people on the move across borders. They will meet the legal definition of refugees, and the most responsible countries for climate change should support them ( Carvalho, 2015 ). A climate refugee settlement action plan should be added as part of future climate action initiatives similar to the carbon tax and climate finance ( Before the Flood, 2016 ). On human rights grounds, there is a need for resettling climate refugees in the liable countries. That results in the question – “Who will take what proportion of the climate refugees?” The proposed method considers the top climate polluting countries ( Table I ). For the purpose of model development, the affected countries are all termed as “VICTIM” (the parameter values were chosen for Bangladesh as a case study). On the basis of the data availability, the model can incorporate all other victim or affected countries.

Four parameters were identified as relevant for constructing the climate refugee settlement model: per capita CO 2 emissions (2011), per capita GNI (2015), human development index (HDI) 2014 and per capita planet’s resource consumption. It has already been discussed that the countries responsible for climate change are producing more CO 2 , are consuming more resources (Pearson’s r = 0.85) and are better off in terms of economic conditions ( r = 0.63) and living standards ( r = 0.67). The values for each parameter of the countries included were collected from the most reliable sources ( The World Bank, 2016 ; UNDP, 2015 ). The parameters relating to CO 2 emissions and ecological footprints were used for identifying the countries polluting the climate (thus generating climate refugees), and GNI and HDI were used for measuring the refugee intake strength of the liable countries. Both of these categories were combined with adjusted weights to calculate the total climate refugee responsibility by each liable country. It is also assumed that a particular country that is polluting the climate excessively (by emitting CO 2 and with higher ecological footprints) may not be socio-economically capable to take in a proportion of the refugees. This proposed model neutralizes this uncertainty by adding both the economic (GNI) and social development strata (HDI) in distributing the climate refugees.

The parameter values were in different units. Hence, the original values are normalized using a scale (i.e. 0 to 1). The scale is applied for better understanding and for comparing the parameters with each other. The normalized value of e i for the parameter P in the i th row is calculated by applying Equation (1) : (1) N o r m a l i z e d   ( e i ) =   e i −   P m i n P m a x −   P m i n where, P min = the minimum value for parameter P and P max = the maximum value for parameter P.

In the next step, the selected parameters and indicators were assigned weights to reflect the degree of influence. As this calculation is related to climate justice, the indicator – per capita CO 2 production – is given 60 per cent weight, followed by 20 per cent weight for the ecological footprint and 10 per cent weight for the remaining two parameters each (a total of 100 per cent). Assuming that a total of 50,000 people were severely affected, displaced and lost their livelihoods because of climatic extreme disasters in the “VICTIM” category in a certain year with no options for them to bounce back, Table III represents the polluters’ statistics for the same year. The next question to ask is – “Which liable countries will take what proportion of the 50,000 climate refugees?” The calculation for the climate refugee distribution for each parameter is calculated by applying Equation (2) : (2) C l i m a t e   R e f u g e e   P r o p o r t i o n =   [ T o t a l   R e f u g e e   ×   P a r a m e t e r   W e i g h t 100 ]   ×   P a r a m e t e r   S c a l e   V a l u e T o t a l   S c a l e   V a l u e   f o r   t h e   P a r a m e t e r

4. Results and discussions

After applying Equation (1) to all the parameters, the values are now comparable ( Table III ). In case of GNI per capita, it is clear that Australia is the most economically developed (with a normalized scale value of 1) and the “VICTIM” (with a normalized scale value of 0) is the least economically developed country ( Table III ).

After applying Equation (2) to Table III with a pre-defined weight for each of the parameters, the distribution of the victim countries among the responsible or top climate polluting countries is estimated. It is calculated that under current circumstances, Australia is responsible for taking in the greatest number of climate refugees (i.e. 4,994) followed by the USA (4,870), Canada (4,269), Saudi Arabia (4,258) and so on, as shown in Table IV . In other words, Australia and the USA each should take sole responsibility for 10 out of every 100 climate refugees a year, followed by Canada and Saudi Arabia 9, South Korea 7; Russia, Germany and Japan 6; and so on, as shown in Table IV .

The United Nations (UN) predicts that up to 250 million people might be displaced by climate change by the year 2050. The report also highlights that climate change is impacting the entire planet, raising the risk of hunger and conflict ( UN, 2014 ). In May 2016, five islands were lost due to sea level rise in the Solomon Islands. Kiribati purchased 20 sq. km of land in Fiji in 2014, and the Maldives are also planning to purchase land in another country ( Caramel, 2014 ). These are some of the examples on how some nations are responding to climate change impacts. A Kiribati national lost his asylum appeal in May 2014 in a New Zealand Court, which could have made him the world’s first-ever “climate change refugee”. The rejection was possible due to the absence of climate induced refugee issues in the 1951 Refugee Convention ( UN, 2014 ). Hence, the UNHCR has shown serious concern on accommodating climate refugees in safer places or countries and recognizing them as refugees. The model of undertaking responsibility for climate refugees by the liable countries as proposed in this article could be the first step towards the start of negotiations at various UN, international and national platforms.

5. Conclusions

When only 62 billionaires have more combined wealth than the bottom half of the world population, only 10 countries are producing 69 per cent of the world’s total of carbon dioxide, and these countries are consuming most of the world’s resources and consequently generating more wastes, then the least developed and world’s poorest countries carry the burden of the polluters in the form of climate-change impacts. These cause serious damage to the national economies of victim countries. On 14 November 2016, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that 2016 will be hottest year on record, breaking temperatures in 2015 ( WMO, 2016 ). The NASA scientists projected this trend earlier in 2016 ( Lynch, 2016 ). In a recently published article, scientists mentioned that it could be “game over” for planet earth if humans continue to ignore climate change because temperatures could rise by between 4.78°C to 7.36°C by 2100 ( Friedrich et al. , 2016 ). Recently, the renowned American philosopher Noam Chomsky has warned that the US Republican party is now “the most dangerous organisation in world history” because of their denial of climate change ( Johnston, 2016 ). Unfortunately, there are still some scientists and academics that believe in climate change, but they purposively deny of the existence of climate refugees.

A method for considering the relevant parameters and assigning weights to the indicators to calculate the climate refugee distribution.

An internationally recognized legal convention for climate refugees to resettle them in responsible countries considering relevant social, cultural and ecological aspects.

An immediate short-term shelter plan in neighbouring countries in case of urgency, and a long-term resettlement plan in the liable countries, as needed.

A monitoring system for identifying disasters solely triggered by climate change, and calculating the number of displaced people without sustainable livelihood and adaptation options to survive in affected areas or in the country of origin.

A cumulative monitoring system for measuring those countries consuming more resources and producing more CO 2 within a given timeframe.

A system for penalizing the responsible countries immediately to provide humanitarian assistance in the victim countries.

A system to compensate the victim countries for the loss and damages occurred due to disasters induced by climate change, and finally to undertake plans to resettle them and so forth.

This research is motivated to identify the countries that are responsible to resettle climate change induced refugees, and this is the central argument. There is no such indication to claim that the developed countries should solely bear the consequences of climate refugees; rather, neutral opinion is depicted based on evidence, published literature and fieldwork experiences. It is also admitted that there would be extreme weather events in Bangladesh even if the climate had not changed. This is true; however, this article assumes that the intensity and frequency of climate extreme disasters have increased in Bangladesh and consequently in other victim countries due to climate change ( IPCC, 2014 ; Kelman, 2010 ). Those victim countries are responsible for the additional and unwanted disasters created by climate change ( Siddiqui, 2010 ), and the liable countries should pay for polluting the climate and share the burden proportionally. Some would argue that the effects are all forecasted for the future. This is not true; climate change is real and happening right now ( Gillett et al. , 2003 ; Duren and Miller, 2012 ), and the affected communities have already exceeded their limits of adaptation with the changing climate ( Hulme, 2016 ; Dow et al. , 2013 ). Some would also argue that climate- and weather-related adversities usually cause migration only within a country, and often just temporarily. This statement is also not true; there is ample evidence that climatic-disaster-affected populations migrate both internally ( Afsar, 2003 ; Siddiqui, 2010 ; BBS, 2015 ) and internationally ( Siddiqui et al. , 2014 ; Warner, 2010 ; Litchfield, 2010 ; Mallick & Etzold, 2015 ).

This paper also highlights events that Bangladesh has been subjected to by other countries over the centuries. It covers a range of topics for which Bangladesh is owed reparations. Question may arise how any of these topics relate to climate change or migration. This is a major issue known as the “Root Causes of Vulnerability” that needs to be understood properly ( Wisner et al. , 2004 ; O’Keefe et al. , 1976 ; Kru¨ger et al. , 2015 ; Rahman and Kausel, 2013 ). Countries with stronger economic and social capital are more likely to tackle the impacts of climate-change-induced disasters than the countries that are economically fragile. In many cases, socio-economic fragility was originally generated because of historical past and oppression. This statement is true in the case of Bangladesh. For example, due to unwanted colonization, imposed wars and centuries of socio-economic injustice Bangladesh failed to undertake disaster mitigation measures like constructing cyclone shelters in coastal regions, training people how to evacuate safely before a cyclone strikes, creating alternative livelihood options after the cyclone and failed in preparing emergency plans at various local and national levels. For instance, a cyclone with similar intensity and geographic location caused at least 300,000 deaths in Bhola Island in 1970, though only 26 deaths was reported after the Cyclone Roanu in 2016 ( Ahmed et al. , 2016 ; Huq, 2016 ). There are many such examples all over the world, including Haiti. Hence, it is important to admit the root causes of vulnerability and analyse how it relates to achieving resilience (short-term) and adaptation strategies (long-term) from community to local levels. Finally, it is important to identify which groups of people are affected by climate change events, and which groups are parts of the baseline. This can form the basis for future and continued research into who should take responsibility for climate refugees.

climate refugees thesis

The frequently hit major climate induced disaster prone areas of Bangladesh

climate refugees thesis

The pathways to achieve sustainable development goals by addressing the climate change impacts in Bangladesh

List of countries producing most CO 2

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Siddiqui , T. , Islam , M.T. , Kniveton , D. , Black , R. and Martin , M. 2013 , “ The staggering scale of climate-related migration and the need for pro-poor policies ”. Climate change-related migration in Bangladesh, briefing paper no. 5, the Sussex Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex, UK and Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit , University of Dhaka .

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Further reading

Marshall , P. ( 2011 ), The British Presence in India in the 18th Century , The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) , London .


Bayes Ahmed is a Commonwealth Scholar funded by the UK Government. The author thanks Gillian Dacey for proofreading this manuscript, and specially thanks the two anonymous reviewers and the editors for their constructive comments.

Corresponding author

About the author.

Bayes Ahmed ( ) is currently working as a Research Associate at the UCL Humanitarian Institute. He is also affiliated as a Lecturer at the Department of Disaster Science and Management at University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Recently, he has worked with the communities vulnerable to flooding and landslides in Ladakh, India; earthquakes in Manta, Ecuador; droughts in Naogaon, Bangladesh; and cyclones in the coastal belt of Bangladesh. His PhD thesis at UCL is focused on community vulnerability to landslides in the Chittagong Hill Districts of Bangladesh. He has successfully finished his PhD in Disaster Risk Reduction from UCL in September 2017. Before that he obtained a joint MSc in Geospatial Technologies from Spain, Germany and Portugal in 2011, and a Bachelor of Urban & Regional Planning (BURP) degree from Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET) in 2008. He is a Commonwealth and European Commission scholar.

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Climate refugees – the world’s forgotten victims


Migrant climate refugees seeking asylum from Honduras and Guatemala. Image:  REUTERS/Adrees Latif

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  • Data on climate refugees – those forced to flee due to disasters and other weather events – is limited, which is why they’re called the “forgotten victims of climate change”.
  • Australian think tank IEP predicts that at least 1.2 billion people could be displaced by such climate-related events by 2050.
  • There is an urgent need to clarify the definition of climate change refugees, including comprehensive data on IDPs, and create an international mechanism to protect them.

As the global climate crisis worsens, an increasing number of people are being forced to flee their homes due to natural disasters, droughts, and other weather events. These people are sometimes called “climate refugees”. Who are these climate refugees? And how can the international community properly address this issue?

Have you read?

How climate change exacerbates the refugee crisis – and what can be done about it, climate change is going to make the refugee crisis much worse, is the global refugee crisis linked to climate change, who are climate refugees.

Today, many people in developing countries are suffering from droughts and windstorms on a scale never seen before, depriving them of daily food and basic needs. It is still fresh in our memories that last November many people from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, which were hit by two massive hurricanes, poured across the border into Mexico and headed toward the US border.

The term “climate refugees” was first coined to describe the increasing large-scale migration and cross-border mass movements of people that were partly caused by such weather-related disasters.

In April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released data showing that the number of people displaced by climate change-related disasters since 2010 has risen to 21.5 million, pointing out that “in addition to sudden disasters, climate change is a complex cause of food and water shortages, as well as difficulties in accessing natural resources.”

Sea-level rise is another threat. 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. For example, in Bangladesh 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.

The Ecosystem Threat Register (ETR) released in September 2018 by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), an Australian international think tank, points out that at least 1.2 billion people could be displaced by these threats by 2050. In this context, the international response to the problem has gradually begun to progress.


A global response

The Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration , adopted by the UN in 2018, clearly states that one of the factors causing large-scale movements of people is “the adverse impacts of climate change and environmental degradation,” which includes natural disasters, desertification, land degradation, drought and rising sea levels. For migrants who are forced to leave their countries of origin due to environmental degradation, the compact clearly states that governments should work to protect climate refugees in the countries of their arrival by devising planned relocation and visa options if adaptation and return is not possible in their countries of origin.

Earlier, in March 2018, the UN Human Rights Council adopted an outcome document that discussed the issue of cross-border movement of people brought about by climate crises from the perspective of human rights protection.

The document pointed out that there are many people who do not fit the definition of “refugees” among those who are forced to migrate long distances and cross borders due to climate impacts, and that the legal system to protect their human rights is inadequate, as the “non-refoulement principle”, which states that people who have crossed borders should not be deported or repatriated to their original countries against their will, is not applied. It then urged governments to “incorporate the concept of human rights protection into the planning and implementation of climate change measures,” including preventing large-scale displacement by allowing people to live in conditions that protect their human rights, and promoting human rights-conscious planned relocation as a means of adapting to climate change.

The decision made by the UN Commission on Human Rights in January 2018 also attracted a great deal of attention from those concerned.

Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati, an island nation in the South Pacific that is in danger of losing its land due to rising sea levels, applied for refugee status as a “climate refugee” with the New Zealand government, but his application was rejected and he was repatriated to Kiribati in 2015. In 2016, he filed a complaint with the UN Covenant on Civil Liberties, claiming that his right to life had been violated by the repatriation.

Although the Committee upheld the New Zealand government's decision, stating that Mr Teitiota was not facing an imminent threat to his life, it acknowledged that “the effects of climate change”, such as rising sea levels, “pose a serious threat to the right to life of people living in countries like Kiribati.” It concluded that national courts and others must take this into account when challenging the repatriation of migrants to their countries of origin. The decision held that people facing climate change impacts that violate their right to life cannot be repatriated to their country of origin. The decision has been hailed as “a decision that opens the door to climate change-related refugee claims.”

Government action

Governments are also becoming more aware of the issue. In 2015, just prior to the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the then-president of the European Union, Jean-Claude Juncker, stated in his policy speech: “Climate change is even one [of] the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly,” he said, pointing out the importance of strengthening efforts. Discussions have also begun in the European Parliament.

In February, shortly after taking office, US President Joe Biden issued an executive order asking Jake Sullivan, assistant to the president for national security, to discuss with the relevant federal departments and agencies about formulating a position on how to identify climate refugees who have been displaced by climate change and what kind of protection and support the US government can provide to them. The report is expected to be submitted to the president in August.

However, it is hard to say that the international community and governments are doing enough to deal with climate change refugees, given the seriousness of the problem.

One of the reasons for this is the lack of a clear climate refugees definition, and the absence of international organizations and institutions to address and clarify the issue. Climate change refugees are not covered by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which protects people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on racial, religious or other grounds, nor are they eligible for protection under the Convention. Official data on climate refugees is virtually non-existent – this is why they are called the “forgotten victims of climate change.”

As the problem of climate change refugees worsens, there is an urgent need to clarify the definition of climate refugees, including comprehensive data on internally displaced persons (IDPs), and create an international mechanism to protect them. It may be desirable to further discuss how to tackle this issue under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In 2005, the World Economic Forum helped to establish the Logistics Emergency Teams (LET) , a network of representatives from four of the world’s largest logistics and transport companies (Agility, DP World, Maersk and UPS) who work together in partnership with the World Food Programme-led Global Logistics Cluster to deliver free humanitarian assistance.

To date, the LET has responded to more than 20 large-scale natural disasters and humanitarian crises, providing critical logistical support for hurricane victims in Haiti, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, tsunami victims in Indonesia, civilians in war-ravaged Yemen and many more.

In 2018, 1,943 employees of LET member companies were trained in humanitarian logistics, contingency operations and disaster response to ensure that they were better prepared for future crises.

Read more about how the LET initiative continues to be an exemplary model for public-private partnerships.

Contact us if you're interested in getting involved in impactful initiatives as a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.

Japan’s efforts fall short

Compared to many developed countries, Japan has not shown enough interest in the issue of climate refugees or awareness of the related idea of climate security. Moreover, Japan's refugee protection measures have long been pointed out to be inadequate. In terms of the number of people accepted, only 44 people were recognized as refugees in Japan in 2019. This is a far cry from Germany, which accepted 54,000 people in the same year.

As an Asian developed country where many people affected by the climate crisis live, it is urgent for Japan to seriously address the issue of climate refugees. Otherwise, Japan will face a major security risk posed by climate refugees and reputational risk in the not-too-distant future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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The Future of “Climate Refugees” in International Law

climate refugees thesis

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The issue of “climate refugees” has attracted scholarly attention for over a decade . The historic ruling of the Human Rights Committee (‘HRCtee’) in Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand further increased academic interest in the matter and the increasing numbers of persons displaced by climate-related events underscore the importance of this topic.

On 6 th May 2021, we had the pleasure to host a webinar on ‘Climate Refugees and International Law’ under the auspices of IFHV’s Research Cluster on Violent Disruptions and Forced Migration. The webinar brought together leading experts from academia and practice: Prof. Jane McAdam outlined the state of the art on the protection afforded to those, whose displacement is linked to the impacts of climate change and disasters; Ambassador Laki pointed to the need of a ‘human sensitive approach to human rights issues’, which he had already stressed in his individual opinion in Teitiota ; and Camilla Schloss, noted how climate change-based asylum claims have been addressed in German jurisprudence.

Inspired by our discussion, we would like to reflect on some of the most pressing questions in this area of international law in this post.

Is There a Need to Expand the Refugee Definition?

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 Refugee Convention . This is the case either due to the fact that most of them remain within their countries or due to the limited scope of the Refugee Convention’s notion of persecution ( McAdam , p. 708). Against this background, one may justifiably wonder whether it is about time we expanded the refugee definition.

However tempting such an expansion may seem, a deeper consideration of this question actually evinces its muteness. In fact, considering that the majority of those rapidly displaced for reasons related to climate change remain within their countries and that those that do leave their countries will only do so gradually, they cannot be seen as either fleeing from danger or as being outside their country of origin ( McAdam , p. 8). In this sense, even if the refugee definition were expanded so as to cover climate-induced displacement, it would still not encompass the majority of those for the protection of whom the expansion would occur. Furthermore, as climate change is not per se the reason of displacement but rather a factor that amplifies preexisting risks and given that on several occasions, researchers have argued that the reasons frequently leading to displacement (e.g. subsiding islands) result from natural processes and not necessarily climate change, it is not certain that the suggested expansion would actually be efficient ( McAdam , p. 15). After all, expanding the definition so as to include climate-induced displacement leads to deeper considerations of what prioritizes such risks over others, e.g. extreme poverty ( McAdam , p. 13). Ultimately, the lack of political appetite shows that renegotiations on the scope of the refugee definition might even lead to a far a more limited one ( McAdam , p. 16). In this sense, an expansion of the refugee definition is not the key to enhanced protection.

Does the Future Lie in Human Rights Law?

As neither the Refugee Convention, nor any other international treaty specifically addresses displacement linked to the impacts of climate change, protection – at the international level – stems mainly from human rights law (‘HRL’). Indeed, Teitiota verified that non-refoulement provisions under HRL require States to not send people back to countries, where climate change impacts expose them to life-threatening risks or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Furthermore, under HRL, States bear positive obligations requiring them to take measures to prevent displacement and to relocate those adversely affected by climate change and related disasters.

Against this background, one may feel tempted to embrace Chetail’s view of HRL as the primary source of protection at least for those displaced in the context of climate change. Having been asked on the matter during the webinar, McAdam recalled that IHRL and the Refugee Convention ‘serve different and complementary purposes’ and stressed the significance of both branches of international law in the protection of refugees in general and of those, whose displacement is related to the impacts of climate change, in particular. Indeed, the extent to which we can say that international law protects those, who are forced to move in the context of disasters and climate change, depends on whether we want to see this as a glass half empty or as a glass half full . And it seems that a view of both branches of international law as complementary to one another provides a more solid ground to this end.

When Is It Time to Protect Climate Refugees ?

The central issue regarding the legal protection of those displaced for reasons related to climate change pertains to the temporal scope of that protection. How far should we look into the future when considering such protection claims? Is it enough to know that a place will be uninhabitable in five or ten years? Is a more immediate risk required? Or is time necessarily an arbitrary criterion?

In search for a sensible threshold, the use of the established standards of proof in refugee and human rights law has been suggested . For granting international protection, Art. 1(A)(2) of the Refugee Convention requires that a refugee has a “ well-founded fear of being persecuted” while HRL protects persons from deportation if there is a “real risk” of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or an arbitrary deprivation of their life upon expulsion.

As explained above, persons displaced by climate change will have a hard time demonstrating that they meet the ‘well-founded fear’ standard under the Refugee Convention ( McAdam , p. 708). Therefore, the prohibition of non-refoulement under IHRL and the ‘real risk’ test developed in that context become even more important in this context.

International fora have consistently held that the ‘foreseeable consequences’ of a deportation are the appropriate temporal dimension for the ‘real risk’ assessment (e.g., Soering v. the United Kingdom , para. 90). If a ‘real risk’ is reasonably foreseeable, the individual would be protected by non-refoulement . This would also be in harmony with the ‘well-founded fear’ standard which has been interpreted as requiring “ a reasonable possibility ,” or a “real chance” ( Hathaway , p. 113) of persecution. Both standards neither point to a concrete timeframe for a risk to realize nor a notion of imminence. The decisive criterion is whether there is any reasonable scenario in which individuals would face such risks that they should better be protected from refoulement.

Thus, those displaced by adverse effects of climate change have to demonstrate that they fled from a ‘real risk’ to their lives or inhuman or degrading circumstances. “The assessment of the intensity, severity, and nature of future harm, based on its foreseeability in light of the individual’s circumstances, is the crucial factor” ( McAdam et al., p. 135 ).

In its views in Teitiota,  the HRCtee noted for the purposes of admissibility that “the effects of climate change […] may expose individuals to a violation of their rights under articles 6 or 7 of the Covenant, thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states.” (for commentary see here , here , and here )

However, in the merits part, the HRCtee held that a real risk to Mr. Teitiota’s right to life under article 6 of the ICCPR was not demonstrated, even though his home-country is likely to vanish within the next 10-15 years. In particular, the HRCtee argued that in 10-15 years states can mitigate the risks of climate change to a specific community. While the HRCtee did not say that only persons who face an imminent risk to their lives are covered by non-refoulement , Mr. Teitiota’s situation could not establish that he was facing a real risk to his life at the moment or at any point in the future because his home country was already addressing climate-related threats.

Still, in his dissenting opinion, Ambassador Laki argued that “the threshold should not be too high” or it would become “unreasonable”. He further elaborated that “[i]t would indeed be counterintuitive to the protection of life, to wait for deaths to be very frequent and considerable; in order to consider the threshold of risk as met.” The same sentiment was reflected in McAdam’s commentary (p. 719), where she concludes that “[…] an unsatisfying, but perhaps inevitable, limitation of the [HRCtee’s] decision is its failure to provide guidance as to where the tipping point lies.”

What’s Next?

While the HRCtee made a “ significant opening ” by extending non-refoulement under ICCPR articles 6 and 7 to persons displaced by climate change, it still needs to clarify the temporal scope of this protection.

In the meantime, it is particularly important that states already dealing with the real life consequences of climate change protect their citizens’ human rights with the help of the international community. After all, the majority of persons displaced by climate change relocate within the same country. Policy makers should therefore not only focus on mitigating the risks of climate change, but also on implementing sensible long-term migration policies and planned relocation of particularly vulnerable communities.

The “Bofaxe” series appears as part of a  collaboration  between the  IFHV  and Völkerrechtsblog.

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Jan-Phillip Graf is a research associate and PhD-student at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) at Ruhr-University Bochum.

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    People who move from their homes due to climate-driven hazards are described in a range of ways, including climate migrants, environmental migrants, climate refugees, environmental refugees, and so on (Perkiss and Moerman 2018).The process of migration related to climate-driven hazards is variously described as environmental migration, environmental displacement, climate-induced migration or ...

  9. From 'fearing' to 'empowering' climate refugees: Governing climate

    discussed 'climate refugees' as a pathology to be prevented. In the early 2000s, scientists and policymakers advocated the responsibility of Western emitters to 'save' climate refugees and offer them refugee status, without implementing any legal instruments to grant refugee rights. In the last

  10. International Law and the Protection of "Climate Refugees"

    By focusing on the relationship between International Law and Climate Change, the book greatly advances the contemporary discussion on human displacement across international frontiers and the protection under International Law of climate-change forced migrants, commonly referred to as "climate refugees.". This canvas is filled by the ...

  11. The Climate Change Impact on Refugee Camps, Al Za'atari ...

    Jordan hosts Za'atari and Azraq refugee camps for Syrian refugees. The larger one is Za'atari camp which is also the largest camp in the globe for Syrian refugees (UNHCR, 2021b ). Za'atari camp is located in the north of Jordan near the military border at the crossroads to Syria, far from the Mafraq Governorate with 10 km to the east ...

  12. Climate-Induced Migration: A Threat to Peace and Security?

    The thesis is trying to provide a comprehensive structure in which the chapters are thematically build on each other. The work begins with one of the key issues of the entire ... Terms such as climate refugees or climate migrants are often used in media, but also in scholarly articles, journals and books.

  13. Rethinking climate refugees and climate conflict: Rhetoric, reality and

    This paper critically examines the perceived threat of 'climate refugees' and 'climate conflict'. It locates the ideological roots of these concepts in development theories and policy narratives about demographically induced migration, environmental refugees and environmental security.

  14. The climate crisis, migration, and refugees

    The migration-climate nexus is real, but more scrutiny and action are required. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that three regions (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will ...

  15. The Legal Status and Protection of Climate Refugees in the EU

    In this thesis, the need to address protection by foretelling potential human rights violations that may occur in the future as to protection of climate refugees will be underlined and actions ...

  16. PDF The law faculty

    legal protection for Climate Change Refugees, and thereafter proposing possible solutions. The analyses undertaken in this thesis intend to contribute to the ongoing legal discussion on the legal protection of Climate Change Refugees. 8 Sumudu Atapattu, ""Climate Refugees" and the Role of International Law," Oxford Research Group, 2018,


    The effects of climate change in displacement of people is still a field in construction. The people displaced due to the environment were first denominated as "climate refugees" or "environmental refugees". This thesis aims to examine the protection of the so-called "climate refugee" under international law.

  18. How Can We Protect "Climate Refugees"?

    The Difficulty of Defining "Climate Refugees". At present, individuals who migrate due to climate change impacting their livelihood or safety are not entitled to protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which form the backbone of most asylum systems worldwide. Many argue that opening the UN Refugee Convention and ...

  19. Who takes responsibility for the climate refugees?

    As there is no international convention for protecting climate refugees yet, the victims either end up in detention camps or are refused shelter in safer places or countries. ... His PhD thesis at UCL is focused on community vulnerability to landslides in the Chittagong Hill Districts of Bangladesh. He has successfully finished his PhD in ...

  20. Climate refugees

    Data on climate refugees - those forced to flee due to disasters and other weather events - is limited, which is why they're called the "forgotten victims of climate change". Australian think tank IEP predicts that at least 1.2 billion people could be displaced by such climate-related events by 2050. There is an urgent need to clarify ...

  21. Climate-Impacted Loss and Damage in Kenya

    Abstract. This case study is based on Climate Refugees' October 2022 research and interviews with 85 climate-impacted and displaced persons in Kenya experiencing climate-induced displacement, migration, and human rights losses. Kenya is dealing with multiple effects and impacts related to climate change, including floods, drought, landslides ...

  22. The Future of "Climate Refugees" in International Law

    The issue of "climate refugees" has attracted scholarly attention for over a decade.The historic ruling of the Human Rights Committee ('HRCtee') in Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand further increased academic interest in the matter and the increasing numbers of persons displaced by climate-related events underscore the importance of this topic.. On 6 th May 2021, we had the pleasure to ...

  23. Climate Refugees Thesis

    506. Finished Papers. Emery Evans. #28 in Global Rating. 4.8/5. offers three types of essay writers: the best available writer aka. standard, a top-level writer, and a premium essay expert. Every class, or type, of an essay writer has its own pros and cons. Depending on the difficulty of your assignment and the deadline, you can choose the ...