Migration related to natural disasters and agriculture isn’t new. For example, at least 500,000 people immigrated to the United States from Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine. Yet as our climate changes, more people will be forced to leave their homes in the face of environmental events like rising sea levels, extreme heat, fires, flooding, and an increase in the strength of storms like hurricanes. According to United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM), estimates range from 25 million to a billion people who could be displaced by 2050 as the result of climate change.
Internal migration can be devastating. Internally displaced people face many of the same problems as those who have fled to another country, including loss of housing, access to work, education, healthcare, social life, and security.
But while most migrants would rather avoid the legal and logistical nightmare of crossing national borders. A report showed that many migrants will first flock to cities within their country as climate change impacts rural life. But migrants will start to leave these cities as they become overcrowded, eventually crossing borders. In fact, the same New York Times Magazine article noted that this is already happening in places like Guatemala, where drought and unpredictable weather patterns are pushing people out of farming communities.
People who leave their home countries due to climate impacts face the same problems and obstacles as any migrant. The jobs that many do find are often menial and low-paying — even those who were skilled workers like engineers and teachers likely won’t find the same position open to them after migrating. Most migrants who are undocumented also run the constant risk of deportation, although a January UN decision ruled that migrants cannot be sent home if a climate-related events puts them in immediate danger.
Even when a migrant is not in “immediate danger,” they may feel unsafe returning home, such as in cases of agricultural collapse, say experts. This has led many to argue for a category of “climate refugees,” although no legal status of the kind exists, said Marium Traore Chazanoel, a specialist on migration, the environment, and climate change at the IOM. The official definition of a refugee under international law is very narrow — refugees must be fleeing their home country and be unable to return due to “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) . Reasons related to climate do not fall into this category.
“When the grass is not enough, movement increases. In the spring, many migrants moved from the south to the north. There is no other way to overcome climate change. All the people wish to survive with their animals and come to a place where they can fatten their livestock,” said Mr. Chinbat, a herder of Sergelen soum in Mongolia, where the adverse effects of climate change are impacting the migration of herders.
Experts believe a legal definition like “climate refugee” would offer climate migrants the same protections that current refugees are afforded. For instance, they would be able to apply for asylum and would not be sent back to their home country, gain some freedom to choose where they live within a country. Asylum seekers are also detained rather than sent back to their home country while they seek asylum. Asylum status also applies to a person’s family, making it easier for all family members to successfully immigrate to a new country.
The UNHCR and many other agencies and researchers acknowledge that those fleeing climate impacts often face the same issues when returning home. For instance, those who once relied on farming may not longer be able to consistently grow enough crops due to heat, drought, and unpredictable weather.