The interplay between the climate crisis and human displacement – a growing threat

The interplay between the climate crisis and human displacement – a growing threat
  • PublishedDecember 4, 2023

As COP28 meets in Dubai, Ibrahima Cheikh Diong, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and ARC Group Director General, and Valentin Tapsoba, Director for United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s Regional Bureau for Southern Africa, describe how their organisations are coming together to combat the results of the climate crisis.

Beyond warmer temperatures, rising sea levels, desertification and increasing incidents of extreme droughts, floods, and cyclones, climate change has broad and interrelated impacts that touch on all aspects of life. Climate change increasingly forces people to flee their homes. Accordingly, the nexus between climate change and pre-existing challenges, such as forced human displacement, must be fully understood and well-considered if we are to respond with effective and lasting solutions.

The impacts of extreme weather events intersect with a multitude of global crises such as wars, conflicts, displacements, migration and disease outbreaks, and are increasing the vulnerability of refugees and stateless and displaced people around the world. Over 110 million people – amounting for a staggering 1% of the world’s population – are currently displaced and in dire need of humanitarian assistance. A notable 75% of refugees are hosted by low and medium-income countries that are already struggling to meet their basic needs, making the situation even more pressing.

At the same time, climate change is wreaking havoc across the world. Rising sea levels and coastal flooding are swallowing up habitable land and forcing communities out of their homes. The World Bank estimates that as many as 216 million people could move within their own countries due to slow-onset climate change impacts by 2050. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), displacement by disasters impacts an estimated 25 million people each year – three times higher than those displaced by conflict and violence.

Threats like desertification are claiming productive land. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) estimates that 50 million people may be displaced due to this phenomenon within the next 10 years. Erratic weather events are also causing unforeseen devastation, stripping entire communities of the most basic human needs – food, shelter and livelihoods. The African continent is disproportionately affected by climate change. Entire regions are experiencing a loss of arable land, a serious challenge, given the high dependency on agriculture.

Financial resources are needed

These two scenarios are interrelated – climate change is worsening the plight of displaced populations and adding to the number of people in need of help. More often than not, displaced people lose their assets when they flee, placing heightened pressure on host communities. Both climate change and displacement can ignite conflict over borders and scarce resources. Under both scenarios, vulnerability is greater in developing countries with lower levels of resilience, low adaptation capacities and limited financial resources to respond appropriately.

Nearly three in every ten refugees and asylum seekers, and more than seven out of ten internally displaced people, are hosted in highly climate-vulnerable countries. Often, they are forced to live in degraded or peripheral locations, overcrowded camps, or informal settlements with limited access to basic services or resilient infrastructure. Climate shocks and stresses exacerbate communal conflict over access to essential natural resources such as water and land.

Like all crises, response to both climate change and human displacement requires extensive financial resources to protect lives and livelihoods and maintain basic human rights. While there is a strong global commitment to act with urgency, climate action is challenged by limited resources. Though most countries have policies, frameworks and strategies in place to guide the response and have committed to green transformation, action is largely underfunded and slow.

This is particularly true in developing nations that are already struggling to meet basic competing needs such as healthcare, education and social services. The same narrative rings true in the human displacement response. The burden of hosting and providing protection to refugees, especially from African countries, falls mostly on neighbouring countries.

Collaboration to help the most vulnerable

The role of humanitarian actors in facilitating action cannot be underestimated, but resources are simply inadequate to meet the growing needs on the ground. Donor funding is stretched to the limit and facing competing demands. Resource mobilisation efforts must therefore be intensified to include the private sector. It is equally important to identify areas where the same resources can be used to address multiple challenges. This is where partnerships play an important role.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) leads international efforts to protect persons who are forced to flee from their homes due to conflict and persecution, but its efforts are often frustrated by limited resources. Factors such as climate threats, disease outbreaks and aggression in host communities throw a spanner in the works and exacerbate the situation. UNHCR recognises the nexus between climate change and displacement, as well as the impact on its mandate, and is seeking resources to facilitate a comprehensive response in the face of an increasingly hostile climate.

The world has come together to drive for a coordinated climate response. The African Union (AU) is guiding climate action across Africa and putting frameworks, policies and support structures in place for member states. In this regard, it formed the African Risk Capacity (ARC), a Specialised Agency of the AU mandated to help member states plan, prepare and respond to climate threats and disease outbreaks.

By supporting resilience building in African countries, ARC helps reduce the vulnerability of communities, including displaced persons. It is thus a natural development that ARC and UNHCR establish and deepen their collaboration to adopt a “people-centred approach” to preparedness, as well as advocate for the inclusion of the over 30 million refugees hosted across the continent to ensure that no one is left behind.

The world is facing multiple challenges in perpetuity, and the enormity of these is overwhelming in every respect. These crises demand urgent financial resources, and a coordinated response is necessary to ensure inclusive and robust solutions that reach the whole world. It is therefore necessary to identify areas of potential collaboration and pool the strengths of all stakeholders towards making a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable.

The UNHCR and ARC expect that decisions that will be made at this year’s UN environment conference, COP28 will be critical in shaping both organisations’ work and be a springboard for intensified action.

Written By
Ibrahima Cheikh Diong

Ibrahima Cheikh Diong is UN Assistant-Secretary General and ARC Group Director General.

Written By
Valentin Tapsoba

Valentin Tapsoba is Director for United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s Regional Bureau for Southern Africa.

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