65.6 million. That is the number of refugees and internally displaced people in the world today, fleeing due to persecution, conflict, violence, environmental disasters, and human rights violations according to a new UNHCR report. This staggering number marks the most refugees and internally displaced people ever recorded – a jump of 300,000 from the end of 2015.
As people gather around the world today, June 20th, to commemorate World Refugee Day and call for support of refugees, we recognize that mass displacement will continue to be a factor in the coming years and decades. While across the world we’ve seen a rise in xenophobia and hatred directed at refugees, including governments and administrations threatening to close their doors to the displaced, this mindset does nothing to resolve the actual crisis at hand.
Here at 350.org, we recognize that the climate crisis will also have major impacts on displacement and migration. Steadily worsening weather-related disasters such as droughts, changing rainfall patterns, infertility of land, food and water shortages, and rising sea levels are already taking a toll on communities across the world.
It is estimated that by 2050, there will be 200 million people displaced by climate change-related impacts. According to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre, since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people per year have been displaced from their homes by disasters brought on by natural hazards. Simply put, climate change causes migration, and people migrate to flee the impacts of climate change on their homelands.
We are already seeing climate impacts cause displacement. Just this month, Quartz reported the impact of rising sea levels on the residents of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, home to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, which has lost 98% of its land and most of its population since 1955. The population of the island is now down to less than 85 residents from the previous hundreds. In January 2016, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funded The Isle de Jean Charles Resettlement Project, the first allocation of federal dollars to move tribe members struggling with the impacts of climate change to inland locations.
In Mexico, farmers have been dealing with severe drought for decades, leading to a loss of agricultural productivity. The outcome? More rural Mexicans are migrating to the United States for better futures. One study found climate change-driven changes to agricultural livelihoods have impacted the rate of emigration to the United States, estimating that by 2080, climate change-induced migration from Mexico could lead to the migration of 6.7 million people. Another study argues that undocumented migration to the U.S from rural Mexico very much has to do with climate change and the declining livelihoods of farmers facing droughts and lack of rainfall.
And while many factors have led to the conflict in Syria, some argue that severe drought that started in 2006, worsened by a warming climate, drove Syrian farmers to abandon their crops and flock to cities, helping trigger the civil war. It is widely acknowledged, including by the Pentagon, that climate change acts as a threat multiplier, intensifying conflict and war. The United Nations estimates that there are over five million Syrian refugees now.
The climate crisis has been decades in the making, but it’s worsening everyday. This is why it is instrumental that world leaders take bold climate action now. Otherwise, exacerbated climate impacts will only continue to affect displacement. The road ahead requires that we collectively do what’s right – we must stand up for the rights of migrants and refugees everywhere who deserve dignity and respect as they seek better lives for themselves and their families, at the same time as we create just solutions to the climate crisis.
About the Author: Thanu Yakupitiyage is the U.S Communications Manager at 350.org. In addition to work on climate justice, Thanu is a long-time immigrant rights activist, media professional, and cultural organizer based in New York City.
(This piece is adapted from Thanu’s piece on climate and migration in HuffPost this April, 2017.)