The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to the displacement of millions of people who have been forced to leave their homes and seek safety in other countries. The friendly treatment and welcoming reception given Ukrainian refugees has shown us a perfect model for what’s possible when we acknowledge migration as a solution to conflict, or to climate change.
The climate crisis is and will continue to forcibly displace people. Whether from extreme weather in Central America, fires and storms in North America, flooding across Europe and Asia, or famine resulting from drought in Africa, people are being forced to move as a result of global inaction on climate change. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that annually, 21.5 million people have been displaced by extreme weather alone since 2008.
Climate displacement both within and between countries and continents is not only the result of direct environmental impacts, but the flow-on effects of climate disruption including the destabilization of economies and communities, resource conflicts, food insecurity and access to water. While for Pacific Islanders, rising sea levels mean the loss of entire islands that many call home, people migrating from North Africa to Europe are facing their own distinct struggles.
In order to stop people needing to move in order to find safety we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. It is of the utmost importance for ensuring the just and liveable future that we know is possible. As part of that, wealthy nations need to honor their commitments to financing and supporting countries that face dire impacts and irreversible loss and damage from climate change.
But it is equally urgent that we recognise the injustices and struggles that communities around the world are already facing due to the unequal impacts of climate change. One of these is the barriers that have been placed at state borders preventing people from exercising their right to move.
Communities around the world, on the frontlines of the climate crisis, have already experienced significant, life-altering loss and damage that calls for urgent support and financing from those countries who have contributed the most to the crisis. Inhumane measures such as the detention and deportation of people only compound injustices already experienced at home.
Between 2015 and 2016, the conflict in Syria produced the world’s worst refugee crisis as the civil war was exacerbated by the desertification of farming land and accompanying food crisis. At the time, migrants were met by inhumane blockades at national borders. European countries with ample space and resources to provide shelter instead detained, deported and dehumanised those seeking safety.
In contrast, the ongoing war in Ukraine has reshaped the narrative around refugees with a politically unified welcoming of displaced Ukrainians, more than 4.9 million of which have migrated to Europe since February this year. Within eight days of the invasion legislation was adopted in the EU which ensured refugees could access public services, housing, and employment.
The response to Ukraine’s refugee crisis should be viewed as a model upon which a just response to climate migration can be built moving forward. The right to seek refuge is a universal human right, and the climate movement could play an essential role in communicating the responsibility that rich nations have to ensuring those rights. People impacted by the climate crisis to the extent that they are forced to migrate must be met with dignity and respect when seeking refuge in other countries.
While estimates regarding migration vary, the International Organization for Migration at the UN has estimated that by 2050, there will be 200 million people displaced by climate change-related impacts.
In contrast to the view that climate migration will be a large-scale, one time event that will happen in the future, we must recognize it as a reality today that is not threatening, but is a fundamental characteristic of our increasingly globalized world. This migration enriches societies and economies at both the local and national level. We need to acknowledge it as a solution, and frame it as both a human right and an integral part of climate adaptation and mitigation, both within countries as well as at borders.