Who are climate refugees – and how can we help them?

Nov 02, 2022
“Climate refugees are people who’ve been forced to leave their homes as a result of the effects of climate change on their environment.” – Oxford Dictionary
Climate refugees – or climate migrants, as is the accurate term – make news headlines every day. And their stories are heartbreaking. They endure the loss of loved ones, homes and communities, as well as the devastation of their livelihoods.
While most climate migrants hail from countries spread throughout Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, they all have something in common. They are fleeing the cruel impact of extreme climate events like droughts, floods and storms.
In 2020 alone, 30 million facing weather and climate hazards were displaced within their own countries. Some experts predict that by 2050, 1.2 billion people could be uprooted globally as the result of climate change and natural disasters.
And with this rapidly changing landscape in mind, many experts also note that policymakers are failing to keep up with the needs of ‘climate refugees’. When reading their stories, it’s hard not to agree. Fadumo and her family are a powerful example.

A cruel and changing climate

“Climate change is the defining crisis of our time, and it particularly impacts the displaced.” – Andrew Harper, special advisor on climate action, UNHCR
Fadumo Musa Salat (below, left) lives in a camp for displaced people near Doolow, Somalia, where World Vision teams are distributing emergency food. The 28-year-old mother shared the anguish she and her family have experienced at the hands of a years-long drought.
“I lost two of my children to hunger and dehydration,” she told our staff. “Two of my girls died. One was just three years old and the other, four.
“Also, the drought killed all of our animals. We used to own nearly 100 camels and goats. They all died because of the drought. At that point, we decided to walk the seven days to reach this camp.”

A woman and girl stand close together outdoors, in a camp for people in Somalia displaced due to threats like climate change.Fadumo (left) comforts her daughter at a camp for displaced people in Somalia. The family is grieving the deaths of two children due to hunger and dehydration. They lost their livestock, livelihood and financial security to the ravages of climate change. Photo: Gwayi Patrick

‘Climate refugees’ or ‘climate migrants’?

It may seem like a small point – but the answer gets to the very heart of how families like Fadumo’s are considered under international law. Climate refugees is a term used in the media and by some advocacy groups. But climate migrants is currently the more accurate term. Why?
‘Refugee’ is a legal term with very specific meaning, notes the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. To be considered a refugee, one requires a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Fadumo’s family are considered ‘climate migrants’ since they’re not fleeing persecution by any human source for the factors listed above. The 1951 Refugee Convention does not recognize the environment as a persecuting agent.

A woman and two school-age boys sit together outside a rough shelter.Mohammad Ares, Hares and their mother are considered refugees – not migrants – under international refugee law. They are Rohingya Muslims who fled violent persecution for their faith and culture in Myanmar. Photo: Md Qazi Shamim Hasan

As climate change creates more environmental migrants, some legal experts say new legal protections will be needed. They feel that ‘migrant’ — an umbrella term for people who live outside their place of origin — doesn’t go far enough to describe or protect people like Fadumo and her children. That’s perhaps why some default to ‘climate refugees’.

In contrast with Canada

Generally speaking, wealthier countries have greater power to shield their people from the worst effects of climate change.
Even with climate change threatening parts of Canada, local, provincial and federal governments have the capacity to help. In recent years, we’ve seen policy solutions such as land protections, carbon taxing and emissions goals being implemented to help prevent further impact from climate change.

A girl pumps water into a yellow bucket held by a woman. A younger boy looks on.
Despite climate change in Zambia, Agnes (left) and her family can remain in their home. World Vision provided a borehole and pump to keep people in this community safe from dehydration and waterborne illnesses. Photo: Kambani Phiri

But even with these policies, migration due to severe climate still happens in Canada, especially in coastal provinces, where homes are being made unlivable by rising sea levels, coastal storms, melting ice and inland flooding.
Thousands of Indigenous people have been forced to relocate their communities due to climate threats of land loss from soil erosion. For these communities, who have close ties to the land, leaving means risking a loss of culture.

Harming the most vulnerable first

While the impact of climate change is felt across the world, people groups who are already disadvantaged are disproportionately affected. The UN notes that worldwide, women and children, migrants, persons with disabilities and Indigenous peoples are most likely to feel the cruel force of climate change impact.
In 2022, roughly 90 per cent of climate migrants hail from countries that are extremely vulnerable to begin with – those in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In these regions, poverty is high, and economic development is lagging behind.

A mother and child rest on some blankets spread on the ground.Across Latin America, thousands of children are growing up as migrants. Climate change – combined with political and economic chaos – places children at particular risk, with drought and floods contributing to malnutrition and waterborne illnesses. Photo: Solanyer Cruz.

Climate change often compounds the impact of other threats like armed conflict, economic crisis or political instability. These factors can increase people’s vulnerability to climate change, weakening communities’ ability to create solutions for climate resilience.
This places families like Fadumo’s (second photo in article) near the top of the vulnerability list. Somalia has been rocked by decades of civil war and generations of families have suffered the effects of grinding poverty. 
Governments like Fadumo’s in Somalia are unable or unwilling to provide emergency assistance to people suffering in a climate crisis. They’re even less likely to create programs to help people to slow down climate change or help people prepare for its effects. 

Seeing the suffering firsthand

World Vison teams have met countless people feeling the impact of climate change – and witnessed the heartbreak and horror they experience. Whether you call them climate refugees or climate migrants, we see these families as people who:
  • Are the least responsible for causing climate change. Billions worldwide don’t drive cars or have access to public transit. They’re not burning fossil fuels, purchasing factory-manufactured goods, or clear-cutting forests.
  • Don’t want to leave their homes and communities, the land they’ve inherited and the livelihoods they’ve spent a lifetime building up.
  • Try everything they can to remain at home, including extreme coping mechanisms like having their children leave school and endure dangerous and degrading work.
  • Endure years of hunger and malnutrition, sustain illness, agonize as their children suffer and die, watch as their livestock perish, experience the destruction of their livelihoods.
  • Face horrific situations, like watching their children crushed by toppling structures or swept away by flood waters.
  • Break up the family so that one or two members (even children) can work far from home, providing for the rest.
  • Make excruciating decisions in order to keep their children alive for longer (like selling a beloved daughter into marriage for funds to feed the others).
A boy places a heavy brick on a pile.
In Afghanistan, climate change is compounding the number of internally displaced people in the country – 4.3 million by the end of 2021. Families are forced to consider sending their children to work in places like brick factories, just to afford food. Photo: World Vision Afghanistan

World Vision assists climate migrants

 It’s easy to find information about the global impact of changes to the climate. Refugees and migrants worldwide often count extreme weather among their reasons for leaving home. How can you help? Join World Vision in our work to:
  • Care for children and families in dire need (experiencing extreme malnutrition, for instance) due to the impact of climate change.
  • Support families and communities to confront the effects of climate change, so they can remain at home.
  • Train and equip families to diversify their crops, livestock or means of earning income, to strengthen their earning base for years to come.
  • Support communities through programs that can slow the effects of climate change in a community or region, helping families.
A woman in a bright dress scoops honey into a container.
In regions where drought regularly threatens crops and livestock, World Vision teams train families in additional ways to earn income – beekeeping, for instance. With a way to purchase food if needed, families may not need to migrate. Photo: Wesley Koskei


How can I help climate migrants?

Whether you refer to them as climate refugees or climate migrants, here are four ways to get involved. You can help by:
  1. Learning more about the relationship between poverty and climate change worldwide by reading this earlier World Vision article.
  2. Doing more by reducing your carbon footprint. As you switch off lights, reduce shower length, switch to renewables and consume less red meat, be encouraged. We can all help make a difference for people like Fadumo and her family.
  3. Donating to emergency appeals when we issue them, in situations where thousands of children are suffering due to the impact of climate change. Visit worldvision.ca to learn more.
  4. Giving a wood-conserving stove through our Gift Catalogue, helping slow changes in local weather patterns by keeping forests growing strong. Donating to help drill a well is another way to help families stay rooted in climate change. 
  5. Sponsoring a child and helping a family remain strong and rooted in the face of climate change. Sponsorship does this by training and equipping communities with:
  • Agricultural training and support, so they can grow food and produce income even in the face of drought (e.g., with drought-resistant seeds)
  • Livelihood diversification like breeding goats for instance, even as farmers. Goats are hearty in low-water situations and provide milk, meat and income.
  • Clean water and sanitation, providing safe water sources like boreholes and pumps to keep families hydrated and safe from waterborne illnesses – even when lakes and rivers dry up.
  • Community resources like savings and loans groups, so people can lean on one another in times of financial struggle e.g., to purchase more seed if one drop fails due to climate change.
  • Disaster preparedness training so families can survive and recover from natural disasters and increasing climate threats.
  • Emergency food and care if families are in immediate need, along with cash transfers so parents can purchase food for their children.
  • Empower women and children to increase their learning and improve their livelihoods, enhancing resilience to climate change.
A woman walks carrying a bag of grain on her head.World Vision is the largest distributing partner for the World Food Programme. Together, along with donors here in Canada, we helped ensure more than 3.3 million people benefitted from food distributions in 2021 – along with cash-based programming to purchase food. Photo: Martin Maluka
As ‘climate refugees’ continue making news headlines, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis. But there are many things you can do. We invite you to partner with us, knowing you’ll be helping save and protect children’s lives.

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