Displacement due to climate change

Photo by Lolin Menendez, rscj

A recent policy paper by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is entitled Climate change, natural disasters and human displacement: a UNHCR perspective (final version 23 October 2008). This interesting 12-page paper looks at the human side of climate change, particularly the status and protection needs of those who are most directly affected, stating:

“In tandem with deeper understanding of the scientific processes at play, UNCHR would encourage more reflection on the humanitarian and displacement challenges that climate change will generate.

While climate change has been the subject of intense debate and speculation within the scientific community, insufficient attention has been given to the humanitarian consequences it will generate. Just as the causes of climate change are being analyzed and its consequences projected, it is equally vital to anticipate foreseeable movement scenarios and strengthen the responses to the humanitarian consequences.”

Climate change is already causing forced movement of people today and the problem is likely to increase with time. According to one source, there are already more displaced persons due to environmental reasons than there are refugees of war. Citing the Secretary-General’s Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Mr. Walter Kälin, the policy paper mentions five scenarios in which displacement can occur due to climate change:

  • “hydro-meteorological disasters (flooding, hurricanes/typhoons/cyclones, mudslides, etc.);
  • zones designated by governments as being too high-risk and dangerous for human habitation;
  • environmental degradation and slow onset disaster (e.g. reduction of water availability, desertification, recurrent flooding, salinization of costal zones, etc.);
  • the case of ‘sinking’ small island states; and
  • armed conflict triggered by a decrease in essential resources (e.g. water, food) owing to climate change.”

To download the policy paper, click here.

For more information about climate change and displacement, go to

Two informative videos about displacement because of climate change can be found at the following sites


Cecile Meijer rscj, NGO Office

June 2009