Top UNHCR official warns about displacement from climate change

News Stories, 9 December 2008

© UNHCR/S.Kritsanavarin
Extreme Weather Conditions: Survivors of Cyclone Nargis wait for help in a Myanmar village.

POZNAN, Poland, December 9 (UNHCR) Climate change could cause large-scale human displacement, the deputy head of the UN refugee agency warned this week at a conference in Poland, while calling on delegates to put a humanitarian face on this vital issue.

Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees L. Craig Johnstone said Monday at the two-week UN Climate Change Conference in Poznan that even by the most conservative predictions up to 250 million people will be displaced by the middle of this century as a result of extreme weather conditions, dwindling water reserves and a degradation of agricultural land. Many people will also be forced to flee their homes to escape fighting over meagre resources.

Johnstone, speaking in a UNHCR-organized panel discussion, said that in real terms this meant that the number of displaced would rise by a minimum of six million each year due to climate change. He said that the world needed to be prepared to help such people this meant increasing pre-positioned stocks of aid in vulnerable areas by up to twentyfold.

"The most important issue is mitigation by reducing greenhouse gases. The second line of action is adaptation to climate change, as promoted by development agencies," said Johnstone. "But if these fail, we need to anticipate the humanitarian response. And this is still missing in the debate."

The Deputy High Commissioner said he was speaking with the authority of an organization that has wide experience of working with communities vulnerable to climate change, including drought, floods and storms. "As we speak, UNHCR is helping the victims of large floods in Yemen. This is way out of our mandate, but we are there and we have the capacity to help," he added.

The United Nations-led negotiations in Poznan are aimed at helping reach a global climate change deal next year in Copenhagen. Some 9,000 participants from governments, business and industry, environmental groups and research institutions are attending the meeting, which ends on Friday.

Philippe Boncour, who heads the international dialogue on migration division at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), spoke at Monday's event about the adaptation of vulnerable communities to climate change. He said it was hard to draw a line between forced and voluntary migration when livelihoods were jeopardized by climate changes.

Meanwhile, Niels Scott from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that his organization anticipated that climate change would act as a "threat-multiplier" exacerbating the struggle for resources and armed conflicts

Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General Elisabeth Rasmusson warned of a vicious circle whereby climate-induced disasters and degradation resulted in conflicts and conflicts led in turn to further natural disasters and degradation.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Poznan, Poland





Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Climate Change

The earth's climate is changing, and that concerns us as it could lead to displacement.

UNHCR and Climate Change

Where people flee, UNHCR is there to help.

Climate change and displacement

In the past few years, millions of people have been displaced by natural disasters, most of which are considered to be the direct result of climate change. Sudden weather events, such as Myanmar's Cyclone Nargis in 2008, widespread flooding in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in 2006 and the drought that hit Ethiopia in the 1980s, can leave huge numbers of people traumatized and without access to shelter, clean water and basic supplies.

The international community has entrusted UNHCR with responsibility for protecting and assisting people who are forcibly displaced and who cannot return safely home. Although the majority of people displaced by climate change will remain within their own borders, where states have clearly defined responsibilities, additional support may be required.

When called upon to intervene, UNHCR can deploy emergency teams and provide concrete support in terms of registration, documentation, family reunification and the provision of shelter, basic hygiene and nutrition.

Among those who are displaced across borders as a result of climate change, some will be refugees while others may not meet the definition. Nevertheless, many may be in need of protection and assistance.

Climate change and displacement

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

UNHCR's annual Nansen Refugee Award was posthumously awarded to Senator Edward Kennedy at a ceremony in Washington DC on October 29 for his life-long commitment to refugee rights. Kennedy's wife, Victoria, accepted the award on behalf of her late husband. In presenting the award, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, praised the "vision and commitment" of Senator Kennedy in his support for the displaced.

The prize money of US$100,000 will be donated to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where it will be used to train the next generation of leaders dedicated to the cause of refugee advocacy. The Nansen Award is given to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and the first global High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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