Climate change could become the biggest driver of displacement: UNHCR chief

News Stories, 16 December 2009

Drought leaves this land barren in northern Afghanistan. Guterres noted that the frequency of droughts was steadily increasing and testing the resilience of entire communities.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, December 16 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres predicted Wednesday in Copenhagen that climate change will become the biggest driver of population displacements, both inside and across national borders, within the not too distant future.

Guterres' warning came during a press conference at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009, where he has been meeting officials and taking part in events and discussions on forced displacement resulting from climate change.

The High Commissioner noted that while climate change was affecting southern countries most severely, the northern hemisphere will likely also face climate shifts and related population movements. Stressing that climate change should not be considered a distant worry, Guterres noted that a staggering 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters last year, of whom more than 20 million were forced on the move by climate change-related factors.

He said natural disasters are "more intense and frequent and the human impacts are more devastating." He noted that the frequency of droughts was steadily increasing and testing the resilience of entire communities, while rising sea levels threaten to submerge island nations. If this happens, "not only states, but cultures and identities will be drowned," Guterres said.

The High Commissioner also noted that the distinction between refugees and migrants was becoming blurred, which could result in a "protection gap" for people who have no choice but to leave uninhabitable homelands and do not meet the strict legal definition of a refugee.

"There may be a need for new legal instruments and we could explore the idea of temporary protection schemes," he said. Such schemes have some precedent in a number of countries that grant protection on humanitarian grounds until conditions improve for return. Equally important would be to invest in measures to help the most vulnerable people adapt so that they will not be forced to flee.

Guterres emphasized the growing link between climate change and conflict. "Climate change can enhance the competition for resources water, food, grazing lands and that competition can trigger conflict."

He cited a recent study by researchers at the US universities of Berkeley, Stanford, New York and Harvard that found climate change could increase the risk of civil war in Africa by more than 50 per cent in the year 2030 compared to 1990.

"More and more people are being forced to move," he said, "Yet fewer and fewer people are free to move. Countries are becoming fortresses at a time when markets need people."

By Melissa Fleming in Copenhagen, Denmark

For related information on climate change and forced displacement, please go to:

In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement


Norwegian Refugee Council: Climate Changed: People Displaced




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.

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

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

2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presents the Nansen medal to Afghan refugee, Aqeela Asifi in Geneva, Switzerland.

Asifi, 49, has dedicated her life to bringing education to refugee girls in Pakistan. Despite minimal resources and significant cultural challenges, Asifi - a former teacher who fled from Kabul with her family in 1992 - has guided over a thousand refugee girls through primary education in the Kot Chandana refugee village in Mianwali, Pakistan.

Before she arrived, strict cultural traditions kept most girls at home. But she was determined to give these girls a chance and began teaching just a handful of pupils in a makeshift school tent.

UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award honours extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced, and names Eleanor Roosevelt, Graça Machel and Luciano Pavarotti among its laureates. Speakers and performers at today's award ceremony include UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ger Duany, Unicef Goodwill Ambassador and singer Angelique Kidjo and visual artist Cedric Cassimo.

Afghanistan is the largest, most protracted refugee crisis in the world. Over 2.6 million Afghans currently live in exile and over half of them are children.

2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

Victims of Conflict in Nigeria Find Safety in Cameroon Camp

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited Cameroon in late March to put a spotlight on the situation there of tens of thousands of refugees from Nigeria. These people have escaped mounting violence by insurgents in the north-east of their country. Among the places that Guterres visited during his March 24-25 visit is the Minawao Refugee Camp, where many of the uprooted have been relocated.

Situated some 120 kilometres from the dangerous border area with Nigeria in Cameroon's Far North region, Minawao camp is currently home to 33,000 Nigerian refugees, mainly from Borno state. Many of the arrivals are traumatized and in need of material and psycho-social help. They told the High Commissioner of losing their homes and belongings as well as members of their families. Some were injured. In total, an estimated 74,000 Nigerians have found refuge in Cameroon while cross-border incursions from Nigeria have displaced 96,000 Cameroonians. UNHCR photographer Hélène Caux also visited Minawao to hear the individual stories.

Victims of Conflict in Nigeria Find Safety in Cameroon Camp

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