Climate change drives people into harm's way, says UN refugee chief

Press Releases, 21 June 2012

A new report based on scores of personal testimonies from refugees in Eastern Africa finds that climate change can make people more vulnerable and can also play a part in driving them into areas of conflict and ultimately across borders and into exile.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres introduced the report, "Climate Change, Vulnerability and Human Mobility," while attending the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development. It was published by UNHCR and the United Nations University with support of the London School of Economics and Bonn University.

"This report confirms what we have been hearing for years from refugees. They did everything they could to stay at home, but when their last crops failed, their livestock died, they had no option but to move; movement which often led them into greater harm's way," said Guterres.

The study, based on discussions with around 150 refugees and internally displaced people in Ethiopia and Uganda in 2011, asked questions aimed at understanding to what extent climate change had contributed to their flight from their homes, and eventually their countries. Most of those interviewed were farmers and pastoralists from Eritrea, Somalia and eastern Sudan.

"The report highlights how important it is to understand the real experiences of vulnerable people with environmental stressors today" said Konrad Osterwalder, Rector of the United Nations University, which helped to design the research methods and implemented the fieldwork together with Bonn University, London School of Economics and UNHCR.

Most refugees reported that leaving their homes was a last resort and their first displacement was temporary and to an area close to home. The majority fled their countries after the areas they moved to were affected by insecurity or a lethal combination of violence and drought. Cross-border movement, as a direct response to climate change, was exceptional.

According to the report, many refugees described disrupted rainfall patterns in the past decade, with longer and more severe droughts than in previous years. None cited these negative shifts in weather as a direct catalyst for violent conflict, although some spoke about the scarcity of food and crops after severe drought as exacerbating pre-existing conflicts, persecution and repression.

"I am convinced that climate change will increasingly be a driver in worsening displacement crises in the world. It is very important for the world to come together to respond to this challenge," said Guterres.

While most people displaced solely as a result of extreme weather conditions stay within their national borders, those that cross international borders are not necessarily covered by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

The Nansen Initiative, due to be formally launched in October 2012 by Norway and Switzerland, with the support of UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council, aims to address this legal and protection gap for people displaced across borders owing to environmental change and extreme weather events.

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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 Policy Paper

Climate change, natural disasters and human displacement: a UNHCR perspective.

Environment

How UNHCR and partners seek to minimize the environmental impact of refugee operations.

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

Battling the Elements in Chad

More than 180,000 Sudanese refugees have fled violence in Sudan's Darfur region, crossing the border to the remote desert of eastern Chad.

It is one of the most inhospitable environments UNHCR has ever had to work in. Vast distances, extremely poor road conditions, scorching daytime temperatures, sandstorms, the scarcity of vegetation and firewood, and severe shortages of drinkable water have been major challenges since the beginning of the operation. Now, heavy seasonal rains are falling, cutting off the few usable roads, flooding areas where refugees had set up makeshift shelters, and delaying the delivery of relief supplies.

Despite the enormous environmental challenges, UNHCR has so far managed to establish nine camps and relocate the vast majority of the refugees who are willing to move from the volatile border.

Battling the Elements in Chad

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

Peaceful days and a safe environment is probably more than these Palestinian and Sudanese refugees expected when they were stuck in a desert camp in Iraq. Now they are recovering at a special transit centre in the Romanian city of Timisoara while their applications for resettlement in a third country are processed.

Most people forced to flee their homes are escaping from violence or persecution, but some find themselves still in danger after arriving at their destination. UNHCR uses the centre in Romania to bring such people out of harm's way until they can be resettled.

The Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in Timisoara was opened in 2008. Another one will be formally opened in Humenné, Slovakia, within the coming weeks. The ETC provides shelter and respite for up to six months, during which time the evacuees can prepare for a new life overseas. They can attend language courses and cultural orientation classes.

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

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