As individuals and communities around the world are uprooted from their homes due to the deteriorating state of the environment, it becomes increasingly clear that our current systems and policies are ill-equipped to deal with the profound implications of the climate and social crisis.
As we mark World Refugee Day 2023, recognizing the urgent need to address climate change-related displacement is not only a moral imperative but also a crucial step towards remedying the systemic failures that have led us to this point. By understanding the causes (and consequences) of environmental migration and taking decisive action, we can strive to build a more sustainable and resilient future for all.
Environmental displacement is an increasingly pressing global phenomenon, with more and more people being forced to leave their homes due to climate change and environmental degradation. According to the World Bank1, in the most pessimistic scenario of a system where global temperatures continue to rise and sustainable solutions are not efficiently implemented, the number of climate migrants could reach 216.1 billion by 2050. On top of that, UNHCR reports that 90% of refugees come from countries that are the least able to adapt to the effects of climate change while being the most disaster-prone. Additionally, these countries already host large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons.
It is often quite difficult to establish when climate change, alone or in conjunction with other variables, is the main force driving migration. If on the one hand displacement of people triggered by fast-onset disasters related to climate change is easier to identify, as it may be flooding or wildfires, it is much more difficult to collect data and quantify displacement brought on by more gradual slow-onset effects, for instance, sea level rise, salinization or drought. Moreover, environmental factors are typically closely linked to socioeconomic, political, demographic, cultural and personal factors that influence mobility. Climate change is a threat multiplier that aggravates existing insecurity trends. For instance, droughts, floods, and heatwaves can lead to crop failures, livestock losses, and reduced access to water resources, resulting in food scarcity and economic hardship. Moreover, environmental degradation can create tensions among different groups, escalating into political conflicts and even violence. These conflicts can disrupt governance systems, weaken institutions, and further destabilize already fragile political environments leading people to migrate in search of safety and security. These migration flows, driven by climate change, can further strain host communities and create new challenges for governance systems, potentially leading to additional political complexities.
Migration may be an efficient adaptation solution for some people. But migration is not the choice everyone wants – or can – take. On the one hand, people forced to flee must leave behind their homes, valuables, but also see disruption of established social networks and jeopardize access to essential services, education, and healthcare. However, when migration is identified as a potentially beneficial solution to improve living conditions, some individuals struggle to engage in migration because they lack the resources to do. The impacts of climate change, such as droughts, floods, and desertification, disproportionately affect marginalized communities that are already impoverished. Climate change exacerbates existing inequalities and reinforces the notion that those who contribute least to environmental degradation are often the ones most affected by its consequences.
This is why it is of utmost importance to understand root causes in all their complexity and to address both the environmental and human factors when discussing climate change-related displacement or migration, whether it is voluntary or forced, inside national borders or outside, temporary or permanent.
Environmental displacement is evidently a phenomenon embedded in a system that prioritizes profit over people and the planet. This system is fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources, the relentless pursuit of economic growth, and the perpetuation of social and economic inequalities. The current economic system is largely responsible for the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change. Companies and governments often prioritize short-term economic gains over the long-term health of the planet, leading to unsustainable practices such as deforestation, overfishing, and the burning of fossil fuels. This not only harms the environment but also impacts communities that rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. Moreover, our economy is characterized by significant wealth inequality, with a small fraction of the world’s population owning a disproportionate share of wealth and resources. This inequality leaves many people vulnerable to the effects of climate change without the resources to face it, adapt to it and recover from it.
To address these issues, we need to transform the economic system into one that prioritises sustainability, social justice, and equity. We must shift away from the current model of consumption-based economic growth towards a more sustainable and equitable approach that values the well-being and resilience of people and the planet over profit. By demonstrating that alternative models are viable and effective, projects and initiatives that build on these principles pave the way for a future where social, economic, and climate justice are integrated into the very fabric of society. MADE51, an initiative from UNHCR and implemented by WFTO, creates direct livelihood opportunities and sustainable income for refugees with artisanal skills by partnering with Local Social Enterprises (LSEs) in host countries, ensuring Fair Trade standards are respected – including environmental concerns, fair wages, good working conditions – and by supporting market-access for refugee-made products.
WFTO and our community of Fair Trade Enterprises, activists and supporters are changing the economy from within. We do so not only by investing in renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, sustainable fashion and craftmanship, among others. But also, by advocating for policy change to promote environmental protection, reduce inequality, and support the development of resilient communities. By aligning profit with purpose, responsible businesses can foster a more sustainable and inclusive world, providing opportunities for refugees and promoting the protection of our planet for generations to come.
By Alessandra Casareggio
1 Clement, Viviane, Kanta Kumari Rigaud, Alex de Sherbinin, Bryan Jones, Susana Adamo, Jacob Schewe, Nian Sadiq, and Elham Shabahat. 2021. Groundswell Part 2: Acting on Internal Climate Migration. Washington, DC: The World Bank