When we think of a refugee or humanitarian crisis, history has to a degree trained us to only consider these tragedies in political, militaristic, or for lack of a better word “human” terms. In our minds, refugee crises stem from mortal evils; war, genocide, political machinations, and human apathy.
Whether we are contemplating refugee crises such as the 1991 Somali Civil War which left over 2 million people displaced both within and outside the country’s borders, or the 2.5 million stranded following the breakup of Yugoslavia; it is at this point almost natural to see these events only in terms of a conflict that stems from stressors between human against human.
However, our modern understanding of the nature of refugee crises around the globe adds another critical stressor to the phenomenon; the environment. According to the Brookings Institute, “climate change has and will continue to create a multitude of critical issues that the international community must confront”, giving rise to a growing term that governs our current understanding of the refugee crisis; “climate refugees”.
The impacts of climate change are innumerable, and many of these impacts work to directly increase instances of displacement. Today, natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, building intra-national competition and subsequent tension amongst global neighbors. Further, crops and livestock are struggling to survive in many habitats worldwide. The increased frequency of severe weather events are stressing a plethora of countries, and specific pressure is being placed on the U.S.- Mexican border due to climate change effects in South America.
Any one of these issues alone stands to bring a considerable burden on our global refugee crisis. Together, they work to create a nearly indomitable force.
“People are trying to adapt to the changing environment, but many are being forcibly displaced from their homes by the effects of climate change and disasters, or are relocating to survive,” says the UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency). “New displacement patterns and competitions over depleted natural resources can spark conflict between communities or compound pre-existing vulnerabilities”.
In 2018, extreme weather events including drought in Afghanistan, a tropical cyclone in Samoa, and flooding in the Philippines all resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis that required acute intervention from groups such as the UNHCR. In nearly all cases, these countries are still struggling with the effects of these disasters today.
Over the past few years, there has been considerable discussion concerning the refugee crisis in Europe, and these issues have only been reignited as we enter deeper into the COVID-19 pandemic. Frustrations amongst Syrian refugees undergoing COVID-19 lockdown on the island of Lesbos while awaiting relocation to Germany led to the burning of multiple camps and further instability amongst the community. The pandemic is confronting us with the reality of the cross-section between environmental neglect and human neglect, and the consequences will be severe.
“If Europe believes they have an issue with migration today, wait another 20 years” says retired US military corps brigadier general Stephen Cheney. “When climate change drives people, and we’re not talking about just one to two million, but 10 to 20, from Africa- specifically the Sahel- they are not going to South Africa, they are going across the Mediterranean.”
The numbers are clear, human migration is on the rise and the effects of climate-related displacement will inevitably task our global alliances and resilience in ways that are nearly impossible to imagine.
By 2050, the World Bank anticipates that the regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia will generate over 140 million new climate refugees. We are staring down the barrel of a disaster of epic proportions. Our response must match the moment.
Therefore, the call is clear. Acute and swift action must be taken as climate change is already wreaking havoc on our world in a myriad of ways- the growing refugee crisis chief amongst them.
Though not intuitive at first glance, our individual actions as consumers can greatly shift the tide of this issue. The decisions we make in our day-to-day life, and the decisions we make as a community, affect the environment, which in turn impacts the trajectory of anticipated political crises.
Though it can often seem as if we are powerless to act, though it can often seem easier to place the responsibility in the hands of the “decision-makers” and the politicians seated at the top of our governmental systems- in truth the responsibility for action rests squarely on our shoulders.
Displacement and the growing climate refugee crisis, a humanitarian challenge greater than we have seen, is at our doorstep. It is our time to do something about it.