Climate change aggravates social, economic, and security challenges in developing countries that have made the smallest contribution to it.
World leaders are set to gather in Glasgow at the end of October for two weeks at the COP26 UN climate conference. But whatever the outcome of the negotiations, people around the world will continue leaving their homes and countries due to extreme weather events and the effects of the climate emergency.
Since 2008, weather-related disasters have forced more than 21 million people globally to flee their homes — the equivalent of 41 people a minute. That number does not include those displaced by slow-onset climate impacts such as desertification and rising sea levels.
While data is hardly ever comprehensive, the number of people newly-uprooted within their own countries across the world hit a ten-year record of 40.5 million in 2020. The vast majority – 75 percent – of those displacements could be traced back to disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
While the 1951 refugee convention does not recognise environmentally displaced people or environmental migrants as ‘refugees’, there is increasing awareness the issue calls for standalone humanitarian and policy responses. The 2018 Global Compact on Refugees recognised that “climate, environmental degradation and disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements.”
Climate displacement and migration most affect the countries least equipped to deal with the consequences of a changing climate, aggravating social, economic, and security challenges, mostly in developing countries that have made the smallest contribution to climate change.
Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change. Four decades of conflict have compromised the country’s ability to respond adequately to droughts and severe water shortages, further contributing to instability and local conflicts over land.
Conflict, drought and insecurity have forced a third of Afghans to leave their homes since 2012. At the end of 2019, more than a million people in Afghanistan were displaced as a result of disasters, more than any other country.
As US and NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan, the second major drought in three years led to the loss of 40 percent of the country’s crops. Farming communities in northern and western provinces have been particularly affected.
Families were unable to put food on the table already before the Taliban takeover, with the UN estimating that 14 million Afghans, 35 percent of the country’s population, faced acute food insecurity. 3.2 million children under five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of the year.
Funding cuts after the Taliban takeover have hampered the response to the crisis in the aid-dependent country. The latest pledges, while essential to reduce extreme hunger, fall far short of what the country needs.
A low-lying country where more than 35 million people live in coastal areas, Bangladesh has been facing devastating storms and floods as well as drought and water shortages that have forced millions to migrate.
While people living in the country’s Ganges river delta have learned to cope with extreme weather events for centuries, climate change has disrupted weather patterns. One in every seven people in Bangladesh could be displaced by climate change by 2050, with an estimated 18 million people fleeing sea level rise alone.
Sea level rise has caused water salinisation and affected supplies of freshwater for drinking and agriculture. Coupled with soil degradation, it has caused considerable yield losses and price reductions as a result.
Despite the government’s often-praised adaptation efforts, many farming communities deprived of their livelihoods have moved to cities, mostly the capital Dhaka, or travelled abroad to seek work.
Rural families settling in the capital often end up living in urban slums on the city’s peripheries, in precarious and overcrowded housing conditions with poor sanitation.
In 2020, over 10,000 Bangladeshi migrants were recorded to have arrived irregularly in Europe, or were tracked transiting through Balkan countries, where they face pushbacks and are sometimes stuck for years in attempts to reach Europe.
Located along the Pacific typhoon belt, the Philippines faces about 20 storms or typhoons every year, more than any other country in the world. In 2020 alone, 4.4 million people were internally displaced by disasters across the archipelago, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the second largest number after China.
The trend is not a new one, however. The Philippines topped the list of countries whose residents are most affected by internal displacement in the last five years, ranking first or second. Over the last few years, the Climate Risk Index has consistently ranked it among the countries most affected by extreme weather events.
Recurring disasters have forced people to permanently leave their homes and migrate. More than one million Filipinos leave the country to work abroad every year. And while the country is seen as a model in regulating migration, many migrant workers are deceived into bonded or exploitative labour.
It is estimated that more than 8.6 million people living on some of the Philippines' 7,000 islands will be directly affected by rising sea levels in the next three decades.
Haiti is considered one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The country’s position in the hurricane belt makes it extremely prone to extreme weather events, with climate change increasing their intensity and frequency.
Earlier this year, rescue efforts following a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 1,400 people were hampered by Tropical Storm Grace, which brought heavy rains and wrought further destruction and damage. It was the latest in a series of weather disasters to hit the small island nation, including Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
A combination of economic woes and political turmoil after the assassination of the country’s president earlier this year saw more than 10,000 Haitians converge on the US border at Del Rio, Texas earlier this year. Images of border agents on horseback rounding up migrants shocked Americans and the world. However, most of those who arrived were sent back to Mexico.
Rising sea levels have long threatened Senegal’s coastal towns and cities.
The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said this year that sea levels on the West African coast are rising by between 3.5 and four millimetres a year.
With more than 52 percent of the population living in coastal areas, the encroaching ocean is threatening livelihoods.
In Senegal’s old colonial capital, St. Louis, floods have become more severe in recent years and coastal erosion has displaced thousands and forced some residents to move to a nearby displacement camp.
A World Bank study found that 80 percent of Saint-Louis will be at risk of flooding by 2080, and 150,000 people will have to relocate. The majority of west Africa’s coastal cities - home to 105 million people - face similar threats.