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NEWS / In 2014 natural disasters caused 19.3 million people to flee their homes
Category: Defence & Security, Government & Policy, International Development, Latest News

Image: Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012: Credit: Freedom House on Flikr: CC by 2.0
By Maya Sanchez

According to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), 19.3 million people worldwide were driven from their homes by natural disasters in 2014. 90% of these disasters were weather related. 

Currently people who are displaced by natural disasters tend to remain within their own countries. However, as the number of displaced people increases, this trend is set to change. The IDMC expect far more people to seek refuge in other countries.

The climate threat to vulnerable countries is very real. Large, populous countries such as Bangladesh and Philippines may loose large tracts of land, with millions likely to be forcibly displaced. Smaller countries and low-lying island states such as the Marshall Islands and the Maldives may disappear completely.

Political, legal and institutional protections for people who are forced to leave their homes by environmental disaster are sorely lacking. At present people migrating under because of climate-driven extreme weather events have no protection under the UN Refugee Convention, unlike those fleeing from war, persecution and other forms of violence against the person. Countries who receive climate refugees are within their legal rights to send them back to their home countries.

In 2015 the U.S Department of defence released a report “National Security Implications of Climate Change” it identified climate related risks and called climate change “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water”. The report also referred noted that, far from being a problem for the future, these impacts are occurring today. 

The US may be talking about it the issue now, but they are late to the party when it comes to forward-thinking policies toward climate change and migration. For that you can need to look to some of the lesser-known players in international power politics. The tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu (population 270,000) for example, suggested a global insurance scheme to compensate for climate-induced losses… in 1991. The countries efforts are now recognised as laying crucial groundwork for the inclusion of climate change migrants in the recently adopted Paris Agreement. 

The Paris agreement, adopted last December, calls for developing recommendations “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”, an explicit acknowledgment of the dangers of migration.

That all 195 signatories to the Paris agreement now recognise climate-driven migration as an issue is a vital step towards effective international policies and legal protections. There is much work still to do on this front, but as legal expert Cosmin Corendea, at the United Nations University said recently: “this is a continuing discussion, and it will not die.”