Future floods of refugees: A comment on climate change, conflict and forced migration




Kolmannskog, V. O.


Future floods of refugees: A comment on climate change, conflict and forced migration




Norwegian Refugee Council


With the certainty of global warming, the term “climate refugees” is gaining popularity in public discourse. There seems to be some fear in the developed countries that they, if not flooded literally, will most certainly be flooded by ”climate refugees”. From a forced migration perspective, the term is flawed for several reasons. The term “climate refugees” implies a mono-causality that one rarely finds in human reality. No one factor, event or process, inevitably results in forced migration or conflict. It is very likely that climate change impacts will contribute to an increase in forced migration. Because one cannot completely isolate climate change as a cause however, it is difficult, if not impossible, to stipulate any numbers. Importantly, the impacts depend not only on natural exposure, but also on the vulnerability and resilience of the areas and people, including capacities to adapt. At best, we have “guesstimates” about the possible form and scope of forced migration related to climate change. Climate change will have several impacts on the environment which in turn can impact on forced migration and conflict. Gradual environmental degradation and slow-onset disasters such as drought are likely to increase due to climate change. Most vulnerable are developing countries where large sections of the population live directly from agriculture and many of these from subsistence farming. Importantly, adaptation, involving for example different land-use techniques and livelihood diversification, would lessen the need to migrate. Climate change is also likely to lead to an increase in the frequency and severity of sudden disasters such as floods and storms. Many of the affected are particularly vulnerable (typically poor) people in develop- ing countries. Hence, they have little mobility. Climate change impacts can impoverish them and reduce their mobility even further. As is the case with drought, sudden disaster impact de- pends on several political and socio-economic factors, including adaptation measures (for example flood defence infrastructure). Forced migration is also likely to result from rising sea levels, and certain low-lying island states may disappear altogether, raising difficult questions of statelessness. Forced migration can be triggered by – and itself also trigger – environmental conflicts. In transit or at the place of destination, migration can (be perceived to and/or) contribute to a competition for already scarce resources such as land and water. Most conflicts with an environmental element have historically occurred within countries. The degradation of freshwater resources can trigger competition and conflict. Sudden disasters such as storms and floods often highlight existing domestic problems, revealing weaknesses of the government in power and may thereby exacerbate conflict. Conflict potential normally depends on a range of socio-economic and political factors often similar to those that can trigger forced migration. Governance and the role of the state are often crucial factors. In fact, cooperation rather than conflict may be the response to some environmental challenges. It is likely that developing countries in lower latitudes will continue in the near future to be the hotspots in several senses of the word. Faced with climate change, there may be some increase in planned migration that is longer-distance, longer-term and more permanent. Increased urbanisation with the possibility of secondary migration can also be expected. But most of the forced migration and conflict related to climate change, is likely to remain internal and regional. While the developed countries bear the main responsibility for climate change, one could question whether the dynamics of climate change, conflict and forced migration can and should be portrayed as a threat image of masses of refugees flooding over western borders. The sad truth is that there will be real floods, and if nothing changes, many of the affected will have little choice but to return and risk further flooding. From a legal point of view the term climate refugees is also inaccurate. Some authors have suggested amending the 1951 Refugee Convention to accommodate for environmental displacement. Others suggest drafting a separate convention. Resorting to quick-fix solutions of new laws and policies often fulfils an action function, the need to be seen to act, but closer consideration of the existing prevention and protection possibilities may prove helpful before new measures are enacted. In cases of severe environmental degradation and sudden disasters, the human rights principle of non-refoulement could apply. When there is a risk of certain ill-treatment, people are protected against return. A need for international protection could be met by granting humanitarian asylum or another protected status.


Kolmannskog, V. O. (2008). Future floods of refugees: A comment on climate change, conflict and forced migration. Oslo, Norwegian Refugee Council. URL : http://www.nrc.no/?did=9268973