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by James Curran and Sam Curran
20 January 2023
We need to start preparing for the impact of thousands of climate migrants

Parched earth in the south of France, 2021 | Credit: Alamy

We need to start preparing for the impact of thousands of climate migrants

Addressing the global climate emergency, and the attendant nature crisis, are the defining debates of our age. The mitigation of climate change demands concerted and co-ordinated efforts worldwide to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. This is tough, but perhaps relatively straightforward in the political challenge, and clarity, needed to bring it about.

More complex, and potentially undermining, are the unresolved questions of who should pay for loss and damage - the increasingly severe and destructive climate-driven impacts on lives, livelihoods and infrastructure. 

Many of these rising costs fall on the developing world, which not only has limited financial resource, but also argues that it has done the least to cause climate change in the first place.  Complex arguments also concern paying for climate change adaptation – the investment needed to make infrastructure and key sectors, such as agriculture, more resilient to extreme heat, drought, flood and storm.

The recent CoP27, held in Egypt, agreed that a global loss and damage mechanism should, in principle, be created. But the debate will, doubtless, drag on as to the sources of funding, as well as the priorities for spend.

Another potentially contentious issue, which has received less media coverage, is the anticipation of growing numbers of climate refugees – people forced to move because their homeland becomes uninhabitable or the local services and economy collapse due to climate-related pressures. To be clear, at the outset, the use of the term “refugee” is inappropriate. By definition, a refugee is one who is displaced and unable to return home due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular group. 

Despite working for a decade “on bringing climatic and environmental factors to the light and on building a body of evidence proving that climate change affects – directly and indirectly – human mobility” the UN’s Migration Agency is not keen to propose a new legal framework to create a defined climate refugee. The Agency prefers the term “climate migrant”.

Only refugees can claim asylum. The UN currently at least, recommends a more human rights-based approach to the growing issue of climate migration. The existing bodies of laws and instruments should be applied. This is because of several reasons:

  • A lengthy debate to create a new refugee status might undermine and deprioritise the over-riding need to combat the causes of climate change
  • Climate migration is, currently, largely within territorial borders – so individuals remain the responsibility of the home country
  • In contrast to refugees’ experience, climate migration may, at heart, remain a matter of choice as to when individuals respond to some slow-onset events, such as escalating years of drought
  • Isolating climate impacts from other factors, such as social, economic and political changes would be very difficult – particularly for those who already have few resources or access to legal and technical support.

Certainly, a functioning loss and damage funding mechanism and financial support for adaptation may, eventually, provide the necessary assistance to help governments reduce and manage their own internally displaced population.

The Nansen Initiative is a state-led consultative process intending to reach a consensus on the protection of people who are displaced across national borders, due to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change. The Nansen Report recognises that, even by 2015, an average of 22.5M people were displaced each year by weather and climate-related hazards, and over 50 countries had experienced cross-border displacements. This is estimated to represent around 2/3 of total global internal displacements, with the great majority of these found in southern and east Asia and the Pacific region, with the predominant drivers being storm and flood 

Syria is often cited as the clearest example of climate change both compounding and multiplying pre-existing threats to national security. This country of 18M people has suffered prolonged and severe droughts since the 1980s, that of 2006 to 2010 being estimated as a 1 in 900 year event.

Rising temperatures and lack of rain turned previously productive agricultural land to desert, with 85 per cent of livestock dying. Farmer income crashed and 1.5M rural workers headed to the cities, placing extreme strain on housing and services. Food had to be imported, worsening a dire position for those already in poverty. A situation was created ripe for exploitation by opposing factions, leading to civil unrest and warfare. The result was 6.6M displaced people, with 5M leaving the country altogether. Some came to the UK with the UK Office of National Statistics suggesting that there were 48,000 Syrian-born residents in the UK in 2019, a rise of around 40,000 since the census of 2011.

There is limited evidence on the underlying reasons for a migrant’s choice of destination. It seems frequently that the migrant has rather little knowledge of the eventual destination, and even less so of the immigration and asylum rules, or of the availability of benefits. It appears that the destination is driven primarily by a sense of safety as well as, to some degree, by location of family and friends, comfort with language and cultural connections, by the decisions of people smugglers, and by a fair degree of chance.

There are currently 6M people living in the UK who have nationality other than British, while it is estimated that there are around 280M migrants globally. So, it could be said that the UK is the destination for around two per cent of all migrants. Certainly, with an existing population with many international family and cultural connections, related to some degree to the history of the empire and Commonwealth, and with the global popularity of English as a common language, then the UK may seem a disproportionately attractive destination (the UK itself has only 0.85 per cent of the global population). 

Additionally, in the search for security from climate change impacts, then it appears that the UK, although certainly not immune from damaging impacts, will suffer much less than other parts of the world.

The prediction of climate change itself is extremely demanding – not just the underlying science but the need to develop scenarios of how global emissions may track in future. Predicting climate migration is even harder and must be treated as highly speculative. There are many interacting factors.

An IEP report has been widely quoted, for example by Zurich Insurance, as suggesting there may be 1.2bn climate migrants by 2050. There are 27 identified countries that face “catastrophic ecological threats” and have limited resilience capability. They are located in two main clusters:  sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa.  These regions are home to 0.75bn people. 

A principal threat will be food insecurity, driven by water stress. On the other hand, the World Bank suggests a more modest figure of 200m displaced people by 2050. The USA is certainly beginning to take the likelihood of mass climate migration seriously but adopts a particular focus on supporting preparedness and resilience in the impacted countries.

The modern economic migrant, seeking a better life in another country, is typically relatively young, healthy, skilled, ambitious and has some independent financial resource – if only to pay organised people smugglers. 

In contrast, the typical climate migrant will have a wider age and gender balance, may well be completely dispossessed, and could be suffering from mental and physical ill-health. Many climate impacts, such as extreme heat and repeated drought, occur at regional scale, so it seems more than likely that climate migrants may predominantly have to relocate across borders and be supported and routed through internationally organised and funded migration routes. This happened under a UNHCR resettlement scheme in Syria which relocated around half of the total displaced persons out of the country.

If the UK continued to be the destination for around two per cent of global migrants, then the UK could expect to receive between 4m and 24m migrants by 2050, or perhaps, more realistically, a lower 2m to12m if around half displaced people remain within their own countries. Anywhere within this range is likely to engender some intense political debate.

At present, there is no inclination to address climate migration within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (the host of the CoP series of international climate discussions). But it could arise that severely-impacted countries, and others, demand an internationally managed process of relocation and thereby expect richer, safer countries and those historically more responsible for climate change to do more to accommodate climate migrants. 

The UK is rich and, in climate terms, relatively less climate-impacted. The UK is also the 5th biggest historical emitter of carbon dioxide, responsible for five per cent of past emissions - which have driven climate change. That percentage will drop as the years go by, since China and India are becoming leading emitters. However, it may well be argued that the UK should receive significantly more climate migrants than the proportion based on past precedent.  If so, then the UK might be in line for between 5m to 30m migrants.

The destination, within the UK, of international migrants is rather localised with a considerable concentration in London. Scotland, historically, has received around five per cent of UK migrants. So, again taking a simplistic approach, Scotland might, arguably, expect to receive between 250,000 and 1.5m migrants by 2050.

Over the near 30-year period to 2050, this might indicate a range of annual climate migration to Scotland of between 8000 and 50,000 individuals per year. However, it would be expected, as climate change progresses and impacts intensify in a non-linear way, that rates of migration might be more weighted towards later years. 

It must be heavily emphasised that these scenarios are extremely tentative, verging on guesswork. But they should serve to prompt appropriate strategic and options thinking on how best the UK, and Scotland, might prepare in order to be sufficiently resilient to credible scenarios.

The Nansen Report claims that “potentially every state could be confronted with such displacement, either as a country of destination, transit or origin” and the Nansen Protection Agenda  proposes that all nations should:

  • Prepare enhanced data, evidence and knowledge
  • Seek to support disaster-reduction measures in the impacted countries
  • Ensure cross-actor collaboration
  • Deliver enhanced humanitarian protection measures
  • Protect cross-border disaster-displaced people
  • Put in place a broad set of effective practices to ensure an appropriate destination response

In the UK and Scottish context this might mean that governments, at UK level and at devolved level, should work within the international community to ensure that adequate funding is directed to overseas climate adaptation measures and to compensate loss and damage in countries with the greatest risk of humanitarian crisis. 

In this respect, the Scottish Government has shown a lead in being the first to offer funds to the loss and damage mechanism at CoP26 and to follow up with additional funds at CoP27. Other public bodies and NGOs can, of course, offer support in their own ways. 

At home, it will be increasingly valuable for public services to recognise, in their strategic planning, that there may be a growing influx of climate migrants. The demography of the migrants may differ from past experience, and there may be fairly large and rapid fluctuations in numbers.

Adaptation to climate change is being increasingly recognised as a feature of strategic planning right across the public and private sectors – in terms of local resilience to environmental consequences, to interruption of public services and utility supplies, as well as to disrupted global supply chains. 

The World Economic Forum  has just released its 2023 analysis of longer-term global risks. The top three are all climate related, the fourth is the closely-related collapse of ecosystems. The fifth highest risk is “large scale involuntary migration”. Strategic planners everywhere must now think seriously about climate migration.

Professor James Curran is a former chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and former chair of the James Hutton Institute 

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