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Climate refugees

Clara Walther / sgb
January 29, 2013

Millions of people worldwide are fleeing their homes because of environmental disasters. But the conditions in which the refugees have to take up residence in neighboring countries isn't regulated by international law.

ISomali refugees collect water at the Ifo refugee camp outside Dadaab, eastern Kenya. (Photo:Jerome Delay/AP/dapd)
Image: AP

In recent years, the world has experienced a rise in the number of natural disasters, which could be attributed to climate change. As a result, more and more people are fleeing from the consequences of climate change, experts say. It is estimated that there are between 100,000 and 200,000 Somalis who have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Kenya because of changing climactic conditions.

They weren't only driven away from their country by war, but also by drought and famine. Many of the families involved, now just barely surviving in refugee camps, once lived as nomads. The animals that secured their livelihoods died of hunger, leaving them with no perspective and nowhere to turn. But more problematic is their future plight. The international community is yet to come up with effective strategies to deal with refugees of this type.

Western countries bear at least moral responsibility for this suffering, says Swiss law expert Walter Kälin. Industrialized countries created a lot of the conditions that are responsible for climate change – like the cars and factories that led to huge amounts of carbon emissions. As a result, up to 150 million people could be displaced as a result of climage change by 2050, according to a worst-case scenario projection by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Not recognized as refugees

Walter Kälin is due to speak at the International Conference for Climate Refugees in Berlin at the end of January as an envoy of the Nansen Initiative, which aims to exchange knowledge with affected states and to work with them on creating standards for dealing with climate refugees.

People queue outside a food distribution center as they wait to be registered as refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, (Photo:Schalk van Zuydam/AP/dapd)
Women and children are especially vulnerable to climate changesImage: dapd

"There is too much resistance to new legal agreements in the international community in this area," he says, noting that the countries that have been affected by the influx of refugees fear having to take in more people.

Currently, climate change refugees have few rights. While international law provides protection for political refugees, climate and environmental refugees are inadequately covered. If they are taken in by a neighboring country, the support that they are supposed to receive is unclear.

Developing adaptation strategies

Still, the international community has been able to agree that countries, especially in the southern hemisphere, have to adapt to climate change and protect themselves against natural disasters. In 2011, a Green Climate Fund was set up at the UN Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa, to help countries adapt to climate change. The fund was provided with 30 billion euros ($40 billion) of initial capital, which is now set to be increased to 100 billion euros ($134 billion) by 2020.

In an interview with DW, deputy director of the German Institute for Human Rights, Michael Windfuhr, drew attention to the importance of adaptation strategies. For example, in the Netherlands, he says it's obvious that scenarios have to be developed on how to deal with those people who in the long term would lose their houses due to a rise in sea level. The governments of developing countries will also have to deal with the impact of climate change on their populations.

Michael Windfuhr, Deputy Director of the German Institute for Human Rights
Michael Windfuhr wants more government involvementImage: Deutsches Institut für Menschenrechte

Local solutions

In Uganda, it is becoming more difficult for farmers to grow coffee due to rising temperatures. Currently, a large proportion of small-scale farmers rely on this for their livelihood.

"If Uganda does not address this issue at all, these people could all eventually become refugees. However, if national and international resources are applied to address the problem, this may not happen," Windfuhr told DW.

He calls for more responsibility from the countries that are particularly threatened by climate change. This also means that poor and marginalized communities, which tend to be more affected by climate disasters, must be taken seriously by governments and supported. Only then can they get the help they need locally, so that masses of people do not flee into the unknown.

Someone holding coffee beans (Photo: Fabian Bimmer, AP)
In Uganda, it is becoming harder to grow coffee due to climate changeImage: AP

But, western countries also shouldn't be absolved of responsibility. Until now, Uganda has even lacked a reasonable weather service, without doubt a prerequisite to be able to predict climate change and respond to it. Expertise and technologies from overseas could be used to help rectify this problem quickly.