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Climate Change Refugees - In a Land of Despair

By Olivia Baccellieri

Global Warming has been in our public conscious for the better part of the 21st-Century. We have been flooded with images of polar bears hanging onto melting ice caps, hazy pollution in Beijing, and “superstorms”. However, one element of climate change that has not been widely reported on, is the effect that it has on particular groups of people. In the Eastern hemisphere, millions of people in developing countries have been faced with an incredibly difficult choice - to live through the effects of climate change, or to leave their homelands.

Data collected from 103 Eastern Hemisphere countries between 2000-2014 demonstrates a significant trend amongst asylum seekers: a growing proportion are fleeing due to climate change. In 2010, Syria experienced a devastating drought, which led to a large faction of the country’s farmers to leave their lands due to the inhospitable soil. In conjunction with the deadly low levels of rainfall, the Syrian government began to wage a civil war against its citizens, which sent millions of other citizens to seek refuge.

However, lack of rain is not the primary concern for climate refugees. Climate refugee researchers have found that “a 1°C warming in temperature results in a relatively modest 6% increase in asylum applications for the European Union countries, but a 5°C warming leads to a 175% increase”. These researchers calculated that the optimal temperature for farmers to produce their crops was at 20°C, but many of the surveyed countries experienced marked increases in temperatures between 2000 and 2014.

When people flee their countries due to climate changes such as dramatic temperature increases or floods brought on by extreme weather patterns, they have limited options in claiming asylum. This is largely due in part to countries failing to update the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that people can only claim asylum if they are being persecuted due to their race, religion, national or political affiliation. Therefore, if people are fleeing their native lands due to climate-related issues, they cannot technically achieve “refugee status”. This places millions of people who are living in endangered lands in a precarious position, as they cannot officially claim political aid from other countries due to not falling under the Convention’s classification.

Currently, few countries are actively trying to help those who are fleeing their homelands due to climate change. However, that does not make it impossible. In New Zealand, a legislative official has proposed adding a new visa category for people seeking refuge due to climate change. Should this initiative be signed into law, New Zealand could become a safe haven for those living in Pacific Island territories at high risk for flooding. More countries need to reconsider their approach to refugee qualifications, and the tangible impact that climate change is already having on our environment. Our contemporary lifestyle choices have directly led to climate change. We cannot refuse to acknowledge the consequences of our actions, and inactions, in regards to climate change. We also cannot refuse to help people who have been displaced by no fault of their own. For future generations, those living in developed nations need to strive for better humanitarian legislation in place to ensure that no person is left in lands of despair.


Missirian, A., & Schlenker, W. (2017). Asylum applications respond to temperature fluctuations. Science, 358(6370), 1610-1614.

Sengupta, S. (2017, December 21). Climate Change Is Driving People From Home. So Why Don’t They Count as Refugees? The New York Times.

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