Recognizing the rights of climate refugees is the first step to relocating the millions of vulnerable island-nation residents who could be displaced in the next 3 decades
- By 2050, the World Bank estimates there could be 216 million internal climate refugees worldwide.
- People living in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands are at a greater risk of climate displacement.
- While Caribbean islands have some of the lowest greenhouse-gas emissions, they're most vulnerable.
As temperatures reach a breaking point worldwide, so does the global migration crisis.
Last year, over 32 million people around the world were forced to flee their homes because of natural disasters, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre found. That's the highest figure in a decade.
By 2050, the World Bank estimates that climate change could force 216 million people to be displaced from their homes within their own countries. A report by the Institute for Economics and Peace suggested that over 1 billion people could face displacement because of natural disasters within the next 30 years.
For those living in the Caribbean and Pacific islands, who largely live in coastal areas and rely on natural resources for their livelihood, that risk is imminent.
"We need to recognize that climate displacement is happening now. It isn't a future issue — it's a current issue that grows more urgent every day," Ama Francis, a climate-displacement project strategist at the International Refugee Assistance Project, said.
Migration and the climate crisis
In August, wildfires devastated the Hawaiian island of Maui, resulting in a death toll of at least 115 people. An estimated 4,500 people have been displaced from their homes. Climate change is thought to be one of several contributors to the wildfires — as droughts increased in the region, vegetation dried, creating dry conditions conducive to fires.
In an essay for Time following the wildfires, Kaniela Ing, a former Hawaii state legislator, underscored how those most affected by the climate crisis were often Indigenous, Black, brown, and low-income communities.
"These groups have contributed the least to climate change, but have suffered the most, and must be prioritized in our transition to a better world," Ing wrote.
Migration and the climate crisis are inextricably linked, climate experts say. Without addressing the emergency, the migration crisis will continue to escalate.
"Only addressing migration without acknowledging climate change disregards the increasing drivers of migration," Adelle Thomas, a senior fellow at the University of the Bahamas, said.
According to data analyzed by ProPublica and The New York Times, 1% of the planet is considered "a barely habitable hot zone." By 2070, that number could reach 19%. This crisis could trigger a series of massive migrations worldwide.
Island nations are especially vulnerable
Island nations in the Caribbean and the Pacific are especially vulnerable to natural disasters, such as hurricanes, increased drought, and changes in rainfall patterns. A case study by Francis from 2019 found that the Caribbean region accounted for six out of the 10 countries and territories worldwide with the highest average annual internal displacement per capita. A 2018 IDMC report also predicted that 5.9% of the population of the Bahamas could be displaced annually because of tropical cyclones.
Yet experts say there's no sustainable adaptation strategy. Thomas told Insider that our ability to respond to climate hazards in the Caribbean was constrained by the region's small physical size, limited economies of scale, small relative population size, and limited reliance on natural-environment sectors.
"These characteristics make it more difficult to sustainably develop and also make it more challenging to respond to the escalating hazards that climate change presents," Thomas said.
On top of the lack of policies, climate researchers said international legal protections for climate refugees were made almost impossible through a narrow set of rules defined by the Refugee Convention.
No nation accepts climate change, specifically, as a reason to offer asylum, Kayly Ober, a senior program officer for the climate, environment, and conflict program at the US Institute of Peace, said.
"I do believe that we need a strengthened system in which climate change should be part of the assessment and criteria used to determine refugee or status," she said.
Recognizing the rights of climate-displaced people
In 2019, Hurricane Dorian left about 70,000 Bahamians homeless. The Trump administration would not grant Temporary Protected Status to those who sought refuge from the natural disaster, despite acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan saying that the status would be "appropriate" given the circumstances.
"I don't want to allow people that weren't supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers," President Donald Trump said in a controversial press briefing following the hurricane.
"Relocation of people is a very complex process that will need to incorporate the involvement of the international community in the event that there is a need for international migration," Thomas said. "As we see global temperatures continue to rise, there is a critical need for further attention to these issues in order to develop potential solutions for just and equitable migration."
If there's one thing the international community, including the US, could do, it's strengthen the policy to recognize the rights of climate-displaced people, experts told Insider
Francis suggested the Biden administration implement existing legal tools outlined in a 2021 International Refugee Assistance Project report. Policies include leveraging the US refugee definition, Temporary Protected Status, and training for immigration officials to recognize how the climate crisis contributes to valid refugee claims.
"Since 2008, climate-related and other environmental disasters have displaced more people within their own countries than conflict," Francis told Insider. "As climate change increasingly drives people to flee their homes, there is a pressing need to build on existing law to address climate displacement."
Climate experts agree that displacements in the Pacific and the Caribbean are also a social-justice issue.
"If we look, historically and even now, at which countries have been emitting the majority of greenhouse gasses versus who is suffering from impacts, then we see incredible injustices," Thomas said.
In fact, while Caribbean islands have some of the world's lowest greenhouse gas emissions, they are the most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis.
By using a climate-justice lens, Thomas added, supporting those who are being displaced is "not charity but instead addresses injustices and inequalities that have caused this need in the first place."
Experts say there's still a lot of work to be done. In addition to reducing emissions, climate advocates call for strengthened policies to ensure those affected by climate disasters have access to safety.
"People shouldn't be forced to leave home because of climate change," Francis said. "Providing islands with the resources to adapt is very important so that people can stay in place if that's what they choose."
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