How Climate Change Could Cause the Next Big Refugee Crisis

The current refugee crisis has not emerged solely because of the problems caused by climate change, but environmental and humanitarian groups are warning that the next major crisis could be, and that we need to start preparing now.

The threat of war, general civil unrest, and religiously motivated violence have been among the key driving forces that have led to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and surrounding regions and entering Europe with the hope of finding safety. As Europe struggles to cooperate and come up with a reasonable and fair way to share its duty of care to refugees, prominent global voices are warning that while this crisis may not be solely down to climate change, future refugee crises will be.

It is worth mentioning though that some scientists say that the current crisis in Syria may have been exacerbated by climate change.

Professor Richard Seager is quoted by the Independent as saying that there are many contributing factors to the crisis, but we can’t forget Syria’s recent history where over a million and a half refugees were forced to flee their rural communities due in large part to a persistent drought, a weather phenomena that scientists argue is a result of man-made climate change. Seager and like-minded researchers believe that this served to increase tensions in the region and made the already impoverished incredibly vulnerable to losing their homes and being displaced by conflict. This raises a red flag because many of Syria’s surrounding nations are also experiencing the effects of drought. In addition, many African nations and specifically East African nations like the Sudan are vulnerable to drought and resulting conflict as crop yields go down and food prices soar.

These aren’t casual links either. Research seems to support the notion that changes to the climate can create economic pressures which in turn increases civil unrest and can turn into civil wars. Drought need not be the only driving-force of conflict, though. Flash flooding could conceivably displace thousands if not millions of people, with several nations in South Asia seeming particularly vulnerable to this problem. Repeated flooding could lead to loss of food security, health infrastructure being undermined, loss of housing and even a loss of terrain, which could displace many communities in a relatively short space of time.

There are other real-life examples of this happening, too. Global warming teemed with coral reef destruction was blamed for forcing island communities in Panama to relocate to the mainland in 2010. While their numbers were easily absorbed, rising sea levels are making island and even coastal homes potentially unsafe places to live.

It is true that the specifics of these concerns–the exact nations that will be affected and how they will be affected–are only speculation at this time, but what seems agreed upon is that in the future climate change will be a central driving force behind what could be one of the biggest refugee management problems the world will have ever faced, and unless we prepare for that eventuality now we will not be able to react with the swiftness that will be needed to ensure we can give life saving help when it is needed.

To do that our management strategies will need to take a multifaceted approach. Firstly, nations will need to agree ahead of time their refugee distribution plans. International agreements are significantly lacking when it comes to concrete details like how many refugees individual countries should take and how that should be worked out. This has led to countries like Germany planning to take hundreds of thousands of refugees while other EU countries are fighting to take as few refugees as possible despite being able to support many thousands. In order to stop this squabbling, world leaders need to come up with a better system and one that takes into consideration more than just which “safe” countries refugees might reach or arbitrary quotas that are in place for political rather than humanitarian reasons.

Environmentally displaced refugees, who are not fleeing because of war but because their home regions are now too inhospitable to support them, will also need to be given specific recognition in international law. Currently, the Geneva Convention gives refugees fleeing war and violence in their home countries special status, but the law gives no such recognition to climate refugees and so there aren’t same mechanisms in place to help those people. Given that by 2050 it’s estimated some 200 million people may be displaced due to climate change, that omission cannot continue. There have been some moves to create policy around that, but world leaders must put in place concrete regulations so as to ensure we can help people when that time comes or else climate change refugees may be turned away.

In addition to this, economically prosperous countries need to recognize that unlike armed conflict that has displaced refugees in the past, climate change refugees may come not from sub-Saharan Africa or from any impoverished nation but may originate from within what are considered wealthy western nations. While it is true that climate change effects will likely take longer to manifest in prosperous countries, they will have an impact on the entire globe. Creating strategies now could save a loss of life in the future, whether at home or abroad.

In that vein, US Secretary of State John Kerry is quoted as saying during a speech to a global warming conference in Alaska earlier this year that, “You think migration is a challenge in Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for more survival.” He went on to say that the global community needed to make an effort of cooperation akin to that which was seen in World War II, and that nothing less will help meet the challenges that climate change will throw at us.

If this refugee crisis–one in a long line of crises to effect impoverished nations–can teach us anything, it is that we are under-prepared, but we cannot afford to be in the future. The climate talks in Paris at the end of the year should, then, be the venue at which world leaders finally step up to the plate, acknowledge the threat of climate change, and make agreements that will safeguard the lives of people who may at the moment be enjoying prosperity but who could, in just few decades, be made homeless by a rapidly shifting environment and the conflicts it can cause.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla3 years ago

Shared... This is just getting started...

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran3 years ago


Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell3 years ago

Thank you

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld3 years ago

Monica S.,
Global warming has not, and is not forecast to increase high temperatures. Rather, it increases low temperatures, by inhibiting heat loss at night, during the winter, and at higher latitudes. This has been evident in the U.S. over the past century.


The warming, if unabated, will continue to raise sea levels by one foot (250 mm) each century. This will not sink New Zealand.

Robert F.,

Warming leads to increased rainfall, not less. This is an average, with some places getting more, others less. Met office predictions of a cool Atlantic indicate that some places, notably North Africa, may return to the drier climate of the 70s and 80s.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W3 years ago

Thanks so much for sharing

Lorraine Andersen

Ultimately we need less people on this planet. I to the store and see nothing but women with 2-3-4 children and pregnant again. To me that is irresponsible behavior to not only the children, but bringing them into a world that cannot support them anymore, but to the world by adding to its already over heavy burden. We need the 1 child rule for everyone until the population of this planet becomes sustainable.

Diana T.
Diana T3 years ago

Overpopulation&man's inhumanity to man causes most refugee "crisises"-sometimes natural disasters,too..

Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

Tip of the iceberg...

Ron B.
Ron B3 years ago

Of course more human birth control is the ultimate answer. But the human population, fed by high birth rates in Asia and Africa especially, will continue to explode out of control. Global warming is just one of the factors that is going to hasten the chaotic plunge of our population. The human race in general is too unstable and ignorant to be expected to do the right thing in this case. Unfortunately, the upcoming disaster was inevitable from the very beginning due to human nature. Gaia has had more than enough and it will soon be payback time. So be it.