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Will World Leaders Overlook ‘Climate Refugees’ at COP 27?

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By Akhilesh Anilkumar

· 4 min read

The world is underprepared and critically unaware of an emerging crisis that will have an impact of global proportions: Climate Refugees.

While [COP 27 gets underway] and the grandeur it will unfold at Sharm El-Sheikh, one issue still seems to be overlooked, the climate refugee crisis. At the time of writing this article, flash flooding on an unprecedented scale has swept through Pakistan and rendered millions homeless. Sources suggest over 1/6th of the entire country’s population has been severely affected. The scale at which this disaster hit a completely unprepared nation has left it in shambles. While this may lead to yet another conversation among the lines of needing a system for Loss and Damage (which is critical), we should also use this opportunity to address and press the importance of climate refugees and the migration that follows these disasters.

Climate-induced displacement was not an agenda item last COP. The gravity of the climate refugee crisis is constantly overlooked. Climate refugees are rendered homeless and stateless by forces beyond human control.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) states, “People may have a valid claim for refugee status where the adverse effects of climate change interact with armed conflict and violence” while completely dismissing the term “climate refugees.” The agency, amongst other nations and organizations, is yet to endorse the term officially.

However, the situation remains similar or worse in cases of climate refugees compared to refugees from places of armed conflict and violence. Their homes become inhabitable and basic needs for survival are no longer available. The systemic neglect of climate refugees can stop them from accessing critical support systems and proper asylum. Also, in cases where the country facing the natural disaster is a host country for refugees of armed conflict or is currently undergoing an armed conflict, this can act as a double whammy. Pakistan, for example, hosts over 1.3 million registered refugees from Afghanistan and is currently undergoing critical political turmoil. During this current crisis, millions being rendered in the country as ‘climate refugees’ puts massive pressure on the system and the overall quality of life across the country.

More than 200 million people are expected to be permanently displaced over the next 30 years due to climate change. Around 50 million other people are expected to die from extreme climate-related events. It is high time we start a dialogue on climate refugees!

Refugee camps of climate refugees face the same inhumane conditions as those from armed conflict zones

In the capital city of the state of Kerala, India, hundreds of indigenous coastal community members live under inhumane conditions as climate refugees in various refugee camps. They have been rendered homeless for the past three years. The makeshift refugee camps they live in used to be schools, hospitals, and cement warehouses. In some cases, 15 people, including infants to the elderly over 80, share a small classroom in the school-turned refugee camp. For them, the birth, life, and death cycle resonate across a corner shared with hundreds of other refugees. Over 60 people share around five classrooms, taking turns to sleep in one instance.

How did a happy and self-reliant community of fishermen become climate refugees? Extreme coastal erosion! Which was caused by unscientific artificial construction and climate change. These displaced people have not yet been awarded a home of their own or granted even their basic rights. The Covid-19 pandemic came while these refugees lived in overcrowded camps. They battle through pandemics and other health crises with very little support. Fundamental human rights such as proper sanitation and the right to privacy seem entirely devoid and dreamlike at these camps.

Over the past two years of working with this community and refugee camps, I see a glimmer of hope in their eyes everytime someone new walks into the compound, hoping they bring some good news. They are still waiting eagerly for a chance to rekindle the joy of building a household and reliving a normal life.

The world must take a serious stance on addressing the global climate refugee crisis. While different parts of the world face adverse climate change-induced events daily, the need to systematically address the process of taking care of climate refugees is at an all-time high. The world has to recognise climate refugees officially, and this COP can be the start. The world leaders, international agency representatives, activists, and others must join hands and take a stand on climate refugees. We overlooked the issue at COP 26; we cannot afford to do that at Sharm El-Sheikh.

This article is also published on the author's blog. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Akhilesh Anilkumar is a UN India Youth Climate Leader and the Director and co-founder of Bring Back Green Foundation, which works on diverse problems related to climate change. He is also a Youth Advisor for World Ocean Day.

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