Report. A new report predicts a surge of people forced to leave their homes because of climate change. But climate refugees currently have no rights under international law.

Climate refugees could reach 300 million, a population without rights

Between 200 million and 300 million people could be forced to migrate due to the effects of climate change by the end of the century, as long as we’re not able to keep the temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius as set out by the Paris Agreement.

That forecast appears on the last page of the 2019 Report on the Green Economy, presented on Wednesday in Rimini on the occasion of the Ecomondo fair. Although it is difficult to make accurate and precise predictions, these numbers provide us with an order of magnitude to judge the gravity of the phenomenon. 

Furthermore, the World Bank, in a report published last year entitled “Preparing for Internal Climate Migration,” estimated that 143 million people could be forced to move within their countries to escape the longterm impacts of climate change. The phenomenon will mainly affect the poorest countries, but even Italy will not be immune. 

The report presented on Wednesday includes a forecast of what could happen in our country in the absence of mitigation and adaptation measures. By 2050, the number of people exposed to the risk of flooding due to rising sea levels could range from 72,000 to 90,000 (compared to 12,000 today), while by the end of the century the number could rise to between 198,000-265,000.

Globally, the largest migration movements are set to take place in around 50 countries, whose total population is expected to double by 2050. These are countries that have fewer resources to manage the risks, and whose survival depends precisely on those ecosystem services (forests, coasts, lakes and rivers) that are most under threat. Over the past two decades, most of the migrations due to climate change have occurred in non-OECD countries — that is, those in the developing world — and 97% of the people displaced due to sudden extreme climate events between 2008 and 2013 were in countries with medium-low incomes.

If we comb through the national reports that the participant states are providing to the secretariat of the Paris Agreement, we find that 44 out of 162 countries (mainly from Africa, Asia Pacific and Oceania) make specific reference to the phenomenon of migration due to the climate, whether internal or not. 

The scientists of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) also warn about this. In the report presented last summer dedicated to the soil and the risks of the degradation of ecosystems, it is emphasized that these phenomena will only amplify environmental migration, particularly in places where extreme climate events will jeopardize food safety and the very possibility of living in environments upset by rising temperatures or the desertification of soils.

Despite the great number of studies on this subject, the environmental causes of migration are not currently recognized by international law: environmental refugees have no recognized status and are therefore not entitled to any kind of protection. There is no convention on environmental refugees (and who knows how long it would take to establish one), nor can the victims of climate change be included in the category of ‘refugees’ as defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention. 

Only the UN’s Global Compact for Migration, established in 2018—and which the Conte government has refused to sign—introduced among its objectives that of “develop[ing] adaptation and resilience strategies to sudden-onset and slow-onset natural disasters,” which may include drought, the consequences of deforestation, fires, famine and pollution. Even this is little more than a statement of intent.

According to Filippo Miraglia, the head of migration issues for ARCI, the issue has had the attention of the United Nations for years, but no solution has been found so far. “I think the UN Assembly could step in by adding to the attributions of the UN High Commission for Refugees that of intervening on behalf of climate migrants,“ Miraglia tells us. 

“Of course, we must first define what a climate emergency is and conduct in-depth studies on what areas of the world and what local groups are more susceptible to the risks arising from climate change. The same scientists who are studying the climate are well aware of the most vulnerable areas. With the help of mapping and projections, the UNHCR would have all the means and experience needed to be able to intervene, especially in developing countries.”

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