The Hordes of Climate Refugees: What we do, don’t, and think we know

2015 Honours Fellow Elisabeth Wale deciphers the narratives around climate refugees

We all know the image of hordes of climate refugees washing up on our shores. We’ve seen the newspaper headlines claiming that Western nations could be swamped as millions of refugees flee cyclone-devastated and sunken homelands. Let’s not even get started on the bizarre link made between seeking refuge and terrorism. However, what is not as well known is that the facts behind these narratives are not always, well, facts.

Lets start with what we think we know

This rhetoric is most perpetuated throughout the media, by governments and sometimes by NGOs. It describes a scenario in which the story line reads: (1) nation disappears due to rising sea levels or other catastrophic environmental effects, (2) the nation’s inhabitants are forced to evacuate quickly, (3) now surrounded by water, these people board canoes and dinghy’s and set sail, (4) they arrive in thousands, millions and even billions at out sovereign doors begging to come in.

While dissected, this story seems barely believable. However, it is the backbone of almost all popular narratives on this issue. Grab the first government press release, NGO report or media article on the topic and you will see it.

I don’t claim that this narrative has no base in reality. It does. In fact, just like a Hollywood film is ‘based on a true story’, these narratives are ‘based on (some, very speculative) facts’.

So, what do we know?

Climate change will affect vulnerable populations, and it will cause some to migrate.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading scientific body on the effects of global warming, has outlined existing and predicted climate impacts affecting populations around the world, including drought, increased cyclone intensity and sea level rise. These pressures on living conditions, food availability, economic opportunities, health and wellbeing can reduce the ability of communities to manage environmental changes or recover from disasters.

In the most extreme cases, with homelands becoming uninhabitable, populations will become displaced and forced to migrate. It can be a result of sudden-onset disasters, like the recent Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, or slow-onset effects, such as a decade-long drought, which gradually reduces a population’s ability to subsist.

Kiribati is a dramatic example of this. The island-nation, with a population of 100,000 people, sits in the Pacific Ocean at less than 3 meters above sea level. With continuing sea-level rise as a result of climate change, it is forecast (though not known) that the nation’s most populated atolls will become completely submerged by the ocean, disappearing beneath the waves.

What don’t we know?

Everything else.

It is indisputable that climate change does and will affect a significant number of people around the world. However, what we do not know is the extent of this impact on displacement and migration. It is very difficult to predict how many people will be force to leave their homelands, and even more difficult to know where they will go.

This is because migration is often the last resort to environmental impacts. Where it does result, the temporary or permanent migration of some from the community can in fact increase the ability of others from that community to stay and adapt. Also, what appears to be a little known fact to Western media is that the large majority of environmental migration is internal, with coastal populations moving inland or rural populations moving to urban cities. A smaller proportion will move between neighbouring countries and an even smaller number will migrate long distances.

It’s hard, armed with these facts, to believe that Western nations are on the verge of being swamped by boatloads of the developing-world’s cyclone-swept terrorists. But hey, why spoil a good story with the truth?


Image: United Nations University in Bonn ‘WRR 2014/WRB 2014’ via Flickr Commons