Photo of Mural by Kerry McCulloch, 2022. Caption reads: Routes traveled and destinations.
As a professor of global health at UAB, I mentor a lot of students on projects and research that deal with international and global issues. In the past year, I’ve seen a surge of interest in climate refugees and climate change. Climate refugees (sometimes referred to as climate migrants) are people who are displaced and leave their home due to an environmental disaster like flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts. Climate refugee is not (yet) a legal term; it’s a scholarly term. Academics and advocates use this term to highlight the distinction from a refugee being forced to leave their home as a result of conflict versus a refugee being forced to leave their home because it was destroyed in an environmental or climate-related disaster.
Recently, I collaborated with one of our Master of Public Health Students, Kerry McCulloch, on a health needs assessment of migrant shelters at the US-Mexico border in Nogales (Sonora, Mexico). Kerry asked migrants why they had left their home and were seeking asylum in the US. The primary reasons for leaving were to escape violence, particularly criminal violence (67%) or armed conflict (58%). I also encouraged Kerry to include a few environmental reasons that people might leave their home based on research around climate refugees. A very small sub-sample emerged; just around 13% selected climate-related reasons, specifically floods, hurricanes, and landslides.
Although the numbers are small, they do highlight the fact that environmental and climate-related reasons are not distinct from conflict-related ones. Climate may be as much of a driver as political persecution is for many people seeking asylum. Climate may also be the tipping point for some people; “the last straw” so to speak. In Kerry’s study, we found some correlation and significance among these climate-related issues and family reunification, a
motivating factor for seeking asylum. In other words, some of the asylum seekers Kerry spoke with are the second wave of family members crossing the border. Maybe their spouse, sibling, or cousin had already crossed and started the legal process, and those waiting at the border plan to reunite their family while also leaving because the floods, hurricanes, and landslides are just getting to be too much.
I wanted to share this research note with ALIRP and their climate series because I really do think it’s complicated. The reasons people leave their home are complicated and, often, tragic.
We researchers need to do more to understand the role climate plays in people’s decision- making. And we, who advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, need to do more in describing the places where people come from. Where crime, corruption, and civil unrest persist, there may also be weak environmental infrastructure and regularly occurring natural disasters that make it difficult to stay and fight back or to wait it out. The distinction between conflict and disaster may not be so different as we sometimes may think it is.
Acknowledgements: ALIRP would like to thank Kerry McCulloch, MPH for sharing your photos with us and we would like to acknowledge the Sparkman Center for Global Health, Moses Sinkala Travel Scholarship which funded Kerry’s research.
Climate change intensifies regular weather seasons. For example, when hurricane season begins, we see more intense Category 5 hurricanes rather than the historical Category 2 level hurricanes. In areas that experience regular monsoons, there are more intense rains and flooding. This was the case for Pakistan last month.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 7.6 million people have been displaced by the recent floods brought on by climate change. During the evacuations of Afghans over the past year, Pakistan welcomed many Afghan refugees into their country. So, those affected by this climate disaster included Pakistani residents and refugees. One early report by the UNHCR estimates that 1.3 million Afghan refugees are in Pakistan and over 400,000 were in the districts most hard hit, and more recent reports estimate that the number is more likely to be twice that.
When we look at the global trends for displacement, a term we use to describe people who must leave their homes and are unsure if they can return, the numbers are staggering. More and more people are being displaced, internally, by climate disasters. The Global Report on Internal Displacement published that, in 2021, 23.7 million people were displaced due to climate-related disasters versus 14.4 million people displaced from conflict and violence. Often, we hope that people can return to their homes once the weather stabilizes and the flood recedes. There is a growing concern, however, that more and more people will find it harder to return home and rebuild, making them climate refugees.
Anytime people are forced to leave the safety of their homes, it is devastating. Recognizing the role climate plays in this is essential to all of us, globally.