During the 1951 Refugee Convention, the international community agreed upon and defined the word “refugee.” Article One calls him or her a person who has left their country, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

But events of the last century have shown this definition inadequate. Some flee severe poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Some seek access to clean water, a consistent source of food or much needed health care. Many are forced from their homes by natural disasters. These people are called climate change refugees.

The UNHCR reports that in the last 20 years, the number of natural disasters per year has doubled and now sits at 400. Nine-tenths of natural disasters are climate related.

The organization breaks disasters into categories.

Hydro-meteorological disasters are floods, hurricanes, mudslides, etc. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines and displaced nearly 4 million people. But they remained in the country, and the typhoon had not been after their freedom of speech or religion. Technically, the victims did not fall under the purview of the UNHCR. Still, aid was provided.

Second are zones designated ‘high-risk’ by their governments. Third is the sinking of landmasses, for the most part, small islands.

Fourth is “environmental degradation.” Deforestation and desertification, a reduction in available water, flooding and salinization of coastal areas are all included. For communities affected by climate change, especially those whose economies are agriculture-based, any one of these could be devastating.

Last is conflict caused by a change in availability of essential resources, namely water, land and food.

In 2010, over 42 million people were forced from their homes by natural disasters, sometimes across international lines. In response to the great number of migrant peoples affected by natural disasters, the UNHCR has had to reconsider its role in emergency relief.

The Nansen Initiative recommends vulnerable communities have an exit strategy in case of disaster. IRIN recently reported on Sebana-Demale, an Ethiopian village in an active, volcanic region. Combined with an utter lack of rain, living in Sebana-Demale is difficult. But in 15 years, it could be impossible.

So, according to the Initiative, people of Sebana-Demale and villages like it should be prepared to move. The Ethiopian government, as well as area states, should be ready to integrate the newly displaced population.

Favoring the-end-is-nigh rhetoric, the media and public interest have often ignored the humanitarian crises created by climate change. When they do, they ignore those now called climate change refugees.

— Olivia Kostreva

Sources: UNHCR, UNICEF, IRIN, Huffington Post
Photo: Treehugger