Refugees don’t just flee wars, persecution and intolerance. Sometimes it’s droughts, floods or famine: Friends of the Earth’s position on climate change and environmental refugees.

23 Nov 2017


People become refugees for many reasons. War, political persecution and intolerance of sexuality or religion force people from their homes, livelihoods and land. As many as 1.5 billion people live in conflict areas or unstable countries. Intolerance is widespread too – for instance, in 75 countries it's still illegal to be gay. Environmental problems also create refugees – problems like droughts, floods and food shortages. The UK is a stable, tolerant and compassionate country, and we should take a lead in welcoming our fair share of these people in need. But we must also tackle the bigger issues - including global warming effects on environmental refugees.

Facts on climate change and environmental refugees

  • Environmental refugees have been forced to leave their home because of an environmental issue. It could be that recovery from a large-scale event, such as flooding, has been ineffective or is taking too long.
  • Alternatively, slow-onset events such as soil erosion may be making their livelihood impossible.
  • Environmental refugees do not have legal rights under the UN Refugee Convention.
  • It’s hard to estimate the number of climate refugees because environmental problems often sit alongside other issues, such as conflict, forcing people from their homes.
  • Estimates suggest there are already more than 40 million environmental refugees. If ongoing threats to our environment and climate aren’t dealt with, this number will rise substantially over coming decades.

Why are there environmental refugees?

Many of the reasons people become refugees are preventable. For instance intolerant societies can change. Armed conflicts can be averted. The political will is often lacking.

Refugees from conflict or persecution have legal rights under the UN Refugee Convention. But people fleeing from droughts, desertification, rising sea levels and floods are not legally recognised as refugees and do not have international legal protection.

Some level of increase in extreme weather events, such as storms and floods, is now inevitable because of climate change. Although there's a lot that governments could do to reduce the impact on people, and reduce the need for them to leave their homes, developing countries aren’t getting the help they need.

Billions of pounds are needed to put protections in place, but wealthier countries are refusing to provide this money, despite being most responsible for climate change.

We will see more environmental refugees in the future. The UK government has seemed unwilling to accept many refugees from conflict so far, let alone environmental refugees.

Some politicians and sections of the media are even stirring up toxic media debates to poison public opinion against refugees.

Our view on environmental refugees

Nobody leaves their home, possessions and community without good reason. Becoming a refugee brings many risks and dangers – read our climate refugees case study.

Countries need to take steps to address why people become refugees, including environmental refugees, and show greater compassion and support when people are forced to do so. This includes not stirring up suspicion or hostility towards refugees.

Reducing the causes

Environmental pressures, such as droughts and flooding, can combine with unstable situations to precipitate or exacerbate conflict, and cause people to become refugees.

There are a number of steps that can help communities become more resilient to future environmental changes - for instance:

  • addressing people’s lack of personal security
  • improving access to justice
  • reducing inequalities of income and power
  • stemming the flow of weapons.

But we must also reduce the negative environmental changes themselves by, for example:

  • cutting greenhouse gas emissions
  • protecting land rights
  • introducing more sustainable farming methods.

Providing developing countries with the money they need to make crucial adaptations to climate change and other environmental challenges is also essential.

Supporting developing countries

Environmental refugees often travel from one part of their country to another, or flee to a neighbouring country. These countries, particularly in the developing world, are not equipped to cope with these pressures.

The issue of climate displacement is being considered in global climate negotiations as part of discussions on ‘loss and damage’ - harm caused by climate change that cannot be adapted to.

At Friends of the Earth we're calling for a strong and fair outcome in these negotiations, including a legal and policy framework that protects climate refugees.

We believe compensation and redress should be provided to vulnerable countries and communities for the losses they suffer from climate change, now and in the future. This compensation should come from the wealthier nations that have contributed most to climate change, and should include a carbon tax on fossil fuel companies.

Welcoming refugees

When refugees arrive in the EU and UK, they should be welcomed. As we see more droughts, floods and desertification over coming decades, we will need to accept our fair share of many more environmental refugees and refugees of conflict.

Environmental refugees should have the same legal rights as refugees of conflict and persecution, including a legal right to stay.

They will bring net benefits to the country, including skills, cultural and economic benefits. But they will need financial and practical support while they find their feet. This is lacking at the moment.

Infrastructure plans, which must include a lot more energy-efficient homes and schools, need to take into account the future number of refugees.


Policy positions
Climate change