Climate change could become the biggest driver of displacement: UNHCR chief

News Stories, 16 December 2009

Drought leaves this land barren in northern Afghanistan. Guterres noted that the frequency of droughts was steadily increasing and testing the resilience of entire communities.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, December 16 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres predicted Wednesday in Copenhagen that climate change will become the biggest driver of population displacements, both inside and across national borders, within the not too distant future.

Guterres' warning came during a press conference at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009, where he has been meeting officials and taking part in events and discussions on forced displacement resulting from climate change.

The High Commissioner noted that while climate change was affecting southern countries most severely, the northern hemisphere will likely also face climate shifts and related population movements. Stressing that climate change should not be considered a distant worry, Guterres noted that a staggering 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters last year, of whom more than 20 million were forced on the move by climate change-related factors.

He said natural disasters are "more intense and frequent and the human impacts are more devastating." He noted that the frequency of droughts was steadily increasing and testing the resilience of entire communities, while rising sea levels threaten to submerge island nations. If this happens, "not only states, but cultures and identities will be drowned," Guterres said.

The High Commissioner also noted that the distinction between refugees and migrants was becoming blurred, which could result in a "protection gap" for people who have no choice but to leave uninhabitable homelands and do not meet the strict legal definition of a refugee.

"There may be a need for new legal instruments and we could explore the idea of temporary protection schemes," he said. Such schemes have some precedent in a number of countries that grant protection on humanitarian grounds until conditions improve for return. Equally important would be to invest in measures to help the most vulnerable people adapt so that they will not be forced to flee.

Guterres emphasized the growing link between climate change and conflict. "Climate change can enhance the competition for resources water, food, grazing lands and that competition can trigger conflict."

He cited a recent study by researchers at the US universities of Berkeley, Stanford, New York and Harvard that found climate change could increase the risk of civil war in Africa by more than 50 per cent in the year 2030 compared to 1990.

"More and more people are being forced to move," he said, "Yet fewer and fewer people are free to move. Countries are becoming fortresses at a time when markets need people."

By Melissa Fleming in Copenhagen, Denmark

For related information on climate change and forced displacement, please go to:

In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement


Norwegian Refugee Council: Climate Changed: People Displaced




The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

Climate Change

The earth's climate is changing, and that concerns us as it could lead to displacement.

UNHCR and Climate Change

Where people flee, UNHCR is there to help.

Climate change and displacement

In the past few years, millions of people have been displaced by natural disasters, most of which are considered to be the direct result of climate change. Sudden weather events, such as Myanmar's Cyclone Nargis in 2008, widespread flooding in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in 2006 and the drought that hit Ethiopia in the 1980s, can leave huge numbers of people traumatized and without access to shelter, clean water and basic supplies.

The international community has entrusted UNHCR with responsibility for protecting and assisting people who are forcibly displaced and who cannot return safely home. Although the majority of people displaced by climate change will remain within their own borders, where states have clearly defined responsibilities, additional support may be required.

When called upon to intervene, UNHCR can deploy emergency teams and provide concrete support in terms of registration, documentation, family reunification and the provision of shelter, basic hygiene and nutrition.

Among those who are displaced across borders as a result of climate change, some will be refugees while others may not meet the definition. Nevertheless, many may be in need of protection and assistance.

Climate change and displacement

2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented Sister Angélique Namaika of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award at a gala ceremony in Geneva on Monday night.

Sister Angélique, through her Centre for Reintegration and Development, has helped transform the lives of more than 2,000 women and girls who had been forced from their homes and abused by fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) or other armed groups. Many of those she helps suffered abduction, forced labour, beatings, murder, rape or other human rights abuses.

The Roman Catholic nun helps survivors to heal by offering them the chance to learn a trade, start a small business or go to school. Testimonies from these women show the remarkable effect she has had on helping turn around their lives, with many affectionately calling her "mother."

The Award ceremony featured a keynote speech from best-selling author Paulo Coelho and musical performances by singer-songwriter Dido, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna and Grammy-nominated Malian musicians, Amadou and Mariam.

2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented the Colombian women's rights group, Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future, with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday night.

The volunteer members of Butterflies risk their lives each day to help survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse in the Pacific Coast city of Buenaventura. This city has some of the highest rates of violence and displacement due to escalating rivalries between illegal armed groups.

Drawing on only the most modest of resources, volunteers cautiously move through the most dangerous neighbourhoods to help women access medical care and report crimes. This work, deep inside the communities, helps them reach the most vulnerable women, but also brings with it danger and threats from the illegal armed groups.

The Award ceremony, in its 60th year, was held in Geneva's Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, and featured musical performances by UNHCR supporters, Swedish-Lebanese singer-songwriter Maher Zain and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. The Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela also performed at the ceremony.

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

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Concluding a visit to Iraq, UNHCR chief António Guterres met with Syrian refugees in Arbat camp in the Kurdistan region. Guterres noted the recent proliferation of humanitarian crises, but urged the international community not to forget about Syria, "the mega protracted crisis of our times."