UN refugee agency chief warns of security, displacement threats from climate change

Press Releases, 23 November 2011

Geneva, 23 November 2011 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres today warned the UN Security Council of the growing threat to international peace and security from climate change and its interaction with other mass displacement factors.

Speaking in New York to the Council members, Guterres said climate change was fuelling both the scale and complexity of global displacement. He also cautioned against viewing climate change in isolation from other global megatrends such as population growth, urbanization, and growing food, water and energy insecurity.

"There is little value in posing the simplistic question, 'how many people are going to be displaced by climate change?,'" he said. "Instead, we should be addressing the more complex issue of the way in which global warming, rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and other manifestations of climate change are interacting with, and reinforcing, other global imbalances, so as to produce some very powerful drivers of instability, conflict and displacement."

Guterres listed declining farming possibilities in developing countries and competition for scarce resources, such as water and agricultural land, as potential causes of both displacement and conflict. He also spoke of risks to citizenship among people forced to abandon small island states due to rising sea levels, and the increasing evidence of a relationship between climate change and flooding and other natural disasters which by one estimate displaced over 40 million people in 2010.

"The process of climate change and its role in reinforcing other global imbalances constitutes an important threat to peace and security," he said. "In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller, and which for the first time is facing physical limits to economic growth, that threat can only grow."

Guterres called on the Council members to take steps to limit the extent to which climate change acts as a driver of conflict and displacement. He said it was imperative for the international community to establish a support programme to help poorer countries adapt and cope. And he urged the international community to formulate and adopt a set of principles to help people forced to leave their country as a result of catastrophic environmental events, but who may not otherwise meet the requirements necessary to be recognized under international law as refugees.

"Providing such support is a humanitarian imperative. But it is also our common interest," Guterres said. "If climate change goes unchecked, and if we fail to find sustainable solutions for displaced populations, we will be creating the conditions in which further breaches of international peace and security are certain to take place."

Further information

  • UNHCR estimates that 43.7 million people are today forcibly displaced around the world as a result of conflict and persecution. This number comprises 15.4 million refugees, 27.5 million people displaced internally by conflict and nearly 850,000 asylum-seekers.
  • As indicated in Mr. Guterres' statement, climate displacement numbers are not compiled by UNHCR.
  • The complete address of High Commissioner Guterres is available at www.unhcr.org/4ee21edc9.html.
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Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

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.

The High Commissioner

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

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

Victims of Conflict in Nigeria Find Safety in Cameroon Camp

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited Cameroon in late March to put a spotlight on the situation there of tens of thousands of refugees from Nigeria. These people have escaped mounting violence by insurgents in the north-east of their country. Among the places that Guterres visited during his March 24-25 visit is the Minawao Refugee Camp, where many of the uprooted have been relocated.

Situated some 120 kilometres from the dangerous border area with Nigeria in Cameroon's Far North region, Minawao camp is currently home to 33,000 Nigerian refugees, mainly from Borno state. Many of the arrivals are traumatized and in need of material and psycho-social help. They told the High Commissioner of losing their homes and belongings as well as members of their families. Some were injured. In total, an estimated 74,000 Nigerians have found refuge in Cameroon while cross-border incursions from Nigeria have displaced 96,000 Cameroonians. UNHCR photographer Hélène Caux also visited Minawao to hear the individual stories.

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