UNHCR chief Guterres warns of security, displacement threats from climate change

News Stories, 23 November 2011

© UNHCR/B.Bannon
Climate is a growing cause of displacement in Africa, where some areas have been devastated by drought.

NEW YORK, United States, November 22 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres today warned the UN Security Council in New York of the growing threat to international peace and security from climate change and its interaction with other mass displacement factors.

Addressing the Council members, Guterres said climate change was fuelling 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 their 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 more than 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 immediate 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."

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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 Policy Paper

Climate change, natural disasters and human displacement: a UNHCR perspective.

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

2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

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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

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UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

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