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UN Refugee Agency sounds the alarm on climate change pounding refugee communities

Briefing notes

UN Refugee Agency sounds the alarm on climate change pounding refugee communities

28 June 2024 Also available in:
Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s Special Advisor on Climate Action, visited a community devastated by unprecedented floods in Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state in southern Brazil.

An area of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, once home to refugee families, that was devastated by unprecedented floods last month.

Devastating extreme weather events and natural disasters are shattering many refugee and other displaced communities worldwide, worsening their plight and in some cases forcing them to move onwards and start from zero once again.

This is what UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has observed with a series of catastrophic floods, earthquakes, cyclones, storms and heatwaves afflicting refugee and internal displacement settings in Africa, the Americas, Asia and beyond.

In Brazil, devastating floods in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul last month took the lives of at least 170 people, displaced more than half a million (630,000) and affected in total some 2.39 million individuals. Among those impacted were 43,000 refugees and others in need of international protection, including Venezuelans, Haitians and Cubans.

Refugees have described to our teams how they evaded death, lost their settlements, homes, belongings and even their businesses. In the outskirts of the state capital, Porto Alegre, a refugee mother recounted her informal settlement being washed away and having to seek refuge on a rooftop, waiting for two days to be rescued.

Though waters are now receding, the consequences are still being felt. Brazilians and refugees who have lost their homes are now being accommodated in emergency shelters or sharing private houses with many other affected families. Nearly two months on, many are choosing to return to their homes even in high risk areas without decent living conditions. With winter approaching and temperatures dropping, health risks are also increasing. The latest floods follow a sequence of other extreme weather events in the country, including record fires and one of its worst droughts.

UNHCR is working with the Brazilian authorities to provide emergency shelter, identify the most vulnerable and support them with counselling, and referrals for documentation and social protection assistance, distributing relief items – such as mattresses and kitchen sets – and providing psychosocial support and referrals to other basic and specialized services. But needs are enormous and will continue to grow.

Elsewhere, climate disasters have also pounded regions in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and East Africa in recent weeks.

Across East Africa and the Great Lakes region, hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people are still reeling from the grave impacts of devastating floods that swept through the region between April and May this year. In Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Somalia – the hardest hit countries – many refugees’ homes were inundated or destroyed, and critical infrastructure including roads, drainage systems, and sanitation facilities damaged. Losing their homes and livelihoods, many refugees were forced to move yet again in search of safety.

UNHCR is also worried about the high risk of flooding in Sudan and South Sudan as heavy seasonal rains are currently underway in areas host to thousands who have fled the year-long deadly conflict in Sudan. In Chad, which has welcomed 600,000 Sudanese refugees since the start of the war, heavy rains are currently also damaging precarious refugee shelters and infrastructure in the east of the country.

While there is still a window of opportunity now to strengthen preparedness, a severe lack of funding for the most basic humanitarian assistance both in Sudan and neighbouring countries risks worsening the situation.

UNHCR is on the ground, supporting governments and partners, to provide urgent assistance to those most affected and enhance preparedness efforts. As the situation is expected to worsen over the course of the year, UNHCR is today launching an appeal for nearly $40 million to assist and protect 5.6 million refugees, returnees, internally displaced people and local communities in Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, South Sudan and Sudan. This will cover emergency relief items including shelter, cash assistance to help flood-affected families purchase necessities, as well as bolster water and sanitation services in displacement sites and host communities. Support will also go into rehabilitating and reconstructing infrastructure such as water systems, access roads and flood protection dykes. 

UNHCR continues to advocate with all host countries and the international community to include refugees and other displaced populations in social protection schemes, contingency plans, risk mitigation, reconstruction and adaptation plans. Host communities and governments need support and investments to ensure these populations are equipped to withstand and respond to these shocks when they hit, to build resilience and to start again.

The frequency, intensity, and magnitude of these climate disasters are a warning signal to the world that should not be ignored. While the climate crisis impacts everyone globally, the most vulnerable, who have contributed the least to climate change, are the ones bearing the brunt. The world needs to act now to ensure the most vulnerable communities are not left behind.

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Note to editors:

As of the end of 2023, three-quarters of forcibly displaced people, including both internally displaced people and refugees, were living in countries with high to extreme exposure to climate-related hazards. Nearly half also remained exposed to conflict. 

As conflicts last longer, people living in highly climate-vulnerable countries are likely to remain displaced for many years. The latest scientific data and modelling shows that their exposure to climatic hazards will only rise. 

These climatic disasters underscore critical gaps in preparedness and early action. Without adequate support to prepare for, withstand, and recover from climate-related shocks, these communities face heightened risks of further displacement and devastation. Scaling up climate finance and action to reach those most in need is crucial to averting worst-case scenarios.

Therefore, UNHCR is adopting a dual approach to addressing climate change: immediate response and climate action.

In addition to addressing urgent climate disaster response needs, UNHCR’s newly launched Climate Resilience Fund is dedicated to enhancing adaptation and resilience among forcibly displaced people and their hosts. This includes initiatives like environmental restoration, sustainable water and energy access, and community preparedness efforts to mitigate the impact of climate hazards before they escalate into disasters. UNHCR aims to raise $100 million by the end of 2025 for these vital activities.