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UNHCR appeals to strengthen the protection of people displaced by climate change at a historical IACHR hearing

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UNHCR appeals to strengthen the protection of people displaced by climate change at a historical IACHR hearing

5 March 2024
A farmer shows his withered corn crop after a drought in Southern Guatemala.

A farmer shows his withered corn crop after a drought in Southern Guatemala.


PANAMA CITY / WASHINGTON D.C. – Last Thursday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held a first-of-its-kind hearing on “The Human Rights of People on the Move due to the effects of Climate Change.” At this unprecedented event, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, warned that the effects of climate change are exacerbating forced displacement within and across borders, increasing the vulnerability of displaced people and hindering durable solutions.

During the hearing, Isabel Márquez, UNHCR Americas Bureau’s Deputy Director, highlighted the interconnection between climate change and other causes of forced displacement, including violence, persecution, and human rights violations. “The immediate and long-term consequences of climate change could increase the risk of human rights violations, as well as worsen existing conflicts, which would force people to abandon their home countries looking for international protection,” Márquez said.

Globally, nearly two-thirds of the refugees and asylum-seekers who were displaced in 2022 proceeded from fifteen countries that are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. What is more, almost 60% of the refugees and internally displaced people who have been forced to flee by conflict currently live in some of the countries that are more vulnerable to climate change.

Countries in the Americas – a region hosting 22 million refugees, displaced, and stateless people – are increasingly exposed to the adverse impact of climate change. As part of the response, those populations will need to be included in national adaptation plans to climate change. In 2023, El Niño phenomenon and rising temperatures caused increased precipitation and landslides in Ecuador, Peru and Mexico. Additionally, in Central America, climate change is adversely affecting agricultural production in the “Dry Corridor.” Consequently, local farmers have had to flee storms and droughts, and have established in urban areas, where labor opportunities are limited and where they are increasingly vulnerable gang violence and extortion, as well as floodings.

Most people forced to flee by disasters and climate-related events move within their own countries. Sometimes, however, they have no other option but to cross international borders. In 2020, UNHCR prepared guidelines to identify the circumstances in which, in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, people who have been forced to cross international borders due to climate events and disasters may be recognized as refugees.

As to the Americas, the importance of considering the regional definition of refugee – as set out in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees – was highlighted regarding the people forced to flee their country due to situations or circumstances related to climate events or disasters that “seriously disturb public order.” Based on that, a State could grant protection as refugees to people affected by climate-related events or disasters seriously disturbing public order.

The Americas region is characterized by legal and political frameworks that support the creation of protection responses for those displaced by disasters and the effects of climate change. Outstanding examples include the Special Humanitarian Visa Program for people displaced by socio-natural disasters in Argentina, humanitarian visas and temporary residency in ‘situations of environmental and climate disasters’ in Brazil, as well as several provisions on flexible humanitarian categories in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Mexico.

To prevent conditions that trigger displacement and to provide protection to the people forced to flee due to the adverse effects of climate change, UNHCR strengthened its commitment to support the adoption of relevant policy and legislation, as well as to step up the efforts to prepare for and respond to, climate emergencies by working closely with the States, international organizations, civil society, host communities, and affected populations.

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Article edited after publication.