Experts warned on Thursday that governments need to prepare themselves for a growing and often overwhelming influx of migrants. The displaced won't be fleeing the horrors of the battlefield, they said, but environmental disasters, made more frequent and severe by climate change.
"Natural disasters displace three to 10 times more people than all conflicts and war in the world combined," said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
In a recent report, NRC found that in 2013 floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters drove 22 million people out of their homes — three times the number of people displaced by war and twice as many as were displaced by extreme weather in the 1970s. The study also found that certain parts of the world were disproportionately affected by disasters: More than 80 percent of those displaced over the last five years lived in Asia.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of an even more dire future, with sea level rise imperiling coastal communities, more frequent, intense typhoons and hurricanes lashing storm-prone regions, and persistent drought disrupting agricultural production and framing-based livelihoods. While agreement among scientists is high that these events will lead to displacement, the IPCC says there's low confidence in quantitative projections because of the complex reasons for human migration.
One of the prominent debates on migration policy is whether or not international law should protect people displaced by environmental disasters.
Alfredo Zamudio, Director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a project of NRC, said repeated and prolonged displacement from environmental catastrophe can already be seen all over the world.
"With Typhoon Haiyan thousands of displaced families continue to live in temporary shelters in areas extremely vulnerable to seasonal typhoons and floods," Zamudio told VICE News. "Such people face an ever present risk of entering a cycle of becoming displaced again and again until longer-term, more stable solutions are put in place."
One of the prominent debates on migration policy is whether or not international law should protect people displaced by environmental disasters. Current law protects those displaced on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or because of their social status or political affiliation — not if they've fled from the devastating effects of environmental disasters.
But there has been a push by those like Walter Kalin, who worked on migration issues at the United Nations.
"What we have in international law is a big gap for people who are displaced across borders as a consequence of natural hazards, be it sudden onset disasters such as flooding, wind storms, earthquakes or slow onset disasters such as rising sea levels and drought," Kalin said in an interview with the International Peace Institute. "So we do have to find, somehow, solutions [...] that would favor movement of people so they can escape from difficult situations, at least temporarily. I think it should be possible."
However, while many policy experts like Elizabeth Ferris of the Brookings Institution encourage governments to plan relocation strategies, they also urge against alarmism.
"Much more work is needed, by governments, civil society, international organizations, researchers, to understand the relationship between human mobility and climate change, " she told VICE News. "But these steps do not happen overnight. Painful as it is, it's good to begin thinking about these issues now."
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