Aerial photo

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, 2013

Alice Thomas, an attorney, is the climate displacement program manager of Refugees International, a Washington-based nonprofit. The independent organization, which accepts no government or United Nations funding, “advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people and promotes solutions to displacement crises.” 

Founded in 1979 in response to the refugee crisis in Indochina at that time, Refugees International today describes the challenge it confronts in these terms:

Displacement crises left unattended threaten stability around the world. There are 59.5 million refugees and internally displaced people and 10 million stateless people living in limbo without citizenship rights. People forced from their homes by conflict are among the world’s most vulnerable and they all have individual stories of loss, heartache, and survival.

Thomas talked with Greg Harman, contributing editor of Texas Climate News. An accompanying article by Harman – “Climate-forced migrations and prospect of refugee crises concern experts” – provides an in-depth examination of the complex issue of climate change and migration.


Tell me a little about how your organization and how it came to climate awareness.

My organization has been around for 35 years working on conflict-related displacement. Starting around 2009 when the conflict in Darfur [a region in the North African country of Sudan] was really coming to a head, the organization got very concerned about how climate change was going to impact displacement – not just as a driver in terms of sea-level rise and island states, but as another contributing factor to displacement in poor and fragile countries. It was the complex role that climate change will play driving displacement and undermining political security and stability and preventing people from being able to return home after they were displaced. The whole range of ways climate change would affect human security more broadly. I came on in 2010 to launch the program, so we’ve been going for almost five years now.

So it was the issues in Africa that put this on the map for the organization, because that is a very vulnerable continent?

You’re talking about very poor countries where the vast majority of people are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, combined with governments that are not very able to respond when people are in a humanitarian crisis. You take these two things together [and you have] potentially enormous displacement.

I think general readers don’t understand what creates a disaster. Really, the larger force behind these predictions for forced migrations is more about the resources available to a community and its political stability.

That’s correct. For instance, you have a very serious drought in Texas. It creates great economic hardship and a lot of people lose money and it puts strain on families, there’s no question. But you have a drought of not even as bad a magnitude, where the people don’t have the resources and people will literally starve to death. That’s exactly what happened in Somalia in 2011. You had a regional drought, but in Somalia it became a famine because you had ongoing conflict. Humanitarians couldn’t get access to people who needed food and water and people literally had to walk across the border to get assistance. Hundreds of thousands of people died. Here we can go to 7-Eleven and get water if we don’t have water. But if you’re in a country where if it doesn’t rain you don’t have water, the situation becomes a crisis very quickly.  It’s a lot more about vulnerability to these extremes than it is the extremes itself. The impact of climate change will largely be a function of underlying vulnerability of the population it affects.

This issue of resource disparity is very complicated and long-lived, but when it comes to migrations themselves, can governments have a framework in place that recognizes weather changes and vulnerability remains? You mentioned Somalia, people crossing the border. How were people greeted when they got there?

A lot of people believe now that you need to manage migration that’s going to result from climate change. Rather than having an attitude that we need to  close the border, governments need to think about how to better use migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change. Most experts believe displacement from climate change will be largely internal. There were early movies and predictions that there were going to be hundreds of thousands of climate refugees and people fleeing en masse across the border. That can happen, but it’s not the most likely scenario. The most likely scenario is that people will go to cities. There’s going to be a lot of internal migration, so national governments, which have the capacity to plan and manage their own migration patterns, need to do that better and think about how climate change is going to affect livelihoods in certain parts of their countries.

In terms of any international migration that happens, there is an international effort that is taking a ground-up approach [the Nansen Initiative, a quasi-governmental project to help nations adopt cooperative strategies for better responses to disasters, including the slow-onset disaster of climate change] looking at what type of international protection you can get if you do have to cross a border.

In the Horn of Africa, the Kenyan government and Ethiopian government had already accepted Somali refugees as prima facie refugees. You didn’t have to have individual case determinations. There was so much cross-border movement because of the conflict, those countries were very generous. That would probably not be the case anywhere else.

In the Pacific island states, the countries themselves who are experiencing the worst impacts of climate change don’t want their people considered refugees because the idea behind refugees is you have to leave your country because either your government will not or cannot protect you. The Pacific island states are saying, “We’re not the ones causing this. It’s the developed countries that are causing this. So don’t tell us we have a refugee crisis.” Some people don’t want to be called refugees for political stigma. Also [some feel] there is increasingly little space for refugees as they are today and the idea that we would expand protection to a whole new class of people would dilute the rights of refugees that are here today.

So maybe [with climate change] we’re not going to call them refugees, we’re just going to recognize that periodically peoples need to move?

Exactly. For instance, the Nansen Initiative had a regional conference in Central America I was able to attend. And it was interesting, because the view of the Central American governments was, “We recognize in certain situations we may need to give humanitarian visas to people.” They were housing the Haiti earthquake [refugees], as an example. Although that’s not climate-related, it was a sudden-onset event. There were people who went into the Dominican Republic who needed medical assistance. They didn’t have any right to enter the Dominican Republic, but the government ended up extending humanitarian visas to people. The idea the governments seemed to like was, “Why don’t we extend the ability, through bilateral arrangements, where in case of a disaster we would let people to come in on a limited, temporary basis where eventually people will go home.”

These are the ways that the issue and the phenomena needs to be managed, but it’s going to be highly context-specific. That’s what most people are proposing as the right way forward – and also, frankly, the most politically expedient forward. Amending the Refugee Convention [the treaty that defines who is a refugee, what refugees’ rights are, and nations’ legal obligations] – or getting a whole new convention to recognize quote-unquote climate refugees – is just, politically would be incredibly difficult.

Are groups like yours beginning to put more effort into mitigation measures and counsel governments on what they can do to limit future forced migrations?

Yes. We do that in different ways. One way, in terms of internal displacement, we advocate to governments – and to donor governments like the U.S. – to do more to address the underlying vulnerabilities. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out which countries are most vulnerable to climate change. And we need to be putting a lot more money into allowing those countries to prepare for those, [rather than] responding to the humanitarian emergencies. Right now we spend many, many, many more dollars in disaster relief than we do helping people mitigate.

In terms of the longer-term trends, looking at how governments can use migration as an adaptation strategy. So when does it make sense to actually facilitate migration, for instance, by creating new economic value chains by allowing people to migrate to different places to have different forms of livelihoods during times of drought or extreme climate shocks? You can’t just ignore that this is inevitably going to happen. You have to figure out how you’re going to better protect people during the process.

What kind of hurdles do you see in the U.S.? Writing in Texas, I know I have to be careful, even in tone, approaching this. While these children fleeing drug violence in Central America have been largely embraced by the people of Texas, politically it has been so violently disputed. Could this be the issue that tells people, yeah, we do need a climate response? That we need to plan for future migration events? 

Rather than framing it in climate, it is to focus on the fact that there are extreme disasters and we need to better assist people in our region that are vulnerable – both to prepare for those disasters but also when disasters happen, whether it’s an earthquake or an extreme weather event, that we might provide some humanitarian visas to people who need to come to the U.S. for medical assistance. I think to begin talking about permanent migration as a response to climate change will be very difficult politically. But I think if you talked about temporary humanitarian visas, that would be palatable.

We do have something in the country called temporary protection status. The U.S. will enter into an arrangement with a country that is experiencing a disaster and will give the right of people who are already here, the U.S. government will not send them home. It acts as a stay on deportation. … It doesn’t give you a right to enter. The U.S. as a supporter of the Nansen Initiative needs to talk to its neighbors. It needs to talk to the Mexican government, it needs to talk to the Caribbean, and talk about, in the case of something really horrible happens, what better protects people?

In the first paper that I saw specifically related to Mexican migration north, the numbers were really staggering. I think it was [a forecast that] one out of 100 adults would be coming to the U.S. More recently, I’ve seen that ratcheted back a little bit.

What scientists are coming to realize is that whether somebody moves is going to be a factor in how well they’re able to adapt. So the number of people displaced in the future will depend on whether governments adapt, whether people adapt, whether we take action on climate change. If we don’t take action on climate change, obviously the higher ends of those scenarios may be met. I think this is the very difficult position that scientists are in. A lot of the original assumptions were based on the assumption that nobody would adapt and we would take no action on climate change. Plus, there are so many reasons why people move. And there’s a lot of research now – and this is covered in the most recent IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, the AR5 – that shows the more vulnerable people can’t move. They, in fact, remain what they call “trapped populations.” They just don’t have the resources to move. The original estimates were assuming that everybody would leave, but in fact it ends up a lot of people can’t leave.


Learn more about Refugees International’s Climate Displacement Program.

Image credit: U.S. State Department / Wikimedia Commons