Africa and South Asia bearing brunt of climate refugee crisis

Andrew Harper, UNHCR special adviser, called for more action and less rhetoric

Flood victims pictured in Balochistan, Pakistan in January 9, 2023, The UN has called for 'massive investments' to help Pakistan recover from last year's devastating floods and better resist climate change. AFP
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Three times as many people are being driven from their homes by climate change and extreme weather than by conflict, the UN refugee agency has said, with Africa and South Asia bearing the brunt of the crisis.

Andrew Harper, UNHCR special adviser on climate action, said renewable energy was a basic necessity that was “as important as providing somebody with a blanket” to help rebuild lives.

The UNHCR aims to take stock of the needs of the most vulnerable populations over the next 298 days leading to Cop28 in the UAE in November.

Mr Harper said food insecurity and drought were the biggest reasons people take flight.

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When you have higher temperatures you are more likely to have extreme weather events
Andrew Harper, UNHCR special adviser on climate action

“If you ask five people or five families why they left Somalia or Afghanistan they will probably have five different reasons, but climate is incrementally becoming more a key driver of the underlying reasons,” he told The National in an interview during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, where he is a keynote speaker.

“The numbers of people that will be forced to move will increase almost exponentially unless we are serious about supporting these countries.

“What we can say is that three times as many people are being displaced by climate change and extreme weather events than those who are (displaced) by conflict. That is also a major change,” he said.

East Africa worst hit

In crisis situations, the vast majority of people move within their country first and do not leave unless they have to.

Mr Harper, who recently visited Somalia and the eastern Horn of Africa, said a combination of climate change and conflict was forcing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and many were crossing borders into Kenya and Ethiopia.

Displacement triggers challenges in finding food, education, healthcare, and employment.

“We will do whatever is necessary to make sure that the UAE has a successful Cop, that it is one of action and not one of rhetoric,” he said.

“It’s so important when we talk about the aspirations for Cop28 that we move away from just talking and on to action based on understanding what communities need to adapt to incredibly catastrophic scenarios that are emerging.”

Renewable energy is central to empowering populations and giving people the ability to work and study.

One example was a large solar farm in Jordan that provides energy to 80,000 refugees and helped to create 3,000 small businesses.

“The provision of sustainable energy is the linchpin to provide for a future that is safe and stable,” Mr Harper said.

“I would say energy is as important as providing somebody with a blanket, it has to be seen as a basic necessity.

“It is the core ingredient in terms of empowerment.”

Warmer world

In May last year, a milestone was reached when the UNHCR announced that 100 million people fled their homes because of food insecurity, the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine and emergencies from Africa to Afghanistan.

This was much more than double the figure from 10 years ago.

UNHCR figures suggest an annual average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by extreme weather such as storms, floods, fires and extreme temperatures since 2008.

Mr Harper said that with the world becoming warmer, populations most at risk and countries that housed refugees needed the means to adapt.

“The last eight years have been the warmest on record, and so we can probably expect that this year will also be another warm year,” he said.

“That means you will have higher temperatures which means higher evaporation, that means more rainfall in certain areas and drought in other areas.

“When you have higher temperatures you are more likely to have extreme weather.

“The challenge is that the world has never experienced a world that is hotter than it is now and we have to provide support to those populations who are particularly at risk.”

Why Africa and South Asia need support

Somalia is among the main areas of concern, with people moving internally to escape drought after a failed fifth planting season and fleeing from the violence of the Al Shabab insurgency.

Despite blanket coverage of boats with refugees crossing the English Channel in British and European media, the real issue was in Africa and South Asia.

“It’s often countries with the least resources that don’t make a big complaint about it and these are the countries that deserve the support,” Mr Harper said.

“Very few people when it comes down to it cross the borders into the north but there is this xenophobic approach, this paranoia in Europe and northern countries that they are being flooded.”

The UNHCR has identified 30 locations where assistance is urgently needed.

“Mozambique, Kenya or Ethiopia, Sudan, Bangladesh are among countries which are on the front lines of the climate emergency and are the same countries hosting refugees,” he said.

“What we have found is that 70 per cent of the world’s refugees have moved from countries most at risk of the impact of climate change but have the least capacity to adapt.

“They are moving to neighbouring countries and that is putting stress on those countries.”

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Updated: January 24, 2023, 12:48 PM
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