Special Report

Climate Refugee Crises Happening Right Now (and How to Help)

Source: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

1. Myanmar

Members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority group have often been displaced in Myanmar, but conditions caused by climate change exacerbated their circumstances and the country’s current refugee crisis. After large parts of Myanmar were devastated by flooding and landslides in 2015, hundreds of thousands fled inundated areas, including Rohingya people. In the following years, the Southeast Asian nation has undergone a political change and faced a number of health crises.

A surge of violence against the Rohingya in the summer of 2017 caused more than 700,000 to flee the country, the majority of which have gone to Bangladesh. In early July, massive flooding destroyed many of the temporary shelters of Rohingya refugees in the Cox’s Bazar settlement in Bangladesh, where over 900,000 refugees currently reside. According to the UNHCR, the vast majority of the Rohingya are women and children, and over 40% are under the age of 12.

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2. Syria

Civil war, not climate change, is commonly associated with the world’s worst refugee crisis. But a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that severe regional drought between 2006 and 2011 led to food shortages and illness in Syria and drove hundreds of thousands of residents to live in poor conditions on the outskirts of the country’s cities. It was these conditions that served as one of the primary triggers for the civil war that killed several hundred thousand and led to the refugee crisis. Further, the researchers concluded that climate change was a significant factor in the length and severity of the drought — the worst the country has faced in centuries — since normal variability in regional weather would not be sufficient to explain it.

There are roughly 5.6 million Syrians refugees living in neighboring countries. The majority of Syria’s refugees are in neighboring Turkey. In countries like Lebanon and Jordan, which are host to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, the vast majority of Syrian refugees do not live in organized camps and face severe poverty. Overall, there are nearly 13 million forcibly displaced Syrians, the largest such population in the world.

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3. South Sudan

South Sudan is the third largest source of refugees in the world, after Syria and Afghanistan, according to the UNHCR. More than 2 million have fled to other countries, primarily to neighboring Sudan, Uganda, and Ethiopia, as civil war continues to ravage the nation. Close to 2 million more have been displaced to other places within the country’s borders since the conflict began in 2013.

According to the UNHCR, flooding, food shortages, and disease have worsened conditions for South Sudanese refugees, many of who remain homeless. The majority of the country’s refugees are women and children. A report published by the United Nations Environment Program in 2018 found that worsening drought and flooding conditions have directly led to competition for resources and worsened the ongoing conflict. Gary Lewis, Director of UN Environment’s Policy and Program Division, said “The country’s fragile natural environment has suffered enormously; fighting over natural resources together with the impacts of climate change are factors in driving this vicious cycle.”

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4. Nigeria

Over the past 10 years, attempts by jihadist group Boko Haram to rebel against the Nigerian government and establish an Islamic state in the region have led to thousands of deaths and the displacement of over 2.7 million people in the Lake Chad Basin. The crisis is exacerbated by climate change, as rising temperatures and reduced rainfall have rendered more land infertile and intensified the fight over Nigeria’s dwindling farmland.

According to the Nigerian Meteorological Agency, Nigeria loses an average of 867,337 acres of land, or 0.4% of the country’s landmass, to drought and desertification every year. The drying of land and threat of Boko Haram in the northeast have pushed Nigeria’s mostly-Muslim, Fulani cattle herders further south, sparking deadly ethnic conflicts with Christian farmers in the southern half of the country and reducing the available supply of food throughout the region. According to the UNHCR, some 3.5 million people in the Lake Chad Basin region are food insecure.

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5. Venezuela

Venezuela is currently in the midst of a political upheaval, economic collapse, and severe drought that has led to a national humanitarian crisis and the outbound migration of more than 4 million refugees. The struggle for power by two rival politicians as well as hyperinflation — prices in Venezuela were doubling every 19 days on average by the end of 2018 — have contributed to instability in the country and caused mass shortages of basic necessities such as food, water, and power. In a 2017 survey, 60% of Venezuelans said they had gone to bed hungry because they could not afford food, and 64% said they had lost weight — 25 pounds in a year on average.

The situation is made worse by climate change. Venezuela received 50%-65% less rainfall than normal from 2013 to 2016, leading to widespread water shortages. In a country heavily reliant on hydropower — 64% of Venezuela’s electricity is from hydroelectric sources, compared to the 16% global average — the drought has not only led to food shortages but also to power shortages and frequent blackouts.