Neither the UK’s current climate change policy published in September 2021, nor the May 2022 Strategy for International Development, include information on, or approaches to managing, the growth of migration as a direct result of climate change. In order to properly tackle this issue, several departments across the government must work together to prepare solutions today by merging and expanding upon already-existing environmental and refugee policies. 

Written by Bradley Tait

The UN’s High Commission for Refugees estimates that by the end of 2018, over 70 million people had been displaced by conflict or human rights violations worldwide. As a signatory to the UNHCR convention on Human Rights, the UK is bound to uphold the rights and protection for uprooted people worldwide. Current legislation on migration policy is a strong start - but there is still work to be done, as climate change-driven migration may be a far more serious and immediate situation, with 33 million people currently displaced as a result of devastating floods in Pakistan. 

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine states that up to 40% of the world’s population – over three billion people – live in areas highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The gradual disappearance of the Aral Sea threatens wellbeing in Central Asia, and wildfires raged throughout southern Europe in the summer of 2022.

With the effects of climate change expected to worsen, the UK Government must begin preparing today to handle the almost certain influx of refugees. At present, the climate change policy published by HMG in September 2021 makes no mention of human migration, anticipated or otherwise. Similarly, the official asylum seeking application process makes no mention of climate change, and only applies to those fleeing persecution. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Liz Truss’ recent appointment of Jacob Rees-Mogg as the new Secretary for Business and Energy will likely hinder these efforts. As a politician who has dismissed climate change as “alarmism”, supported the Government’s Rwanda deportation scheme, and stated that humanity should adapt to, rather than mitigate, climate change, Rees-Mogg’s appointment does little to inspire confidence. 

Regardless, what can - and should - be done?

The first outcome should be to expand the asylum application process to include not only those fleeing persecution, but also climate change-induced issues such as food, fuel, and water shortages, rising sea levels, and so on. This would provide a permanent solution to those no longer able to find stability or security in their country of origin.  

The Center for Global Development also identifies other protocols already in place in other countries which the UK could adopt. Examples of this may include the Temporary Protected Status program used in the United States and the EU. Under this approach, individuals from pre-designated countries are able to seek temporary shelter in an issuing country until their nation of origin is prepared and willing to accept their return. This status may apply to armed conflict, environmental disasters, or public health crises. 

An incorporation of the UNHCR’s and Paris Agreement’s missions here at home may also be required. At present, the UK’s mission to the UNHCR focuses on three key areas for adaptation to climate change-based migration: legal advice and support for climate refugees, analysis on, and anticipation of, populations being displaced and why, and the improvement of environmental sustainability at the UNHCR itself.  By incorporating these same practices and goals into domestic policy, the UK can more adequately prepare for and mitigate the effects of climate change-driven migration both at home and abroad. 

This mission could even be expanded to include ecological sustainability training so refugees themselves participate in climate change-mitigating skills while simultaneously adapting to the nature of displacement. The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures has worked with both scholars and refugees to establish ecologically sustainable practices in the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan.  Camp residents have been trained in projects such as hydroponics, recycling old bicycles into wheelchairs, and even producing reusable masks and gowns to reduce the spread of COVID-19. By including such practices into domestic refugee and climate policy, the UK could continue to improve upon existing refugee protocols by not only providing valuable skills to individuals, but also reduce the carbon emissions originally responsible for displacing them – thus mitigating future climate change while adapting to the effects of current ecological shifts. 

By implementing these practices today, the UK can and will find itself in a strengthened position to handle the effects of climate change on human migration. This would not require the creation of any new or significant political entities either – merely the partial merging of already existing refugee and environmental policies to create new opportunities, or expanding upon those already in place in other political entities. 

Bradley Tait is an MSc Politics of Asia candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies.