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The concept of ‘climate refugee’: Towards a possible definition [Policy Podcast]

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Written by Joanna Apap with Capucine du Perron de Revel.

According to statistics published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, since 2008 over 318 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced by floods, windstorms, earthquakes or droughts, 30.7 million in 2020 alone. This is equivalent to one person being displaced every second. Depending on the frequency and scale of the major natural disasters occurring, there are significant fluctuations in the total number of displaced people from one year to the next, yet the trend over recent decades has been a growing one. Many find refuge within their own country, but some are forced to go abroad. In the summer of 2021, Europe witnessed heavy and unprecedented flooding, particularly in Belgium and Germany, and heat domes in the Mediterranean region. Scientists relate this directly to climate change. All things considered, the number of ‘climate refugees’ looks set to rise.

So far, the national and international response to this challenge has been limited, and protection for the people affected remains inadequate. What adds further to the gap in protection of such people – who are often described as ‘climate refugees’ – is that there is neither a clear definition of this category of people, nor are they covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention. The latter extends only to people who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and who are unable or unwilling to seek protection from their home countries. While the EU has not so far recognised climate refugees formally, it has expressed growing concern and has taken action to support the countries potentially affected by climate-related stress and help them develop resilience.

This briefing is an update of an earlier one from January 2019.


Read this briefing on ‘The concept of ‘climate refugee’: Towards a possible definition‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

Listen to policy podcast ‘The concept of ‘climate refugee’: Towards a possible definition’ on YouTube.

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