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UN Warns of New Refugee Crisis Fuelled by Climate Change

Climate change is fuelling conflicts around the world and helping to drive the number of people forced out of their homes to new highs, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). After a few years of improvement, thanks mainly to large-scale resettlement in Afghanistan, the numbers of civilians uprooted by conflict is again rising. During 2007 the total jumped to 37.4 million, an increase of more than 3 million, according to statistics published on June 17.

The figures, described as “unprecedented” by the UN, do not include people escaping natural disasters or poverty – only those fleeing conflict and persecution. But Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said that climate change could also uproot people by provoking conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, such as water.

“Climate change is today one of the main drivers of forced displacement, both directly through impact on environment – not allowing people to live any more in the areas where they were traditionally living – and as a trigger of extreme poverty and conflict.”

~Antonio Guterres

Guterres said the number of refugees was likely to continue to increase for the foreseeable future. “More and more the international community will be facing an acceleration of people on the move for all kinds of reasons,” he said.

As climate change, a global economic slowdown, conflict and persecution fuelled each other, it would be increasingly hard to categorise those on the run.

“What we are witnessing is a trend in the world where more and more people feel threatened by conflict, threatened by their own government, threatened by other political, religious ethnic or social groups, threatened by nature and nature’s retaliation against human aggression – climate change is the example of that. And also threatened by … a slowdown in global growth, plus structural change in energy and food markets.”

~Antonio Guterres

The task is also hindered by the legal distinction between refugees, who flee across borders and automatically become the UNHCR’s responsibility, and internally displaced persons (IDPs), who flee their homes but remain in their home countries. In 2007 there were estimated to be 26 million of them, and only half receive direct or indirect help from the UNHCR. “They remain under the protection of their own governments, but the governments are sometimes part of the problem rather than solution,” Guterres said.

He said the UNHCR was not seeking to widen its 1951 mandate, but wanted a review of the status of IDPs, to ensure they received more international help.

UNHCR statistics show that nearly half the world’s refugees are Afghan (about 3 million, mostly scattered in Pakistan and Iran), or Iraqi (2 million, largely in Syria and Jordan). The world’s largest population of IDPs is in Colombia, where 3 million people have driven from their homes by years of insurgency and counter-insurgency. There are 2.4 million IDPs thought to be in Iraq, a rise of 600,000 over the past year. Almost all refugees end up in camps in their region, rather than in the west, which admits relatively few.

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