Environmental change and natural hazards have recently become a major cause of population displacement and refugees. Climate change presents an unprecedented challenge with devastating effects on humanity particularly in the developing world. According to the United National International Organization for Migration (IOM), in 2008, 20 million people were displaced by extreme weather events compared to the 4.6 million internally displaced by conflict and violence over the same period. According to the IPCC, climate change predictions for the 21st century indicate that even more people are expected to be on the move as weather related disasters like extreme temperatures and rainfall become more frequent and intense. IOM estimates that by 2050, 25 million to 1 billion people will be displaced due to climate change.
Increase in refugees and population displacement is an environmental problem as much as it is a social and political problem. The reason for displacement lies behind disasters such as droughts, floods and land degradation as well as social and political factors that result in prosecution and armed conflict. Climate change and poverty continues to amplify the impacts of migration leading to an increased migration frequency as well as larger number of refugees (Braun, Lang, and Hochschild 2016).
Population displacement, in many cases, is characterized by the movement of large populations either made up of internally displaced persons (IDPs) or persons moving across borders usually settling in unplanned sites. The spontaneous nature of migration by refugees means that refugee host countries generally lack the means and resources to develop strategies around use and management of environmental infrastructures such as water, energy sources, land use and management among others (Braun et al. 2016). The result of this lack of clear guidance has led to massive degradation of land resources at many sites and an overall compromised natural capital of the countries that play host to these refugees. This also has a far-reaching impact in building local community resilience to alleviate poverty, as land is further degraded.
In order to ensure that hosting refugees adheres to environmental sustainability, and in order to harmonise relations with local communities and host governments, it is important to implement strategies that sustain the local environment and natural resources for the benefit of human wellbeing and biodiversity. Developing strategies that ensure the presence of refugees does not have negative impacts on the environment, and in fact sustainably manages the benefits the environment can offer to both refugee and host populations, should be a pre-requisite for organizations working with refugees. These would ensure that where refugee camps are set up, measures are put in place to protect both the environment and the refugees. Sensitizing the refugees and host communities in a continuous way on the need to protect their environment is also an important aspect.
IUCN’s focus on refugees hosting is on exploring Nature-based Solutions opportunities, developing guidelines and providing strategic support for refugees and host countries to ensure sustainable natural resources use and management. This includes providing guidelines that are responsive to natural resource management challenges including fuelwood, water and land. This entails a holistic approach to natural resources management that also supports establishing income-generating activities for refugees and host communities to reduce overdependence on the natural environment.