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Sandstorm in Dollow, Somalia

Photo: Sally Hayden / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

While summers are getting hotter and drier in Europe, the climate crisis is already having much more severe consequences in the Global South. People drown, starve to death or have to leave their homes. According to the UN, half of the world's refugee movements last year were due to climate change, and the trend is rising. Conflict countries such as Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen are disproportionately affected. But they receive the least help, as the non-governmental organization Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has just found in a data analysis. DRC works with refugees in 40 countries around the world, increasingly in the context of global warming. Secretary-General Charlotte Slente warns that if there is no more investment on the ground, the number of people affected could double.

MIRROR: Will the climate crisis soon trigger mass migration?

Slente: The climate crisis is already triggering large-scale migration movements. On the one hand, there are the very direct consequences, droughts or floods, from which people have to flee. And there are the more long-term consequences – such as lack of access to clean drinking water or fertile farmland. Climate change is also leading to violent conflicts, which in turn lead to more displacement. Such scenarios will become much more common in the future.

MIRROR: The COP28 climate summit is just around the corner. Will climate flight play a role in this?

Slente: I hope so. Climate change is hitting developing countries particularly hard, as they take in the largest number of displaced people. But climate payments from the Global North are not reaching the countries that need them most. Countries experiencing violent conflict receive very little funding for climate adaptation. This is because these funds are part of development aid and when a conflict breaks out, it is usually suspended. This needs to be discussed urgently at COP28. After all, many conflicts are closely linked to the climate crisis, so it makes no sense to cut climate funding.

MIRROR: But there have been various scandals recently, for example in Ethiopia or Somalia, where funds are said to have been diverted in a targeted manner – which is why donors have temporarily suspended their aid.

Slente: Of course, this is always a risk when working with certain countries. You have to put in place very good control mechanisms. That's what we do as an organization, and we work in many conflict countries where the risk of embezzlement is very high. So it works, you just have to do it right.

MIRROR: Somalia has been hit by a devastating drought in recent years, displacing more than three million people. Now the rain has finally set in, but with it severe flooding, from which another 600,000 people had to flee. Will we have to come to terms with the fact that some areas will simply no longer be habitable?

Slente: In the Horn of Africa, numerous refugee camps were also flooded; Climate-displaced people had to flee a second time. As an organization, we are trying to keep the number of displaced people as low as possible. We want to make it possible for people to live in their home country. We try to build the houses more stable and introduce new cultivation techniques that are more climate-resistant. There must be many more such programs. We also need to curb environmental degradation in the areas where people are fleeing, such as around the refugee camps. But you need a lot of money for that.

MIRROR: But when droughts and floods, extreme weather events, are becoming more frequent – isn't that tilting at windmills?

Slente: Yes, I expect that more and more places will be uninhabitable in the next few years. People have to get away from there. Nomads have to expand their migratory areas in order to survive. And this hits the poorest the hardest, because they have no resources to absorb the consequences of the climate crisis. Many people will be displaced multiple times. This is because the refugee camps are often built in places where the land is unusable; you can't build real houses or cultivate crops there.

MIRROR: Increasing migration and the struggle for scarce resources are fuelling violent conflicts. What do you expect for the future?

Slente: Unfortunately, we are already experiencing a world that is becoming more and more brutal. Many new crises are caused by the effects of climate change, and many old crises are protracted as a result. Every year, more than 20 million people are affected by climate-related disasters. These people are in need of humanitarian aid. And I firmly believe that this number will increase significantly in the coming years.

MIRROR: Currently, climate refugees do not enjoy legal protection under the Geneva Convention, so they are not entitled to asylum. Should that change?

Slente: We need to find new ways to protect these people. It would be difficult to change the Geneva Convention. But the first lawsuits and lawsuits are already taking place, for example from islanders who are losing their habitat due to rising water levels. They are fighting to be recognized as refugees. The climate catastrophe is changing the way we have to deal with refugees in the future.

MIRROR: But if we provide protection to all those displaced by climate change, wouldn't there be mass migration? Will Europe then have to prepare for millions of climate refugees?

Slente: From past experience, we know that climate-induced migration tends to take place locally. People tend to flee to other regions of their home country or to the immediate neighboring countries. 80 percent of refugees live in developing countries. I don't think this trend will change in the next few years.

MIRROR: Many European countries are also struggling with rising sea levels. Could a migration in the other direction, from north to south, also take place?

Slente: I don't think so. Countries like the Netherlands or Denmark, where I live, have the resources to adapt technologically to the climate crisis. It is a completely different situation than in many conflict countries in the Global South.

MIRROR: What needs to happen now – or is it already too late?

Slente: No, it's never too late. We urgently need to increase funding for climate adaptation, especially in the countries most affected. The governments of these countries also need to pay much more attention to the issue of climate migration, it must be at the top of the list of priorities. And humanitarian organizations need to focus more on climate issues to keep the number of displaced people low. If we do not respond decisively, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance will double to more than 2050 million per year by 200. It's going to be very expensive.

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