A Problem on the Horizon

Written by: Samiha Khan

For the last few days, we have stood by and watched as thousands of Afghans made valiant attempts to leave the country, as the Taliban took over more and more regions of Afghanistan. This number comes in addition to the roughly 2.2 million Afghanis who are living in neighbouring countries (BBC, 2021). Although in limited numbers, many countries around the world have offered to take in Afghan refugees. However, to me, the most interesting response came from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who urged European countries to step up, stating that Turkey would not be “Europe’s migrant storage unit” (BBC, 2021). 

The United States and its allies have an obligation to take in the thousands of interpreters and personnel that have helped them over the last 20 years. But what about the thousands more who are at risk at the hands of the Taliban? Innocent women, the Hazara population, or even those in the Taliban falsely accused of colluding with Western governments. Where do they go? And what of the thousands who are living below the poverty line and are at increased risk of famine? As of writing this article, thousands of Afghan refugees have risked their lives to cross Taliban controlled borders into Uzbekistan and Pakistan, which currently has one of the largest refugee populations in the world (UNHCR, 2021). 

Although Afghanistan is in the news at the moment, an increasing number of state failures around the world is pushing millions to head for other countries. Contrary to what the media promotes, most refugees end up in other developing countries that often do not have the capacity to care for a large influx of refugees. Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Venezuela, Honduras. These are just the beginning as the difference between war torn refugees and economic migrants are likely to become increasingly murky. 

The sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that within the next few decades heavily populated and vulnerable areas of the world will be devastated by climate change. The most likely scenario for South Asia will be a drop in crop yields and weather conditions that will make outdoor work fatal. We need not look further than our own country. Over the last decade, 345,000 Bangladeshis have been internally displaced due to natural disasters and it is expected that 13.3 million people will be displaced by 2050 (iDMC, 2020). As ocean levels continue to rise, it is predicted that southern regions of Bangladesh will be left completely uninhabitable, forcing vulnerable people in coastal areas to move towards an overpopulated Dhaka city. Those desperate enough to cross the border into India are met with the world’s “most ferociously-defended anti-immigrant border fence” (Tanveer, 2021) that will likely cause them their loved ones. 

It is not just South Asia that will grapple with a migration crisis unlike any other seen before. Wars in the Middle East, a terrorist insurgency in Nigeria and human right violations in Eritrea saw a wave of refugees entering Europe in the last decade or so. Despite the increased xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and strict border control, the number of refugees is unlikely to decrease any time soon, especially as refugees from developing countries seek to go to Europe in hope of a better future. The United States is no stranger to asylum seekers from countries south of its border. An increase in human rights violations, crop failure, drought and poverty has pushed people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to travel to the US in hopes of a better future (UNHCR, n.d.). 

And we have not even begun to talk about the millions of people who are, and will be, internally displaced due to global warming. Are we, as an international community, prepared to deal with the challenges that lie ahead?

The intersection of climate change and migration requires comprehensive solutions to tackle the multidimensional challenges that will result from climate migration. The current legal system is not designed to protect the human rights of people who are displaced internationally due to the climate crisis. They do not fit the definition of a “refugee” and as such, the non-refoulement principle does not necessarily apply to them. Despite the challenges, the UNHCR has refused to grant these people refugee status, instead choosing to label them as “environmental migrants”.

Acknowledging that the migration-climate nexus is an imminent problem would be the first step for governments. Multinational institutions and agencies need to work on developing a legal framework that will account for protection of human rights under migration due to climate change. 

Getting Western governments to acknowledge climate refugees as such will be an uphill battle, given the current anti-immigrant and xenophobic attitude towards refugess fleeing violent conflicts. 

In February, US President Joe Biden issued an executive order to get relevant federal departments and agencies to formulate a policy on how to identify climate refugees and what kind of protections the US can grant them (Lynn, 2021). The report is set to be completed this month. However, given the severity of the problem, it is hard to say that governments are doing enough. 

They could increase aid to disaster stricken counties or provide military support. But as we have seen in Afghanistan, Western theories of development are just that: theories. Western governments are likely to adopt stronger measures to restrict the entry of migrants, but it would leave a large population of people in uninhabitable areas. It  is also unlikely to stop desperate people in search of hope, to make dangerous journeys in hope of a better life. And although one could argue that the US leaders need to serve their people first, I would be remiss if I did not point out that much of the contemporary world’s conflicts have begun with the West’s intention to spread it’s version of democracy. 

The actions we need to take to protect refugees, whether they are fleeing violent conflict or violent climate, are far reaching. And they need to be a joint effort rather than following the hegemony’s solution. But the crisis will only worsen and it is upto the international community to come together if we hope to have any semblance of control over what is yet to come.


  • BBC. (2021, April 26). Afghanistan: Where will refugees go after Taliban takeover? BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58283177
  • UNHCR. (2021, June 18). Refugee Data Finder. UNHCR. https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/
  • UNHCR (n.d.).Displacement in Central America. UNHCR. https://www.unhcr.org/displacement-in-central-america.html
  • Lynn, Bryan. (2021, April 23). US Could Consider Protections for ‘Climate Refugees’. VOA. https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/us-could-consider-protections-for-climate-refugees-/5864464.html
    Tanveer, J. (2021, August 13). The Coming Afghan Refugee Crisis Is Only a Preview. Foreign Policy.

Featured Image Courtesy: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times

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