3 Nov 2021

Growing numbers of children forced to flee by climate change - report

2:53 pm on 3 November 2021

Surging temperatures, rising water levels and land degradation drove an estimated record 10 million children from their homes last year, a Save the Children report says.


.. Photo: Supplied

It warns the increase in climate migration comes with a new risk - that these children and their families may never return home, including thousands in the Pacific.

The report, Walking into the Eye of the Storm, was released on the eve of the UN COP26 summit and highlighted that climate change-induced migration is here and set to get a lot worse.

Last year 30 million people were forced from their homes by climate-related disasters, and one third of them were children.

The number displaced is three times higher than those who fled conflict and violence. And it compares to 19 million people displaced internally by such disasters five years ago.

"The scale of the crisis is huge, and growing fast," said Jacqui Southey, Save the Children New Zealand's Advocacy and Research Director.

"It's a perfect storm that we must stop in its path - before it's too late.

"Before, climate change often led to short term displacements and families would go back after the cyclone or flood was over. Now, because of the frequency of natural disasters and slow onset degradation, we're seeing more and more permanent migration, with many children unable or unwilling to return.

Southey said families often moved to equally high-risk areas, and had little support to improve their resilience and to integrate.

"It is clear that many current responses to climate-related migration and displacement are not sustainable or fit for purpose.

"And with research showing today's one-year-olds likely to face far greater climate-induced disasters than previous generations, it's vital that we act now."

Migration that was likely to be permanent was often prompted by extreme temperatures, rising sea levels and salinisation of agricultural land.

Particularly concerning was an emerging trend showing twice as many people were impacted by slow-onset droughts than sudden storms last year.

Jacqui Southey.

Save the Children NZ advocacy director Jacqui Southey Photo: Supplied

The study was based on the findings of more than 420 research reports exploring climate change and child displacement and 125 experts.

It also drew from interviews with 239 children living in high-risk climate settings in five countries on five continents - Fiji, Iraq, Mali, Mozambique and Peru - some of whom had relocated due to climate change.

"The urgency of addressing the climate crises should not be ignored by world leaders because we are all experiencing the impacts of climate change now," said Save the Children's Fiji executive Sharaina Ali.

"We can see that children are affected, families are affected. Really, it's about accountability to the future generations.

"It's an emergency that also relates to the children's right to survival and protection.

"It's important that nations step up and really put children at the centre of whatever negotiations are going to happen, to take urgent action to limit warming."

Children from all five continents said the climate crisis was having a devastating impact on their lives right now, and they or their friends have had to move because of it. Those relocations were increasingly from rural to urban areas, and they sometimes travelled alone.

Some said climate risks were increasing their poverty, leaving them "trapped" in high risk locations.

Some children were skipping meals, not attending school, engaging in child labour, child marriage, street begging, or were sexually exploited.

A 14-year-old boy from Mali who was quoted in the report described the effects of increasing extremes in weather; "Last year and in 2018, a lot of houses collapsed due to heavy rains.

"If it rains too much, our fields will be flooded so the harvest will not be good, in which case people will be forced to find [other] solutions to feed their families.

"But that is not possible all the time so the [only] solution is to leave this very hostile area."

Rotting piles under a school in Daku Village, Fiji which suffers from seawater inundation

Rotting piles under a school in Daku Village, Fiji which suffers from seawater inundation Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

Globally, more than 1 billion children live in areas at high risk of flooding, severe drought, or other climate threats that pose a serious risk to lives and livelihoods.

"Copra farming is one of the most important things in our life. It is our source of income ... but due to climate change, there can be loss of income," said a 15-year-old girl from Fiji.

"I decided to move for a better education and a better life."

The fact it is children who will face the brunt of climate change has already been widely discussed.

In late 2020, Save the Children's Born into the Climate Crisis report showed that children born that year could suffer almost seven times as many heatwaves, almost 3 times as many river floods, and more than twice as many droughts as their grandparents. Those figures were calculated taking into account the original Paris Agreement emissions reduction package.

But the latest report stressed that the problem is urgent.

As well as increasing displacement, the effects of climate change meant those who left their homes often did so in the midst of extreme weather events, where services were disrupted, infrastructure was damaged and livelihoods were destroyed.

Children were especially vulnerable to climate-related events, with less resilience to malnutrition and infection, at greater risk of violence or recruitment to armed militias, and faced threats to their mental health.


.. Photo: Supplied/Save the Children

Immediate changes needed

Save the Children said most national policies on displacement did not currently consider climate-related events as a trigger for displacement, which must change.

The organisation called on the humanitarian sector and governments to:

  • Take account of climate expertise and climate-related risks in programmes dealing with child migration and displacement
  • Prioritise the rights and needs of affected children by ensuring laws, policies, strategies and plans holistically address the impact of climate change on children
  • Prepare for proactive planned relocations in national responses to climate-related displacement
  • Use forecasting expertise to plan for child migration and displacement in high risk settings
  • Establish partnerships with migration and displacement specialists to improve data collection and sharing
  • Establish forums for children to share their experiences, support each other and contribute their voices to planning and decision-making

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