Click for menu
The Dereig refugee camp in Darfur
Dereig camp for internally displaced persons on the outskirts of Nyala, south Darfur. The camp has 5,000 Internally Displaced Persons; all are dependent on humanitarian agencies for food, water and education for the children. Photo by Christian Aid/David Rose

Human tide: the real migration crisis

Christian Aid predicts that a billion people will be forced from their homes before 2050

"Millions are escaping war and ethnic persecution, and millions more have literally had their homes swept away by the increasing number of natural disasters."

"Movement on this scale has the potential to de-stabilise whole regions where increasingly desperate populations compete for dwindling food and water."

"The most urgent threat facing poor people in developing countries. The time for action is now."

About this page

Human tide: the real migration crisisThis page is an excerpt from the May 2007 Christian Aid Service report on its expectations of the world population's displacement as a result of climate change. The page about the UK organisation's report features the Introduction and Recommendations. The "home page" for the Report on the website of the Christian Aid Service, an organisation with HQ in London, Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Dublin, is here.

Related pages:

26 January 2007: The Big Winning Issue for 2007 - If we line up all the Big Issues in 2007 we need to talk about, an announcement of the "winner" is rather disturbing. The issue seems to crystallise as we start the lead-up to what probably will be an October election. And deeply held concerns over climate change jumps out as the big winner.

 :::CALL TO ACTION::: Monday 18 September 2006: A Planetary Emergency: Earth on the boil - this week, of all weeks in the year, seems a most opportune week to send you Project SafeCom's 'brand-new' publication - the brochure "From Climate Change to Climate Justice".

14 August 2006: Got that sinking feeling? - Some of Australia's closest neighbours are getting 'that sinking feeling' - and with good reason: their nations are sinking, or rather, rising sea levels increase the likelihood of them becoming "climate refugees". But this page is about our own country: Australia...

5 March 2006: Silencing the climate change prophets - ABC Four Corners lifts the lid off government gagging of those who know and should tell us. "Some scientists believe that there'll be more environmental refugees. Is that a possibility?" - "I can't really comment on that..."

15 September 2005: Friends of the Earth Australia: A Citizens Guide to Climate Refugees - While the Earth has always endured natural climate change variability, we are now facing the possibility of irreversible climate change in the near future. The increase of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere from industrial processes has enhanced the natural greenhouse effect.

31 December 2004: Changing worlds: the coming of envirogees - They will be coming in boats, in trucks, on trains - and in lorries, in aircraft wheel housing spaces, crouched.... An exploration of some Australian and global issues associated with ecological and seismic disasters, and the links between the two aspects of a planet under pressure - and the implications for a world community 'on the move'.

Human tide: the real migration crisis

A Christian Aid report
May 2007

"Christian Aid predicts that, on current trends, a further 1 billion people will be forced from their homes between now and 2050. We believe forced migration is the most urgent threat facing poor people in developing countries. The time for action is now."


A world struggling to cope with the largest enforced movement of people in its history. Tens of millions displaced, living in parlous conditions - their very futures threatened by the enormity of the problem.

That was the dire situation at the end of the Second World War, and Christian Aid - known at the time as Christian Reconstruction in Europe - was founded to help address it. Then, 50 years ago, came the first Christian Aid Week - a mass mobilisation of supporters to raise funds for the continuing refugee crisis in Europe and beyond.

The roots of the organisation run deep into the tragedy of forced migration. So it is with some authority that we now issue a stark warning about accelerating rates of displacement in the 21st century.

As the effects of climate change join and exacerbate the conflicts, natural disasters and development projects that drive displacement, we fear that an emerging migration crisis will spiral out of control. Unless urgent action is taken, it threatens to dwarf even that faced by the warravaged world all those decades ago.

Christian Aid predicts that, on current trends, a further 1 billion people will be forced from their homes between now and 2050. We believe forced migration is the most urgent threat facing poor people in developing countries. The time for action is now.

* * * * * *

The issue of migration is currently riding high on the domestic political agenda. Media attention here is focused on economic migrants and those seeking political asylum in Britain and Ireland, with debate centering on whether these people bring benefits or dangers. This report is not about those issues.

For the real crisis is emerging a long way away, and largely unnoticed. It really is not about us. Principally, it involves some 155 million men, women and children who have had no choice but to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in their own countries. They are, in the flat jargon of international classification, 'internally displaced persons', or 'IDPs'.

Millions are escaping war and ethnic persecution, and millions more have literally had their homes swept away by the increasing number of natural disasters. A staggering number of people are being pushed aside to make way for dams, roads and other large-scale development projects. Most are in the world's poorest countries, often among their poorest people.

Their already harsh lives are made worse by being forced to move, sometimes repeatedly.

Unlike the relatively small numbers of dictionary-definition 'refugees', who have struggled across a border to escape persecution, they are also largely voiceless. They have no status or protection under international law and no single international agency is responsible for their welfare. They are nobody's problem, apart from their own governments'. And those governments are often responsible for these people's plight in the first place.

The number of IDPs is expected to rise dramatically in the coming decades. And those already displaced look likely to be joined by at least equal numbers of people forced from their homes because of climate change.

The impact of climate change is the great, and frightening, unknown in this equation. Existing estimates of its potential to displace people are more than a decade old and are widely disputed. Only now is serious academic attention being devoted to calculating the scale of this new human tide.

Given the amount of work and column inches devoted in recent years to the economic implications of global warming, including the landmark Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, commissioned by the UK government, this may seem inconceivable - even shameful. But it is the case.

Stern, for example, merely quotes the old figures. Cynics may conclude that this lack of focus, while popular chatter centres on threats to our foreign holidays and big cars, is because the problem is perceived as being a long way away. It really is not about us.

For the people of the developing world, however, mass migration forced by climate change could prove to be a further crushing blow.

In our report, The Climate of Poverty, published a year ago, Christian Aid highlighted how the process of climate change was already affecting poor populations. It also predicted how the threat of increasing floods, disease and famine sparked by climate change could nullify efforts to secure meaningful and sustainable development in poor countries. At worst, the report said, these ravages could send the real progress that has already been achieved 'spinning into reverse'.

To add many more millions of uprooted people to this mix makes an already apocalyptic picture potentially even more devastating.

The danger is that this new forced migration will fuel existing conflicts and generate new ones in the areas of the world - the poorest - where resources are most scarce.

Movement on this scale has the potential to de-stabilise whole regions where increasingly desperate populations compete for dwindling food and water. While mired in political complexity, the genesis of the appalling conflict in Darfur has been in part attributed to this very downward spiral. Let Darfur stand as the starkest of warnings about what the future could bring.

This scenario has not escaped the attention of military planners. In December 2006 Sir Jock Stirrup, as the Chief of the Defence Staff and Britain's most senior seviceman, used his annual lecture at the Royal United Services Institute to highlight these concerns.

'Climate change and growing competition for scarce resources are together likely to increase the incidence of humanitarian crises. The spread of desert regions, a scarcity of water, coastal erosion, declining arable land, damage to infrastructure from extreme weather: all this could undermine security,' he said.

The latest Global Strategic Trends Programme report from the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) forecasts the state of the world over the next 30 years. Released earlier this year by the MoD's Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre military thinktank, the report outlines past examples of rapid climate change and speaks in no-nonsense terms about the possible extreme consequences of another one.

'The Earth's population has grown exponentially in the last century and any future event of this type would have more dramatic human consequences, resulting in societal collapse, mega-migration, intensifying competition for much-diminished resources and widespread conflict.'


(from pages 47-50)

Christian Aid believes that the appalling plight of millions of people forced from their homes demands a stronger, braver response by the world community. Just as many countries acted together after the Second World War to relieve the suffering of those displaced by that conflict, so now they need to redouble their efforts to help today's displaced masses.

Existing attempts to help them are hobbled by a system that was designed more than half a century ago. It remains too feeble, unreliable, disorganised and under-funded to address the expanding need.

Crucially, that system frequently lacks the backing of armed force. This, when properly mandated by the international community, is sometimes essential to protect people from rape, torture and murder. In turn, this failure reflects the lack of political will in countries with the power to take effective action. As a result, millions of people who have fled conflict remain in danger of losing their lives and yet are often forgotten by the world.

Millions more wait too long for disaster relief which, especially with slow-onset droughts and famines that fail to interest the media, is often too little, too late.

A further, vast number of people are being deliberately forced off their land to make way for roads, dams, mines, factories and other construction projects. Most, predictably, are impoverished as a result, and their fate is too often an afterthought for the lenders, governments and companies that fund these huge projects.

Climate change is already adding to the number of people who have to leave their homes to survive. Its forecast effects on poor people - on their ability to grow food, to find water and to have safe places to live - are terrifying. Unless the rich world takes urgent action to help poor countries adapt to climate change, then in future it will trigger yet higher levels of forced migration.

In this 50th anniversary Christian Aid Week report we highlight these issues because we believe they will pose the greatest threat to the world's poorest people in the coming decades. Increasingly, our work and that of our partner organisations is to relieve the suffering caused by forced displacement. But we cannot do it alone.

Now is the time for the world to act, both helping people to stay in their homes as the climate inevitably changes, and putting in place a strong and reliable system to help and protect those who have already had to flee. The need could not be more urgent.


Christian Aid recognises that, ultimately, governments are legally responsible for protecting their own citizens' safety and human rights.

The 30 principles - which are based on existing international law and human rights instruments - include the following:

The international community has a moral responsibility to help the millions of displaced people currently failed by their own governments.


The best way to reduce the human suffering and displacement caused by disasters is to make people less vulnerable to them, and more able to cope when they do occur. These principles were outlined in the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015.

Local NGOs have a huge contribution to make because their knowledge of local conditions means that often they know how best to reduce people's vulnerability. Where people are forced from their homes, they need help quickly. Response times will be slowed if all funding for the response is channelled through the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) - this delays NGOs' ability to start work.


Unlike displacement by conflict and disasters, that caused by large-scale development projects is predictable and preventable. People who are forced out of their homes by development projects normally find their lives are damaged for years afterwards, or even permanently. But it does not have to be like this. When displaced people are resettled, there is an opportunity to improve their lives, although this requires sufficient imagination, dedication and financial resources. Very few projects currently achieve this.

The governments, lenders and other companies that fund or profit from projects that displace people must ensure that people's livelihoods are restored to at least as good a level as before displacement.

If displacement is to benefit those who are forced to move, then they must share in the benefits generated by the project that pushes them out, as well as being resettled and properly compensated for their losses. Some countries - including Brazil, China, Canada and Norway - are already following this approach in relation to people displaced by dams.

Climate change

Scientific forecasts about the effects of climate change are frightening. They suggest a world in which people in already poor countries will have an even harder struggle to survive. Although there are no up-to-date statistics to show how many people are being displaced by climate change, it is clear that the numbers are potentially in the hundreds of millions. This, in turn, is likely to fuel conflicts that will push still more people to flee.

It is poor people who will suffer most as a result of climate change, but rich people who are most to blame for it. In sub-Saharan Africa, people emit less than one tonne of CO2 per year while in the US it is 24 tonnes.

The latest scientific studies suggest that the climate is changing more quickly than was previously predicted. In addition, because of international prevarication over reducing CO2 emissions, the scale and speed of action needed now is greater than previously imagined. A massive, international effort is needed to reduce CO2 emissions and keep global average temperature increases below 2C. Even then, climate change will cause serious disruption, especially in poor communities.

Full report: