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The Dereig refugee camp in Darfur

Human tide: the real migration crisis

Photo (Christian Aid/David Rose): 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.

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."

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 the Recommendations, as well as a download link for the full report. 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.

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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.

  • All states should integrate the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into their national law and make real, practical efforts to uphold them, rather than merely paying lip service to them.

  • Donor countries such as the UK and Ireland should use their influence to encourage greater adherence to these principles, and speak out publicly against the governments that manifestly flout them.

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

  • governments should try to prevent people from being displaced and have a special obligation to prevent the displacement of indigenous people, minorities, smallscale farmers and others with a special dependency and attachment to their lands (Principles 7 and 9)

  • internally displaced people (IDPs) have the right to request and receive protection and humanitarian assistance from their governments. They must be protected against harm, including murder, arbitrary execution, disappearances and violence (Principles 3 and 10)

  • IDPs have a right to enough food and drinkable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing and essential medical services and sanitation (Principle 18)

  • governments have a duty to help IDPs to return home voluntarily or resettle in another part of the country, in safety and dignity (Principle 28).

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

  • Responsibility for organising protection and assistance for those who have fled from conflict should be held by the same organisation whose job it is to organise protection and assistance for refugees - currently UNHCR. This dual responsibility must be formally enshrined in the organisation's mandate. At present, all too often IDPs fall into the gaps between different UN organisations, so noone takes responsibility for them. As well as arranging practical responses to IDPs' needs, the chosen organisation should also be responsible for monitoring and promoting governments' adherence to the Guiding Principles.

  • Where necessary, governments acting through the UN Security Council must be willing to give the organisation the military back-up necessary to protect IDPs and refugees from violence. This is in line with the 'responsibility to protect', which world leaders agreed in 2005, and which the UN Security Council reaffirmed just over a year ago in Security Council resolution 1674 (April 2006). The 'responsibility to protect' means that where governments manifestly fail to protect their own people against atrocities such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity, then other governments have a responsibility to take collective action through the UN Security Council, using force if necessary.

  • Military interventions must involve adequate numbers of forces who are properly equipped and have an effective mandate. They must also follow rules of engagement that protect civilians.

  • In addition, displaced people themselves must be involved in managing and solving the causes of their displacement. Those directly affected are often the best-placed to create lasting solutions. Local authorities should also be included in efforts to find solutions, which need their support to be sustainable.


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.

  • Governments, international and local NGOs should prioritise action to reduce people's vulnerability. Examples of practical measures include creating better early warning systems, ensuring that coastline protection is not sacrificed to commercial development, preventing forests from being destroyed by housing developments, preventing poor people from being forced to live on flood plains and ensuring that schools and houses are earthquake resistant.

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.

  • Rather than sending all their disaster contributions through the CERF, donors should keep channelling substantial funds directly to NGOs.

  • Furthermore, those coordinating the response to disasters must recognise that local NGOs have vitally important local knowledge and capacity. Local NGOs must be used and not, as is often the case, sidelined in favour of international organisations.


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.

  • Christian Aid believes that the principle of sharing the financial returns from projects with those displaced by them is right. It should be applied by those running all major development projects that displace people.

  • All commercial and public organisations that fund or run such projects must adopt credible policies on how they will minimise displacement, and properly compensate and resettle people who are forced out of their homes. Such policies should be publicly available.

  • Policies achieve nothing by themselves. They must be implemented and their effectiveness must be independently audited at least every five years, with the findings made publicly available. This gives funding organisations an incentive to ensure that their policies are actually implemented.

  • An independent audit of the effectiveness of the development displacement guidelines adopted by OECD countries 15 years ago is long overdue. The UK and Irish governments should press for each OECD member country to organise its own independent audit and, in addition, for the OECD's Development Assistance Committee to organise a central audit. The results of all audits must be publicly available.

  • Similarly, the World Bank has not had a thorough, independent audit of the impact of its policy on resettlement for ten years.3 For a lender that makes so much of its commitment to proper treatment of people and the environment, this is shameful. The Bank should commission such audits every five years and make public the results.

  • Within the private sector, the Equator Principles on forced displacement are good, but should be more widely adopted. Companies that have signed up to them should have their adherence independently monitored and audited, and should make the results publicly available. While such voluntary codes are welcome, experience shows that legally binding rules are often needed to enforce proper regulation.

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.

  • A new international, science-based and equitable agreement is needed along the lines of a 'global carbon budget'. This must be consistent with the 2C-limit and recognise the right of developing and less-developed countries to increase the size of their economies and reduce poverty in a way that does not lead to further growth in global CO2 emissions.

  • The agreement should have at its heart development-friendly mechanisms with which rich countries will fund adaptation and clean-development activities in poor countries.

  • As part of the agreement, rich countries that have emitted most pollution must establish a US$100 (50) billion a year global fund to help poor, vulnerable counties to adapt to sealevel rises, increasing drought and more extreme weather. Funding could be based on CO2 taxation or trading, or both.

  • This money should not be taken from existing aid budgets - it is partial compensation for the damage done by climate change. It should be paid in proportion to countries' CO2 emissions since 1990 (when negotiations on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change began), and national wealth.

  • In addition, it is in all countries' interests to share and develop low-carbon technology and pass on know-how. The costs of this should be borne by rich countries, and intellectual property rights should not stand in the way of stabilising the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. At the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the importance of discussions on technology transfer should be elevated, with rich countries taking seriously their obligations in Article 5 to take 'all practicable steps' to 'promote, facilitate and finance' technology transfer.

  • In the short term, financial support for adaptation should be increased via more rapid debt cancellation and increases in overseas development assistance. In addition, rich countries must live up to the pledges they have made to help the poor cope with climate change.

  • The UK should pay all the money it has pledged to the climate change funds without delay. Pledging 10 million but staging payments over three years harms the adaptation efforts of the poorest countries in the world.

  • The UK should lead the way towards a science-based, equitable international agreement and towards mechanisms to fund clean development and adaptation in countries that have limited resources to deal with them.

Project SafeCom