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Millions of Children Displaced by Climate, UNICEF Says

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says that weather-related disasters caused by climate change and global warming have displaced 43.1 million children in 44 countries between 2016 and 2021, criticizing the lack of attention paid to the victims of these disasters.

In a new report, Children Displaced in a Changing Climate, released on Thursday, October 5, UNICEF says a staggering number of children worldwide are affected by climate-induced disasters. These disasters have become more frequent due to global warming, the report argues. Floods and storms caused 95% of children’s displacement. 

The Philippines, India, and China have the highest number of child displacements due to weather-related events. This is because they have large populations, are located in areas that are vulnerable to climate change, and have preventive evacuation plans in place. Between 2016 and 2021, according to the UNICEF report, there were nearly 23 million child displacements in these three countries combined. The Philippines alone had 9.7 million children displacements, followed by India with 6.7 million and China with 6.4 million.

Statistics on internal displacement caused by climate disasters typically do not consider the age of the victims. However, UNICEF says it has collaborated with the non-governmental Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre to analyze the data and uncover the hidden impact on children.

Catherine Russell, the Executive Director of UNICEF,  said that child displacement, while may save lives in times of crises, also comes with psychosocial costs as well as implications for human capital development. “For those who are forced to flee, the fear and impact can be especially devastating, with worry of whether they will return home, resume school, or be forced to move again.”  

Russell expressed concerns about the slow pace of actions taken in addressing the growing challenge for children, pointing out the need to prepare communities before disasters, protect children facing risks of displacement, and support those already uprooted. “As the impacts of climate change escalate, so too will climate-driven movement. We have the tools and knowledge to respond to this escalating challenge for children, but we are acting far too slowly.

According to UNICEF, drought alone has displaced more than 1.3 million children in six years between 2015 and 2021, with the majority of them in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan.  Afghanistan, where the report says around 190,000 children have been displaced, is grappling with one of the worst droughts and water shortages in decades. While those displaced by floods or wildfires could return to their original communities, drought-induced displacement is often permanent due to sustainably worsening conditions.    

Earlier, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that 25 out of 34 provinces of Afghanistan are experiencing either “severe” or “catastrophic” drought conditions, affecting more than 50% of the population. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has warned that 79% of people in Afghanistan do not have access to sufficient water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and washing. The organization has appealed for $33 million to provide urgent water, sanitation, and hygiene assistance to 2.3 million people in Afghanistan in 2023, saying that “time is running out and Afghanistan can’t wait.”

UNICEF says that climate change impacts children in poor developing countries and high-income countries alike. In 2020 alone, the United States, Canada, and Israel registered the highest number of the 810,000 children displaced by climate incidents, mostly wildfires. These countries’ robust early warning systems meant that most of the moving was preemptive and potentially temporary.

If climate change continues at its current rate, UNICEF warns that nearly 100 million children and young people could be displaced globally by weather disasters alone over the next 30 years. Laura Healy, a migration policy specialist at UNICEF and one of the report’s authors said, “The reality is that far more children are going to be impacted in [the] future, as the impacts of climate change continue to intensify.”