Nigerian citizen Josh Godson, 21, waits for a train to Romania at the central train station in Lviv, Ukraine. Many other Nigerian students have faced discrimination in their attempts to flee the war-ridden country. (Photographs by Emin Ozmen/Magnum Photos)

Ukrainian Refugees Today, Climate Refugees Tomorrow


The Frontline digs into the disturbing parallels between the ongoing Ukrainian refugee crisis and what we might expect in the future due to climate change.

Across the planet, some 84 million people are estimated to be displaced due to forces beyond their control. Some individuals and families may have lost their homes to hurricanes or floods. Others are fleeing war and conflict—as we’re seeing unfold in Ukraine as Russia invades. 


Why is it, then, that nations are quick to welcome some folks in need and not others? Why does a Sudanese refugee remain stranded on the Polish border where he’s abused, as reported in the New York Times, while Poland eagerly receives more than 1.8 million Ukrainian refugees? And what lessons does this teach us about what to expect in a rapidly heating world that may displace some 1.2 billion people by 2050?


Welcome to The Frontline, where climate refugees are on the mind. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Words cannot describe how horrific the war in Ukraine is. Unfortunately, we live in a world where that war is one of many tragedies. Shouldn’t all victims be subject to the same humanity world leaders are extending to Ukrainians? How will they respond when water wars, cyclones, and overall climate hell erupts?

Mostly women and children are leaving Ukraine to find peace in neighboring countries.
Vitalina, 28, and her daughter Michelle want to take shelter in Germany.

On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine, a sovereign nation that elected President Volodymyr Zelensky through a democratically held election in 2019. In the aftermath of the invasion, Russia has bombed a maternity hospital, apartment buildings, and a public square. In response, Ukrainians are fleeing. Nowhere is safe anymore. Their only hope is reaching a border before Russia’s next missile strike reaches them.


The war has created more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees (and growing). The refugee crisis is the “fastest-growing” since WWII, according to The Guardian. Pretty dark, right? Well, we live in a world that seems to revel in darkness. More than 26 million refugees exist globally, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. Many of these survivors are also fleeing nightmarish scenarios at home—be it civil war in South Sudan or the persecution of Rohingya people in Myanmar. Where is the outcry for their safety?


While the U.S. stops deportation of undocumented Ukrainian migrants, we have yet to see such a response for people from other countries. The U.S. still deports Central Americans despite droughts and floods that have left millions in ruin. We’ve even seen a difference in how white Ukrainians are received at borders versus African students also escaping the war. Is this how the world will respond when climate disasters begin displacing people globally in mass? Will world leaders prioritize white lives? Will border agents meet white refugees with hugs and Black and Brown refugees with sticks? 


“There is an underlying tension of racism there,” said Kayly Ober, senior advocate and manager of the climate displacement program for Refugees International. “I don’t think we can disentangle the responses to refugees from the racism that persists in Europe.”


What we’ve seen so far offers us a disturbing glimpse of what may be to come in a world dominated by racism and political gain. Climate change is set to displace some 1.2 billion people by 2050 as countries face water and food shortages, extreme weather events, and increasing conflict due to fewer resources, according to a 2020 report from the Institute for Economics and Peace, which researches the benefits of peace.

“There’s always money for military action and always political will for military action, but there’s not political will when it comes to things like climate change.”

Osamah Khalil

“Certain Ukrainian refugees are seen as worthy of our sympathy, worthy of shelter, worthy of resettlement,” said Osamah Khalil, the chair of Syracuse University’s international relations program. “But in a climate emergency that we’re facing, will the same be true of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, inhabitants of island countries whether in the Caribbean or South Pacific, of coastal towns and coastal cities? How will they be viewed? Will they be viewed with sympathy?”


Wealthy nations must plan for this reality now so that they can administer help when and where it’s needed. Otherwise, we’ll see our current situation replicate: where only some people are given support. World powers must also take steps to cut their greenhouse gas emissions—unless they want to see even more refugees knocking at their door. 


“The more carbon emissions we can mitigate, the less of an impact climate change will have on people’s lives and livelihoods and the less likely people will have to move due to these sorts of climatic effects,” Ober said. “[The refugee crisis] also shows us that we must have a conversation about responsibility sharing and the ability to welcome and treat refugees with dignity—of all walks of life.”


Speaking of responsibility, the countries least responsible for creating the climate crisis are the ones projected to bear the most impact. Is it not only fair for the countries that are responsible to accommodate vulnerable communities should disaster push them off their lands? We’ve seen with Ukraine that the Global North is more than capable of coordinating a humanitarian response to unprecedented migration. The U.K. has launched a new housing program to host Ukrainian refugees in people’s homes. President Joe Biden is offering temporary protected status to Ukrainians already in the country. 


We know now that it’s only an excuse when presidents or prime ministers drag their feet on immigration reform because it’s too complicated. We know now that climate action isn’t a matter of cost but, rather, political will. On Tuesday, Biden signed a $1.5 trillion spending bill that includes $13.6 billion in aid to Ukraine, as well as another $782 billion for the U.S. military. We always have money for war—but what about money for a safe future?

Eugene, 30, and Katia, 30, took shelter with their sons Kirill, 3, and Danil, 6, after they fled from Kyiv when the Russian invasion began.

“What we’ve seen is political indifference and political inaction and this idea that these problems are too big, and yet when governments in the U.S. and its allies want to act on something, we’ve seen their ability to do so,” Khalil said. “There’s always money for military action and always political will for military action, but there’s not political will when it comes to things like climate change.”


Climate change is our collective crisis. And the planet’s imminent decay doesn’t stop because a war is breaking out. In fact, the public and private sectors appear more interested in profiting off the war by drilling more oil and gas rather than seizing the opportunity to invest in clean energy and mitigate climate disaster. 


This ignorance—and the discrimination we see at our national borders—will be another hit to human rights alongside the injustices that come with a hotter planet. We all deserve our humanity. We all deserve a fighting chance to carry on in the face of crisis and conflict. Climate change will challenge us, but the war in Ukraine already has. In the face of violence and bloodshed, the people of Ukraine’s capital are coming together


We can do the same in response to the climate crisis. Let’s not wait for more death.

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