Children uprooted in a changing climate
Children and young people on the move are among the most impacted by climate change. They should be part of shaping the response.
The climate is changing everywhere, and uprooted children and young people – whether living in protracted displacement, refugee camps, urban slums or booming mega cities – are among the most exposed to its impacts.
Millions of children around the world are on the move, driven from their homes by weather-related events, exacerbated by climate change – like floods, storms, droughts and wildfires. Between 2016 and 2021, there were 43.1 million child displacements from floods, storms, droughts and wildfires – the equivalent of 20,000 every day.
Displacement can multiply climate-related risks for children and their families. In the aftermath of a disaster, children may become separated from their parents or caregivers, increasing their risk of exploitation, child trafficking, and abuse. Displacement can disrupt access to education, healthcare and safe water and sanitation, exposing children to malnutrition, disease, and inadequate immunization, and overcrowded evacuation sites may be located in climate-vulnerable areas.
But children should not be viewed as passive bystanders in tackling the challenges posed by a changing climate. They have critical skills, experiences and ideas on how we need to better mitigate and adapt to climate change, and they must be partners in shaping solutions.
What’s at stake?
Climate change is already a direct challenge to children’s rights and well-being. One billion children – nearly half of children globally – are at ‘extremely high risk’ of its impacts. They face a deadly combination of exposure to multiple climate shocks and limited access to services that build their resilience. Three-year-olds today face a childhood of extreme weather events spiralling out of control. From wildfires to floods, droughts and hurricanes, the worst impacts of climate change will be seen in the coming decade.
Uprooted children and young people are among the most exposed to these impacts, yet they have the least resources to cope. Often excluded from resilience-building efforts, participatory planning and youth-led decision making on climate change, these children remain unheard and their potential overlooked.
Mobility – a consequence and a coping strategy
It’s already clear that even with major progress to mitigate the impacts of climate change, migration will continue to be an adaptation strategy, particularly for young people. This is especially the case where climate change impedes economic opportunities and interacts with conflict and fragility.
For young people in particular, migration can provide opportunities to pursue their aspirations, diversify their skills and contribute at their destinations. But for those most at risk of the impacts of climate change, there are often few options to move safely and legally across borders. While the majority of climate mobility is internal, migration laws are often not conducive to receiving, providing protection, or realizing the rights of environmental migrants. Many people uprooted by climate change are unlikely to meet legal definitions or other conditions for employment-based, family or humanitarian admissions to destination countries, leaving many children stranded with nowhere to go.
Children and young people as agents for change
Having adapted to climate change themselves, young people uprooted in the context of climate change have critical skills, experience and ideas needed by societies everywhere. They can play a key role in addressing climate-related risks by exercising their views, opinions and concerns, identifying and working on solutions, and promoting environmentally sustainable lifestyles – setting an example for their communities.
Call to action on climate mobility
Our success in empowering young people will depend on the choices we make today and in the coming years. Policy choices, and investment choices. The window to prepare for the impacts of climate change is closing quickly, but prioritizing the following urgent actions – developed with and for young people – could lead to better outcomes for children, their communities and countries – now and in the years to come.
Protect children and young people from the impacts of climate change and displacement by ensuring child-critical services – including education, health, social protection and child protection – are shock responsive, portable and inclusive, including of children who have already been uprooted.
Prepare children and young people to live in a climate-changed world by improving their adaptive capacities, resilience and enabling their participation in policies and solutions.
Prioritize children and young people – including those already uprooted from their homes – in climate, humanitarian and development policy, action and investments – by:
Prioritizing child-sensitive disaster risk reduction, community early warning systems and anticipatory action to minimize risk.
Strengthening data systems to plan, track and monitor weather-related displacement of children and leverage innovative technologies to help predict and simulate disasters.
Recognizing the connection between human mobility, displacement, and climate change.
Scaling up child-responsive and mobility-sensitive climate finance.
Find out more about the actions UNICEF and partners are calling on governments and policymakers to take in the ‘Children uprooted in a changing climate’ report: