Refugees are both highly exposed and highly vulnerable to climate shocks. Despite this, over 15 million refugees and other persons in need of international protection are in countries whose National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) do not account for their adaptation needs. This is a crucial omission that must be corrected. This blog reviews whether NAPs cover refugees, why this matters, and ways forward.
The role of National Adaptation Plans (NAPs)
Established in 2011 under the Cancun Adaptation Framework, NAPs are the primary instrument through which adaptation in low- and middle-income countries is supported under the UNFCCC processes. Countries are meant to consult a wide variety of stakeholders on climate vulnerabilities, the impacts of hazards, and possible adaptation options. These views help form a prioritised plan for both implementation and monitoring. The NAP process is meant to act as the fulcrum in mainstreaming adaptation within wider government processes, becoming a key part of the response to climate change rather than a one-off exercise. As of 2022, 70 NAPs were in preparation. They are recommended to be updated every five years, but some countries—such as Bangladesh—may update them more frequently.
In addition to guiding a domestic adaptation agenda, NAPs also crowd-in international engagement and climate funding. The World Bank’s 2021-2025 Action Plan on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, for example, stated that adaptation and resilience financing must be country-owned through NAPs or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). If mobile populations, including refugees, are absent from these plans, they may not receive the necessary support.
Mobility in NAPs
The impacts of climate change upon migration have been much studied, and concerted efforts have been made to include mobility in climate discussions. This is reflected in the fact that 42 of the 49 NAPs submitted as of November 2023 do mention mobility (figure 1). However, 13 mention it with no concrete policy in any area. Only 59 percent of NAPs contain concrete policy commitments with regard to mobility.
Displacement caused by climate change is mentioned relatively frequently (figure 2). Of the 49 NAPs reviewed, only 14 do not mention displacement at all. Of the NAPs that do mention climate-related displacement, however, 19 have no concrete policies. Only 16 (33 percent) have concrete policies. This is despite the fact that some of the countries neglecting this issue are known to experience high levels of climate-related displacement. Pakistan, for example, had over a million climate-displaced IDPs at the end of 2022, but its NAP contains no concrete policies. Ethiopia and Kenya, similarly, had over a million climate-displaced IDPs between them, also without concrete policies. Using figures from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s 2023 data,
at least 2.2 million IDPs displaced by climate shocks are in states whose NAPs do not have concrete policies to assist them.
Planned relocation, despite being an increasingly important aspect of mobility in the context of climate change and a policy area in which countries will need to take the lead, is not mentioned by 25 NAPs (figure 3). Even when planned relocation is mentioned, again, NAPs often lack concrete policy commitments. This is the case for six NAPs: those of Grenada, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, and Timor-Leste.
Refugees are startlingly rarely mentioned in NAPs, even in countries currently hosting large numbers (figure 4). Only six NAPs mention refugees at all. Four of these—Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, and Sudan—provide no concrete policy commitments to assist refugees’ adaptation.
Refugees are thus beneficiaries of concrete policy in only two NAPs: those submitted by Niger and South Sudan. Niger’s NAP commits to increasing the capacities of displaced persons in sustainable land management, and to better integrating displaced populations into adaptation planning. South Sudan’s NAP recognises that some refugees have moved in part due to climate shocks and anticipates this trend growing in the future. It also commits to ensuring that refugees, along with internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other vulnerable groups, can participate in adaptation planning; and to incorporating climate considerations in plans for resettlement and post-return support for refugees. This is important given that some refugees may return to an area facing desertification or flash flooding, requiring more support than the vulnerable host community.
This means that over 15 million refugees and other persons in need of international protection are in countries whose NAP does not account for their adaptation needs.
The need for refugees’ inclusion
As we set out in a recent brief, the omission of refugees from NAPs is serious and must be corrected. In many contexts, refugees are especially vulnerable to climate change. Refugees are often more likely than host populations to be highly exposed to climate hazards and lack adaptive capacity.
UNHCR estimates that roughly 90 percent of refugees come from countries highly vulnerable to climate change. Refugees are also often hosted in countries with limited institutional resilience to increasing hazards. Figure 5 illustrates the number of refugees in NAP-possessing countries against their vulnerability to climate change, as assessed by the University of Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN).
This extends to the sub-national level. Across East Africa, more than 600,000 refugees are located in camps in areas disproportionately exposed to weather shocks. For example, in Rwanda, refugees are often mandatorily located in remote areas with less productive land and higher risk of extreme weather events such as flooding. This both increases exposure to climate shocks and reduces adaptive capacity. In Sudan, 63,000 Ethiopian refugees who arrived between November 2020 and April 2021 saw more than half of their shelters destroyed by severe weather conditions, including heavy rains, large floods, storms, and heat waves, and the destruction of thousands of camp latrines leading to Hepatitis E outbreaks. In Bangladesh, 95 percent of all Rohingya households are considered moderately to highly vulnerable, depending entirely on humanitarian assistance with little to no autonomous adaptive capacity. Despite this, Bangladesh does not mention the Rohingya at all in its NAP.
Beyond their locations, refugees’ adaptive capacity is low, and their vulnerability is therefore high. Around two-thirds of refugees globally live in poverty; in some countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, this increases to more than 90 percent. Many refugees have limited right to work; even when rights are legally granted, they may be curtailed in practice. Many countries also restrict refugees’ freedom of movement. These are all key determinants of adaptive capacity, meaning refugees find it much harder than host populations to respond to both sudden- and slow-onset climate shocks.
This is not to say that refugees are not uniquely or inherently vulnerable. For example, in Syria, three-quarters of IDP camps have drainage infrastructure inadequate for the winter rains (increasing vulnerability to flooding) and inadequate water storage (causing shortages during droughts). In some contexts, refugees may even be less vulnerable than wider populations thanks to support from international organisations. Non-refugee pastoralists in Somalia migrate circularly into refugee camps in Kenya for support during droughts.
Around the world, however, the support provided to refugees is being cut due to funding shortages. In Bangladesh, Burundi, Ethiopia, Malawi, Uganda, and many other locations, inflation due to the invasion of Ukraine has led aid agencies to reduce rations, often by more than half. Climate change is expected to further increase food inflation. The development community has long—and often unsuccessfully—promoted the idea of ‘self-reliance’ for refugees. In the face of climate change, the approach will become more necessary, with particular attention paid to resilience and adaptation to climate shocks.
How should refugees be included?
Refugees should be included in the NAP process as both participants and beneficiaries. On the former, while limited information is available, it appears that most NAP development processes insufficiently consulted with refugees and other displaced persons. Bangladesh’s NAP vaunts its inclusive process, noting that it consulted “women, people with diverse gender identities, persons with disabilities”, and “climate refugees” (understood to be Bangladeshi IDPs whose movement is attributed to climate shocks). As noted, however, the nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees were not consulted despite their high vulnerability, and are not mentioned. The Central African Republic’s NAP acknowledges that displaced persons were underrepresented in consultations. Only South Sudan’s NAP notes that refugees and IDPs should participate in future NAP processes, although it is unclear whether they participated in the current NAP.
Refugee and IDP communities know their considerable needs better than any observer. They also often have limited voice; without deliberate and proactive invitations to contribute to NAP processes, their vulnerabilities may go unremarked and unaddressed. In any humanitarian or development plan, early consultation of the ‘beneficiary’ population is vital to designing a programme that will succeed. Achieving genuine and ongoing participation can be challenging; it is possible that more narrowly defined and instrumental participation may be better than broad consultation processes.
On the latter, only two NAPs set out concrete policies to support refugees’ adaptation. Including refugees as beneficiaries will likely require support and incentives from international actors. Seventy-one percent of refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, which struggle to source funds for their own citizens’ adaptation, and international adaptation finance is currently vastly insufficient. Refugee-hosting governments often argue that refugees’ presence is temporary, even though many refugees remain for decades; locate refugee camps according to their own criteria, not the needs of refugees; and opt to rely on a ‘surrogate state’ of international agencies. Refugee-hosting governments are thus unlikely to proactively include refugees in the documents that decide where new allocations of support are used and will require incentives to do so.
Reasons for hope
Firstly, there has been a spate of climate-sensitive multi-stakeholder pledges presented ahead of December’s quadrennial Global Refugee Forum (GRF). Pledges to the GRF are commitments by countries and other stakeholders to practices that benefit refugees and host communities.
A recent pledge sponsored by Ethiopia and the United States—the Climate Action Pledge— recognises that refugees, IDPs, and some host communities are often “excluded from large-scale, long-term support and risk further marginalisation.” It calls on “diverse stakeholders” to:
- Provide increased finance to refugees, other displaced populations, and host communities to support adaptation.
- Include refugee and other displaced populations in climate-related laws, policies, and plans—explicitly including NAPs.
- Generate a pipeline of examples of good practice in managing projects and programmes in a climate-conscious way to support refugees, including in fragile and conflict-affected contexts.
Secondly, Tanzania, in collaboration with UNHCR, has just been awarded US$19 million by the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the UN Environment Programme to support a project restoring landscapes hosting displaced populations. This is a rare example of a country seeking international funds for the benefit of refugee populations. The area targeted, Kigoma, is anticipated to experience more frequent climate shocks, with higher temperatures and erratic rainfall. The concept note recognises that this will harm the livelihoods of both Tanzania’s 250,000 refugees as well as their host communities.
This is a new area for the GCF, as well as a project that meets the three goals of the pledge. It should be carefully evaluated to allow others to learn from it. The GCF is (in)famous for its slow funding processes, however, and this was no exception. The average grant application takes five and a half years; this cooperation was initially discussed in 2016, negotiated from 2017, submitted in 2019, and only approved in 2023. If the reluctance of countries to use international support for non-citizens is to be overcome, this process must be quicker and more reliable.
Improving the record
A vulnerable population is nearly wholly excluded from the most important adaptation policy documents. How can this be rectified?
- Include refugees in NAP processes as both participants and beneficiaries. Participation should be done in a meaningful way, by both national governments and international actors with roles in NAP formation, especially the German Development Agency (GIZ), UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and UN Development Programme (UNDP). New NAPs should include refugees as both participants and beneficiaries from the start, and existing NAPs should include refugees when they are updated.
- Monitor the implementation of NAPs at every level. The extent to which refugees are assisted by programmes undertaken under NAPs should be evaluated. NAPs are currently under-evaluated, and moreover may not have the defined timescales, targets, and indicators recommended under the Sendai Framework.
- Provide more funding to support refugee inclusion and NAP implementation. NAP implementation funding could be provided conditional on refugee inclusion. Given that adaptation funding is scarce and that governments typically prefer to support citizens over non-citizens, funding deliberately targeted to refugees and host communities is likely to be necessary, especially in fragile and conflict-affected states. The new GCF-UNHCR project in Tanzania will be evaluated by UNEP and independently, and lessons should be learned from its implementation.
The challenges facing refugees due to climate change are likely to continue to grow. Interventions now can save lives, foster inclusion, and save money further down the line. Yet this won’t happen without deliberate effort, and without mainstreaming of refugees within adaptation plans. Support from the international community, and commitment from national governments, will be needed more than ever.
The seven NAPs that do not mention mobility (at least contextually) are Albania, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, Cambodia, Kuwait, and Uruguay.
 The 13 NAPs that include no concrete policy commitments regarding mobility are Grenada, Haiti, Liberia, Pakistan, Paraguay, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, State of Palestine, Suriname, Timor-Leste, Togo, and Tonga. South Africa’s NAP includes research and long-term aspirations, but without genuine policy commitments.
The 14 NAPs that do not mention climate-related displacement at all are Albania, Armenia, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, Cambodia, Chile, Haiti, Kuwait, Paraguay, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sierra Leone, Suriname, and Uruguay.
 The 19 NAPs that mention climate-related displacement without including any concrete policy commitments are Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Grenada, Haiti, Kenya, Kiribati, Liberia, Pakistan, Paraguay, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, State of Palestine, Suriname, Timor-Leste,; Togo, and Tonga. South Africa sets out research-related and long-term goals, which arguably do not constitute true concrete commitments.
The 25 NAPs that do not mention planned relocation at all are Albania, Armenia, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Cambodia, Costa Rica, DRC, Haiti, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Madagascar, Niger, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Sri Lanka, State of Palestine, Suriname, Togo, Tonga, and Uruguay.
The current iteration of ND-GAIN relies, in part, on indicators now known to be flawed, especially the World Bank’s discontinued Ease of Doing Business Index. It nonetheless provides a useful heuristic for assessing relative vulnerability.
Email correspondence with the NAP drafting team.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.
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