Extreme weather driven by climate change displaced 43m children in past six years ‑ Unicef report

Toll predicted to worsen as floods, storms, droughts and wildfires intensify due to global warming, first global analysis finds

At least 43 million child displacements were linked to extreme weather events over the past six years, the equivalent of 20,000 children being forced to abandon their homes and school every single day, according to a report by the UN’s childrens’ agency Unicef.

Floods and storms accounted for 95 per cent of recorded child displacement between 2016 and 2021, according to the first-of-its-kind analysis by Unicef and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. The rest – more than 2 million children – were displaced by wildfires and drought. The trend is likely to get a lot worse in coming years in tandem with increased global warming.

“Millions of children are being driven from their homes by weather-related events, exacerbated by climate change. While the link between climate change and displacement is complex, it’s clearer than ever that the climate is shifting patterns of displacement,” it concludes.

Displacement – whether short-lived or protracted – 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, amplifying the risks of exploitation, child trafficking, and abuse, the reports warns.


The report details how displacement can also disrupt access to education and healthcare, exposing children to malnutrition, disease, and inadequate immunisation.

Displacement is traumatic and frightening regardless of age, but the consequences can be especially disruptive and damaging for children who may miss out on education, life-saving vaccines and social networks, it underlines.

“It is terrifying for any child when a ferocious wildfire, storm or flood barrels into their community,” said Unicef executive director Catherine Russell. “For those 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.”

In absolute terms, China, the Philippines and India dominate with 22.3 million child displacements – just over half the total number – which the report attributes to the countries’ geographical exposure to extreme weather such as monsoon rains and cyclones and large child populations, as well as increased pre-emptive evacuations.

But the greatest proportion of child displacements were in small island states in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean – many of which are facing existential threats due to the climate emergency – and in the Horn of Africa where conflict, extreme weather, poor governance and resource exploitation overlap.

A staggering 76 per cent of children were displaced in the small Caribbean island of Dominica, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, a category 4 Atlantic storm that damaged 90 per cent of the island’s housing stock. Storms also led to more than a quarter of children being displaced in Cuba, Vanuatu, Saint Martin and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Somalia and South Sudan recorded the most child displacements due to floods, affecting 12 per cent and 11 per cent of the child population respectively.

Children Displaced in a Changing Climate is the first global analysis of the children driven from their homes due to floods, storms, droughts and wildfires, and comes as weather-related disasters are becoming more intense, destructive and unpredictable due to fossil-fuel driven global heating – especially in the global south.

The report’s stark numbers are almost certainly an undercount due to major gaps in reporting drought and slow onset climate impacts such as rising sea level, desertification and rising temperatures, according to Unicef.

“This is absolutely a conservative estimate, and possibly just the tip of the iceberg for some climate impacts,” said Verena Knaus, the Unicef lead on global migration and displacement. “Climate is the fastest-growing driver of child displacement yet most policies and discussions about climate finance fail to consider or prioritise children.”

In 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that there could be no further expansion of oil, gas and coal production if the world wanted to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown. The world failed to heed the warning, however, and emission cuts are wildly off track, according to the recent UN global stocktake, the most comprehensive analysis of global climate action produced to date. It will form the backdrop to global climate negotiations at Cop28 in Dubai in coming weeks.

In August 2022, unprecedented floods submerged a third of Pakistan underwater, causing billions of dollars in damage and displacing around 3.6 million children – many of whom went months without access to proper shelter, safe drinking water and sanitation. With every additional 1 degree of warming, the global risks of displacement from flooding are projected to rise by as much as 50 per cent.

Recent data indicates that average global temperatures have already increased by 1.4 degrees above pre-industrial levels in the mid-19th century; though some parts of the world have seen a temperature rise of 2 degrees. The Earth has had the hottest September on record – and by a record-breaking margin of 0.5 of a degree – an increase that has caused alarm among climate scientists in a year of multiple heat records across the planet.

To improve outcomes for children and young people at risk of future displacement, the report calls on governments, donors, development partners and private sector to take the following actions:

· Protect children and young people from the impacts of climate change and displacement by ensuring child-critical services are shock-responsive, portable and inclusive, including for children already uprooted.

· Prepare children and young people to live in a climate changed world by improving their adaptive capacities, resilience and enabling their participation.

· Prioritise children and young people – including those already uprooted from their homes – in climate, humanitarian and development policy, action and investments.- additional reporting Guardian

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times