Khadijah often hears screams in the middle of the night.

It could be the woman in the classroom next door who has refused to take off her abaya since deadly floods hit Libya on September 10. She fears more floods are on the way and wants to hide from them, believing her flowing robe will protect her, says Khadijah, 60.

Or perhaps it is one of many who saw their mother, father, child or grandparents swept into the sea when the dams over the eastern city of Derna burst, submerging them and their sleeping population.

“The living are those who suffer; “The dead are relieved,” Khadijah told Al Jazeera.

Khadija is one of thousands of people from the flood-hit city who have sought refuge in government schools after their homes were destroyed. She says she feels humiliated.

“Imagine closing your eyes in front of your own bed and then suddenly lying on the cold floor of a public school,” she said, wiping away tears.

“I have experienced most wars and disasters, [Muammar] Gaddafi’s siege of the city by IS in the 1990s [ISIL] War in 2016 and the war of [Khalifa] Haftar’s forces in 2018, but what happened now was different [and] What came next was even more humiliating,” she added solemnly.

Khadija, her relatives, the 20 or so other families at the school where they are taking refuge, and the hundreds seeking refuge elsewhere are now “climate refugees,” the colloquial term for those displaced by environmental disasters.

The public school where Khadijah and her family seek refuge [Ala Drissi/Al Jazeera]

But Derna itself has been a refuge for thousands of migrants from neighboring countries, as well as Libya’s own internally displaced people who settled in the coastal city from other parts of the country.

Although the reasons for their displacement vary, climate-related pressures and factors such as conflict and poverty are compounding a complex web driving displacement in the region that experts say will only continue in the coming years.

Squeezed out slowly – or all of a sudden

Khadija and other Libyans from Derna are caught up in this complex web, but the stage was already set for the catastrophe to engulf their homes and loved ones.

According to the World Weather Attribution Group, Storm Daniel was up to 50 times more likely to occur and 50 percent more intense due to human-caused climate change.

The dilapidated and poorly managed dams were also a key factor.

“That can’t really be true [overstated] how important the infrastructure issue is because that is one of the main catalysts for climate shifts,” Benjamin Freedman, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.

The failing dams, along with migrants “who were not necessarily properly housed,” had created the “perfect storm for a monstrous humanitarian catastrophe,” he added.

While the flash flood suddenly forced survivors to flee, most people are leaving their country for environmental reasons due to “slow-onset conditions” such as multi-year droughts, Aimee-Noel Mbiyozo, senior research advisor at the Institute for Security Studies, told Al Jazeera.

According to Michela Pugliese, migration and asylum researcher at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, Libya hosted more than 705,000 refugees and migrants from more than 44 nationalities before the floods.

More than 230,000 of those refugees and migrants lived in eastern Libya, the part of the country devastated by the storm, with most arriving from neighboring countries such as Chad, Egypt, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan, she added.

About 8,000 of them lived in Derna specifically, but it is likely that many others were present and not officially reported, Pugliese said.

While the reasons they ended up in Libya varied – many hoped to eventually emigrate to Europe – some left their homes because they had lost their livelihoods due to climate disasters.

“There are a lot of people coming [to] Libyans from Chad, Sudan and Niger were employed in the agricultural sector in their home country and came to Libya after losing crops or livestock due to climate events such as drought or floods,” Pugliese said.

A view shows the destruction after the floods in Derna, Libya [Esam Omran al-Fetori/Reuters]

International law does not recognize climate refugees

Determining how many of the 8,000 refugees in Derna were climate refugees and how many Libyans have now become climate refugees due to the floods is a challenge – especially because this term does not exist in international law.

“There is still no legal basis for this term in refugee law, including the UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] neither the registration of asylum seekers nor the legal departments that support migrants would use this as an official category,” said Pugliese.

Mbiyozo added that people who move for climate-related reasons rarely recognize it as such.

“We ask people why they moved and they almost never say ‘climate change,’” she said.

“They will tell you it is to find a better economic opportunity, so they move to find work or make a living. But then you have to go a level deeper and say, ‘Well, what’s changed?’”

In West Africa, for example, a refugee might be fleeing Boko Haram because the armed group is taking away their livestock due to dwindling resources, she said.

Climate change in the context of migration is therefore a “fragility amplifier or a threat amplifier,” said Mbiyozo.

Freedman said that as climate disasters become more common, there needs to be a system in place to identify people fleeing them.

When these groups of people try to apply for asylum specifically in Western countries, they are rejected much more often because of the arbitrary nature of the category, he said.

But the situation will only get worse, “especially as we face potentially 1.2 billion people internally and externally displaced by intensifying climatic weather events by 2050,” Freedman added.

However, Mbiyozo argued that if the laws were rewritten, particularly the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, many Western countries would “withdraw their current offer”.

“Everyone in the refugee sector knows intuitively that if you redesign these things, you’re going to get less protection because that’s the political climate right now,” she said, adding that Italy, for example, is trying to reject as many asylum seekers as Italy is allowed to reject.

A boy who survived Libya’s deadly storm jumps while playing with his brothers in a classroom at the school where they are taking refuge in Derna, Libya [Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

“Nothing but promises”

Despite Western countries’ unwillingness to accept new categories of refugees, experts say most climate-related movements remain local, with many being pushed from rural areas to urban cities.

Of the 40,000 people displaced by the floods in Libya, many moved to towns and villages further east and several hundred moved west, Pugliese said.

Among them are the “twice displaced persons” who were expelled from their countries to Libya and then from Derna elsewhere.

“It is far too early to say what will happen [these displaced peoples]as the response is currently purely humanitarian in nature,” said Pugliese.

Back in Derna, Khadijah is convinced that she and her family cannot stay in school much longer.

She pulled one of her granddaughters close and asked, “What is this child’s fault?” Kids her age go to school and she lives here.”

Some of the women at the school are afraid to go to the bathroom out of concern for privacy, and classrooms are cold at night even though winter is still just around the corner, Khadijah said.

She says she “saw nothing but promises from the government.”

“We live in a real hell,” Khadijah said.

A man inspects damaged buildings after a deadly storm and flooding in Libya in Derna, Libya [Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters]

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