The complex relationship between climate change and migration

climate migration
deepthi suresh stand news

Deepthi Suresh

17th October 2020

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990 noted that the greatest single impact of climate change might be on human migration. Millions of people could be displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption. The meteorological impact of climate change can be divided into two distinct drivers of migration: climate processes such as sea-level rise, salinization of agricultural land, desertification and growing water scarcity; and climate events such as flooding, storms and glacial lake outburst floods. Successive reports and various other studies have argued that environmental degradation due to climate change is poised to become a major driver of population displacement. It is a mega humanitarian crisis in the making. These repeated analyses or predictions, such as the possible displacement of 200 million people by 2050, may have made the argument of climate change increasingly confident in the scientific community – but the consequences, and its impact on human population distribution, largely seem unclear. The adverse impact of climate migration cannot be portrayed by the simple imagery of a coastal farmer being forced to pack up and move to a rich country.


From livelihoods to identity, the environment plays an important role in everyone’s daily lives, hence different types of climate migrants. Climate change would therefore influence many people’s decisions to stay or indeed to move. There is a rapidly growing literature contributing to the migration-environment theory: (1) migration is a fundamental strategy for addressing household risk arising from the environment; (2) environmental factors interact with broader socio-political histories; (3) the migration–environment association is shaped by social networks.


The first group who were forced to relocate from their ancestral homes due to climate change were the inhabitants of the coastal villages in Alaska – namely the Shishmaref and Kivalina groups. The low-lying coastlands of Bangladesh and India have faced severe storms as a result of the dramatic change in climate. A sea-level rise of 20 inches could displace over 6 million people in Bangladesh alone. As a result, many rural Bangladeshis have migrated to the capital, Dhaka, thereby resulting in an increase in the population growth to about 17 million, and thus also causing severe strain on the capital’s infrastructure. As the trend suggests, more affluent people have the opportunity to emigrate, while the most vulnerable people from poor households are trapped in risky areas.


Climate migration occurs both between and within countries. It may be temporary or permanent. It could follow existing routes or forge new ones. The impacts of climate change could trap people in dangerous places, and on the other hand, force people to move. Most people move within their own country if they are forced to flee due to floods, droughts and rising seas. But sometimes, when disasters unfold more slowly, some people decide to move across borders – either with or without the help of their governments. Climate migrants’ choice of potential destinations is further affected by the policies in these destinations.


It also seems as though there has been a collective and unfortunately a successful attempt to ignore the scale of this problem. Climate migrants who were forced to flee due to sudden or gradual changes in their natural environment as a result of climate change are omitted in international refugee and immigration policies. There is considerable resistance to the idea of expanding the definition of political refugees to incorporate climate refugees. When, where and how people will be forced to move as a consequence of climate change remains elusive, as do definitions about what it means to be a climate migrant and how best to govern the problem. It is also highly likely that the burden of providing for climate migrants will be borne by the poorest countries, especially by those who are least responsible for emissions of the greenhouse gases. This plight has been thoroughly observed and discussed, yet with no sustainable solutions to the horrifying crisis faced by political refugees. Those who are forced to move as a result of climate change are not protected by existing laws, and thus, the human rights afforded to them are unclear.


The complex status of human mobility is further debated upon, including the argument surrounding whether or not the climate migrants should be given a climate-specific legal status in addition to the refugees’ status (if given in the first place at all). It might also lead to a biased debate and would give only partial solutions to address the issue of human migration and climate change.


According to the Division of UN Migration Agency (IOM), the media has time and again pushed for features on climate refugees. In contrast, however, some of the smaller affected communities or states do not want to leave their homes or would rather move in dignity through regular channels without having to leave everything behind and run for their lives. IOM stresses the fact that “reducing the issue of migration in the context of climate change to the status of ‘climate refugees’ fails to recognize several key aspects that define human mobility in the context of climate change and environmental degradation.’’

Some of the aspects are as follows:


1. Climate migration is mainly internal: when migration is internal, the migrants remain under the responsibility of their state, as they do not cross borders and are not seeking protection from a third country or at the international level.


2. Migration is not necessarily forced, especially for a very slow onset process of climate change. In this instance, migration is still a matter of choice, even if it occurs in a constrained manner, so countries need to set in place a proper strategy migration management and agreements rather than refugee protection.


3. It may be an impossible task to separate environment or climatic reasons from humanitarian, political, social, conflict or economic ones as it may lead to long and even unrealistic legal procedures.


4. Creating a special refugee status for climate change-related reasons might, unfortunately, have the opposite effects of what is sought as a solution: it can lead to the exclusion of certain categories of people who require protection, especially the poorest migrants, who are moving as a result of a mix of factors and would not be able to prove the link to climate and environmental factors.


5. Opening The the 1951 Refugee Convention might weaken the refugee status, which would be tragic given the state of our world in which so many people require protection because of persecution and ongoing conflicts.


6. Creating a new convention might be a lengthy political process that countries may not even have an appetite for. Many responses can come from migration management and policy as highlighted already in the 2011 International Dialogue on Migration and the recently adopted Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The Nansen Initiative that was launched to look at gaps in protection for people being displaced across borders by disasters, undertook thematic and regional consultations and also concluded with a document that proposed a “toolkit” of migration policies, rather than recommending the establishment of a new status for these people.


7. Climate migration discussions should not lose their focus on preventive measures: the key objective of our generation is to invest in climate and environmental solutions for our planet, so that people will not have to leave their homes in a forced way in the future. The Paris Agreement offers anchorage for climate action that considers human mobility to avert, minimize and address displacement in the context of climate change.


8. IOM encourages the full use of all the existing bodies of laws and instruments pertaining to human rights, refugees etc.


9. Human rights-based approaches are key in the addressing of climate migration: states of origin bear the primary responsibility for their citizens’ protection, even if their countries have not been the main contributors to global warming; they should therefore apply human rights-based approaches in terms of their citizens moving because of environmental or climatic drivers.


10. Regular migration pathways can provide relevant protection for climate migrants and facilitate migration strategies in response to environmental factors. Many migration management solutions are available as a response to challenges posed by climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters, in terms of international migratory movements. They can provide a status for people who move in the context of climate change impacts, such as humanitarian visas, temporary protection, authorization to stay, regional and bilateral free movements’ agreements, among several others.


It is of the utmost importance that greater resources are dedicated to mitigating the complexity of climate migration and to the finding of an effective solution. Further research is needed to determine the best ways in which to improve the migratory process, be it through providing safer modes of transport, or by increasing migration monitors, and most importantly, by improving the destination country integration resources. The solution and strategies that the international community might indulge in together may be the defining factors of international relations in the 21st century – which is presently in dire need of restructuring.


To learn more about ‘Climate Migration’ check out STAND’s online student festival taking place between the 12th – 24th of October 2020. To register for online workshops, creative events and panel discussions, click here!




Featured photo by pxfuel



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