Climate change, forced migration and refugees

Climate change, forced migration and refugees

See also:


 In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Displacement and Migration, CIESIN, May 2009

This report offers:

  • empirical evidence from a first-time, multi-continent survey of environmental change and migration;

  • original maps illustrating how, and where, the impacts of climate change may prompt significant displacement and

  • migration;

  • policy recommendations that reflect the collective thinking of key multi-lateral and research institutions, as well as nongovernmental organizations working directly with many of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

The report calls for seeing climate-related migration and displacement as global in nature, not simply isolated local crises. It aims to inform critical policy making by presenting a comprehensive discussion of the linkages between environmental change, displacement, and migration. 

Climate Change and Displacement, Forced Migration Review, Special Issue, October 2008.

In response to growing pressures on landscapes and livelihoods, people are moving, communities are adapting. This issue of FMR debates the numbers, the definitions and the modalities – and the tension between the need for research and the need to act. Thirty-eight articles by UN, academic, international and local actors explore the extent of the potential displacement crisis, community adaptation and coping strategies, and the search for solutions.

Migration and Climate Change, International Organization for Migration, 2008.

The available science, summarized in the latest assessment report of the IPCC, translates into a simple fact; on current predictions the “carrying capacity” of large parts of the world will be compromised by climate change. 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. But non-climate drivers, such as government policy, population growth and community-level resilience to natural disaster, are also important. All contribute to the degree of vulnerability people experience.

The problem is one of time (the speed of change) and scale (the number of people it will affect). But the simplistic image of a coastal farmer being forced to pack up and move to a rich country is not typical. On the contrary, as is already the case with political refugees, it is likely that the burden of providing for climate migrants will be borne by the poorest countries—those least responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases. Temporary migration as an adaptive response to climate stress is already apparent in many areas. But the picture is nuanced; the ability to migrate is a function of mobility and resources (both financial and social). In other words, the people most vulnerable to climate change are not necessarily the ones most likely to migrate.

Internal Displacement, Human Rights, and Development, Elizabeth Ferris, Brookings-Bern Project On Internal Displacement, 18-19 August 2008.

I would argue that in order to understand global migration, we need much more emphasis on the movements of people within their national borders. There are about 200 million international migrants worldwide – and 200 million internal migrants in China alone! There is a similar disparity in looking at those displaced by conflict. There are an estimated 11.4 million refugees in the world while 26 million people are internally displaced by conflict, not including those displaced by natural disasters and development projects who are estimated to be a far larger number. I want to stress the importance of looking at migration and displacement through a human rights lens.

Conflicts fuelled by climate change causing new refugee crisis, warns UN, Julian Borger, The Guardian, 17 June 2008.

Climate change is fuelling conflicts around the world and helping to drive the number of people forced out of their homes to new highs, the head of the UN’s refugee agency said yesterday. After a few years of improvement, thanks mainly to large-scale resettlement in Afghanistan, the numbers of civilians uprooted by conflict is again rising. During 2007 the total jumped to 37.4 million, an increase of more than 3 million, according to statistics published today. The figures, described as “unprecedented” by the UN, do not include people escaping natural disasters or poverty – only those fleeing conflict and persecution. But Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said that climate change could also uproot people by provoking conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, such as water.

In an interview with the Guardian, Guterres said: “Climate change is today one of the main drivers of forced displacement, both directly through impact on environment – not allowing people to live any more in the areas where they were traditionally living – and as a trigger of extreme poverty and conflict.”

As climate change, a global economic slowdown, conflict and persecution fuelled each other, it would be increasingly hard to categorise those on the run.

“What we are witnessing is a trend in the world where more and more people feel threatened by conflict, threatened by their own government, threatened by other political, religious ethnic or social groups, threatened by nature and nature’s retaliation against human aggression – climate change is the example of that. And also threatened by … a slowdown in global growth, plus structural change in energy and food markets,” Guterres said.

Future floods of refugees, Vikram Odedra Kolmannskog, Norwegian Refugee Council, April 2008.

From a forced migration perspective, the term is flawed for several reasons. The term “climate refugees” implies a mono-causality that one rarely finds in human reality. No one factor, event or process, inevitably results in forced migration or conflict. It is very likely that climate change impacts will contribute to an increase in forced migration. Because one cannot completely isolate climate change as a cause however, it is difficult, if not impossible, to stipulate any numbers.

It is likely that developing countries in lower latitudes will continue in the near future to be the hotspots in several senses of the word. Faced with climate change, there may be some increase in planned migration that is longer-distance, longer-term and more permanent. Increased urbanisation with the possibility of secondary migration can also be expected. But most of the forced migration and conflict related to climate change, is likely to remain internal and regional. While the developed countries bear the main responsibility for climate change, one could question whether the dynamics of climate change, conflict and forced migration can and should be portrayed as a threat image of masses of refugees flooding over western borders. The sad truth is that there will be real floods, and if nothing changes, many of the affected will have little choice but to return and risk further flooding.

From a legal point of view the term climate refugees is also inaccurate. Resorting to quick-fix solutions of new laws and policies often fulfils an action function, the need to be seen to act, but closer consideration of the existing prevention and protection possibilities may prove helpful before new measures are enacted.

Making Sense of Climate Change, Natural Disasters, and Displacement: A Work in Progress, Elizabeth Ferris, Brookings-Bern Project On Internal Displacement, Calcutta Research Group Winter Course, December 2007.

It seems fairly certain that climate change has the potential to displace more people by increasing the frequency and severity of natural disasters, particularly hydrometeorological events. It is also likely that most of those displaced by these types of events will remain within their country’s borders.

If we are to demonstrate a causal connection between environmental change and displacement, we need to demonstrate that migration increases when environmental degradation gets worse and those studies simply don’t exist.

The relationship between climate change and slow-onset disasters is more complex and further work is needed to explore the relationship between poverty, climate change, and displacement.

Preparing for a warmer world: Towards a global governance system to protect climate refugees, Frank Bierman and Ingrid Boas, Global Governance Working Paper No 33, November 2007.

We outline a blueprint for a global governance architecture for the protection and voluntary resettlement of climate refugees. .. Key elements of our proposal are a new legal instrument specifically tailored to the needs of climate refugees.

Climate Change and Forced Displacements: Towards a Global Environmental Responsibility? The Case of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the South Pacific Ocean, François Gemenne, Les Cahiers du CEDEM, Université de Liège, January 2006.

Using the case of Tuvalu as a starting point, this paper tries to imagine which means of international cooperation could provide a new global public good : the protection of climate change ‘refugees’.

Environmental Migration – Summary Analysis of the Process, Robert Stojanov, Clean Environment For All. 2nd  International Conference on Environmental Concerns: Innovative Technologies and Management Options. United Nations Environment Programme, Xiamen, ?ína, str. 466-475.


Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
13 June 2009