Climate Change: A Catalyst For Mass Migration


Climate change is a contributing factor to mass migration as people are forced to leave vulnerable areas in search of more viable places to live. People move inland, to cities, or cross international borders to seek refuge. According to the United Nations, between 2008 and 2015, on average 26.4 million people were displaced annually by climate or weather-related events, such as flooding, sea-level rise and droughts. The problem is set to worsen: the World Bank projects that over the next three decades 143 million people could be displaced and become climate migrants by 2050.

Most migration will occur in densely-populated, developing regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America. These three regions represent 55 percent of the developing world’s population. Marginalized people in the poorest countries will be disproportionately affected by climate change. Poverty, lack of access to resources, food insecurity and inadequate housing make people more susceptible to climate migration. Agriculture as a livelihood is particularly vulnerable to climate change with many areas in the world already experiencing crop failure due to floods and prolonged droughts.

It is claimed that prolonged drought may have fuelled Syria’s civil war as a result of climate-induced migration. The director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Jennifer Leaning, states that climate change likely played a role in provoking the Syrian war and ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. Between 2006 and 2011 a drought in northern Syria destroyed the agricultural livelihoods of 1.5 million people. Consequently, they were forced to migrate internally from rural to urban areas. This internal displacement put pressure on infrastructure and resources. A majority of migrants had no reliable access to food, water and employment due to the government’s inadequate response and lack of development planning. This created unrest, which led to civil war. Internal migration and cross-border migration are set to cause more conflict, threaten governance and economic and social development worldwide.

Under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, climate migrants are not granted legal status. Therefore, they do not have the right to access public assistance and legal protection which are accorded to refugees. According to international law, “climate migrants” are not legally recognized as refugees. A ‘refugee’ is legally regarded as someone fleeing war or conflict, with a “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This legal terminology excludes environmental factors as a form of persecution. The United Nations, moreover, is not equipped to grant specific legal protection to people displaced by climate change. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) already struggles to provide adequate support for 22.5 million global refugees from war and oppression.

At present there are no global agreements to support the rights of climate migrants; there is no recognition under the Paris Climate Agreement. However, this year an international climate displacement agreement may be initiated. Global policymakers must accept a legally binding definition in order to strengthen the rights of environmental migrants. It can be difficult to determine whether people have been displaced primarily by climate-stressors because they are often also affected by conflict, political instability, low socioeconomic development and human rights abuses. Environmental elements may be one of many contributing factors influencing a person’s decision to relocate. This means a direct causal link between migration and the environment cannot always be established.  

The International Organization for Migration proposed a definition in 2007 for “environmental migrants” as “persons or groups of persons who, for reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to have to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their territory or abroad.”  A decade has passed since this proposal. However, this term has not been legally adopted by nation-states or institutions. Without legal recognition and lack of regulation, governments act passively towards migration.

The United States declared climate change a top national security threat in 2010. The nation has militarized their borders against international migration. Borders exclude and create a sense of “self” and “other” which provokes conflict among different ethnic and religious groups. Climate refugees attempting to enter the United States are faced with incarceration or expulsion. Increased frequency of severe droughts and tropical storms, particularly in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean are likely to increase population movements towards the US border. In Mexico, for instance, desertification has forced 700,000 people to relocate every year.

The militarization of borders reinforces the notion that climate-induced migration is an issue to be solved by individual nation-states, rather than collectively. Reece Jones stated in his book, Violent Borders that, “[a]s long as the economic interests of individual states do not coincide with the larger environmental needs of the world, a meaningful agreement on climate change will not be reached.” 

Inaction by most countries has New Zealand set to become the first country to recognize climate change as a means to claim asylum. The New Zealand government has plans to create a scheme to issue special visas for climate migrants relocating from neighbouring Pacific Islands, such as Kiribati, which is affected by rising sea levels. Although the initiative will only provide 100 visas annually, it sets a precedent for other nations to follow.

Governments and industries have prioritized economic growth over climate change mitigation. The Paris Agreement, which was signed in 2016, needs to be fully implemented by nations in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and retain global temperature rise below 1.5°C on pre-industrial levels. Nations must respond rapidly to limit emissions in order to reduce the worst effects of climate change.

With effective governance and development planning, the number of climate migrants could be decreased by 80% to 40 million people; this is according to a report conducted by The World Bank. Governments should acknowledge the needs of marginalized populations and incorporate climate change migration into sustainable development planning. 

As well, three-quarters of the world’s extreme poor are dependent on agriculture as a livelihood. Therefore, it is vital for governments to invest in rural development to ensure sustainability and promote diversification by creating new business opportunities and jobs. The diversification of livelihoods builds resilience and helps communities to adapt to changing climate conditions; thus, preventing the need to relocate. This could lead to increased food security, improved access to social protection and prevent resource conflictAdaptation and resilience could also help preserve cultural diversity among ethnic populations which is often lost when people migrate to cities or other countries.

Economic development, too, needs to be made more inclusive through improved education and infrastructure, this could decrease rates of internal migration. If managed effectively, migration from vulnerable to viable areas can produce new opportunities for expanding economies and climate migrants can be supported through education, training and jobs. This transforms adversity into opportunities. An example featured by the World Bank is in flood-prone Bangladesh, where agricultural livelihoods are vulnerable to climate change. A specific case involved a young woman, Monoara Khatun, who left her village of Kurigram due to flooding. She migrated internally to the capital city of Dhaka, where she enrolled in the World Bank’s NARI project. This project trains women, provides accommodation and work placements, which in turn ensure income and stability. The development of similar work schemes could help other places prepare for new migrants.

Furthermore, governments and the United Nations should consider reviewing international regulations to establish legal protections and rights for climate migrants; this will recognize them as official refugees. The existing legislation within the 1951 Geneva Convention needs to be updated and reformed to be applicable to present day issues (such as climate change) or a new legal agreement must be formed. Reforms could also incorporate the concepts of “climate justice” and “climate equity.” Climate justice recognizes climate change as an ethical human rights issue and acknowledges the disproportionate consequences of climate change on disadvantaged populations – despite rich countries significant contribution to climate change. Climate equity, on the other hand, questions who should be responsible for addressing climate change and climate-induced displacement. Thus, by enhancing the rights and capacities of vulnerable people, it gives them decision-making power to choose whether to migrate or not.

Jenna Homewood

Graduate from the University of Auckland, majored in Geography and Sociology. I am interested in multifaceted issues relating to human rights, social justice, sustainable development and climate change.
Jenna Homewood

About Jenna Homewood

Graduate from the University of Auckland, majored in Geography and Sociology. I am interested in multifaceted issues relating to human rights, social justice, sustainable development and climate change.