Climate Change and Migration

These blogs and policy briefs were co-authored by multi-disciplinary teams of students on the MSc in Public Policy (MPP), Migration, asylum and human rights: UK, EU and global policy perspectives unit. The blogs and briefs were prepared in discussion during class and finalised by the students outside the formal teaching programme. The exercise proved to be very popular. It provided experience of team-work, collaborative research and practice in writing clear and concise text for public and policy audiences – Ann Singleton, Reader in Migration Policy.

This blog was written by Rae Hackler, Peter Koyio, Melody Yang, Hannah Conn, Ruiqi Yang, Imogen Oxley, Davida Wilson, Qian Wang, Parth Ravindra Nikaje.

216 million people could be internally displaced by 2050 according to the Groundwell report. According to UNHCR, the number of people displaced internationally by climate change has risen by 21.5 million since 2010. Migration caused by climate change may occur both temporarily, when people flee severe storm or droughts, or permanently, e.g., when an area becomes uninhabitable due to sea level rises.

Bangladesh, for instance, faces increasing floods. It has been estimated that the number of displaced people due to floods reaches nearly nearly 1 million each year. In Syria, it has been estimated that people fleeing drought-stricken regions has reached almost 1.5 million, and the numbers are still rising. On global scale, some studies (see Myers, 1993; McAdam, 2011) predict that by 2050, there is going to be exponential growth of migration owing to climate change.

Infographic: Climate Change, the Great Displacer | Statista

Infographic: Climate Change, the Great Displacer | Statista

Kiribati, a small islands in the Pacific, is at risk of disappearing due to sea level rise. Residents face not only the environmental challenges of soil salination and a sinking island, but also immigration legal challenges should they flee as a result of climate change due to lack of policy. Although some researchers and activists refer to people fleeing owing to severe climate change as ‘environmental refugees’, or ‘climate refugees’, climate change is not currently covered as a reason to seek international asylum under the 1951 Geneva or Refugee Convention. We discuss whether the Refugee Convention’s definition of a ‘refugee’ could be broadened to include this category of people.

The Case of a Sinking Island

Kiribati is formed of 33 islands in the Pacific Ocean that are low-lying – the highest points are only 2 meters above sea level – leaving it extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels. The country has a population of just over 128,000 and only one road. Rising sea levels are shrinking Kiribati’s land area, reducing access to fresh water, increasing storm damage and flooding, destroying farmland, and displacing the Kiribati people. The former president, Anote Tong, campaigned for a “migrate with dignity” plan, though it was quickly abandoned. This relocation policy, part of Kiribati’s long-term internal migration plan, would have given citizens the ability to relocate legally and find employment opportunities in neighbouring nations such as New Zealand and Australia.

However, the current president, Taneti Maamau, argues that migration will not solve the issue.  Climate change and rising sea levels are issues faced by all nations, especially those nations that Kiribati migrants are likely to go to (such as Fiji). Instead, Maamau plans to use donations from wealthy nations to attempt to physically raise up the islands to escape the encroaching seas. Either way, it is unlikely that Kiribati will survive the rising sea levels without a huge amount of investment in adaptation strategies.

Figure 2: Kiribati Jun-Jul 2007

Rather than focus on creating clear, viable internal and international migration policies Kiribati and its international partners have chosen to focus on policies of climate resilience – though how effective these will be against a global phenomenon remain to be seen. Current policies to combat climate migration include:



1) Use of brackish water desalination technology. Sea water is salt water and as such, sea water invasion will cause soil salinization preventing farming.

2) Vigorously develop tourism to boost economy – encouraging people to not migrate.

3) Build protective projects in coastal areas to prevent seawater intrusion, such as sea walls.

4) Rational guidance of migration to the inland to reduce the ecological pressure on the coast.

Intentionally Vague Policy

Internationally, policy for people displaced by climate change has remained decidedly vague, and there is no widely accepted legal definition for this kind of migration. Definitions that do exist include terms such as “environmental migrant,” the more general term “disaster displacement” – which notably implies one off disaster rather than permanently changed climates – and “climate migration.” The last of these does appear in the Cancun Agreements on climate change adaptation, a legally binding document signed by UN member states at the 2010 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference. This document defined “climate induce movements” of displacement, migration, and planned relocation. The vague wording of “obliged…or choose to” excludes this from something like refugee status. While the vagueness is meant to acknowledge the complexity of migration, including the word “choose” gives agency to migrants, taking away the rights and protections refugee status, which is meant to exist in the absence of choice.

Activists’ groups and media tend to use terms like “climate refugee.” However, many policy making bodies and international NGOs push back against the term, as “refugee” comes with rights and protections, and the implication of no choice, which the UN, many countries, and other international organisations are reluctant to give to migrants with this complex situation.

Rather than focus on the inevitable mass migration and displacement due to climate change as a global issue, most policies are more localised and focused on resilience in the face of climate change, in order to minimize migration or at least keep it within country borders. Bangladesh is designing cities to attract climate migrants and draw them away from overcrowded cities. This internal focus, and a focus on limiting what seems to be inevitable migration, appears to be the general approach to the climate migration crisis.

Moving Forward

Climate change and climate driven migration are only going to increase in the coming years. Since 2010, more than 21.5 million have already been displaced. Strong, clear policies must therefore be put into place to address the current crisis and prepare the international community for the incoming waves of climate migrants. Some of these steps could include:

1) Create a clear, legally binding definition of climate migration internationally, “climate refugee.” This alone would hugely impact the legal rights and protections of climate affected persons. For example, EJF defines a climate refugee as “persons or groups of persons who, for reasons of sudden or progressive climate-related change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.” Serious discussions over the benefits of this more nuanced definition should be considered by the UN and other regional and international organisations.

1b) Encourage some countries with greater economic power to accept climate refugees or adopt visa-free policies for some countries depending on the situation.

3) Increasingly engage in regional and bilateral diplomacy to strength two-way migration schemes with neighbouring countries, like New Zealand (Meria, 2018).

4) Countries most affected by climate change must create clear policies to handle internal migration that address both current climate issues and plan for likely future scenarios.

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