Climate Change and Migration

updated September 2016

The most severe impacts of climate change act as a catalyst on migration, whether forced or voluntary, adding to international anxiety about existing patterns of human displacement.

Sudden disasters such as extreme weather events, or slow onset disasters such as desertification, merge with chronic economic duress to drive poor families off their land. Similar pressures will build on densely populated areas of low-lying cities vulnerable to rising sea levels. Citizens of some small-island states may become stateless as their freshwater becomes polluted with saltwater.

The prospect of regions emptying their inhabitants as they become “beyond adaptation” is already exercising the international community. Experts generally agree that the majority of climate-related displacement will be confined within national borders.

Approximate upper estimates suggest that, by 2050, 250 million people will have taken the bigger step of entering a new country, a figure similar to today’s entire migrant worker population. At the other end of the migration spectrum will be the poorest families, perhaps unable to move anywhere, thereby remaining vulnerable to the greatest climate risks.

Environmental degradation will rarely be the sole factor in a decision to migrate, nor can it always be blamed unequivocally on climate change. Climate change and migration therefore bring yet more ambiguity to the task of classifying displacement as forced or voluntary, for the purpose of establishing rights of protection for those affected.

The UN Refugee Agency is uncomfortable with the terminology of “climate” or “environmental” refugees out of concern for destabilising the long-established rights of political asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

François Crépeau, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, has controversially proposed that climate-induced migration should be considered as a proactive adaptation strategy. The International Organization for Migration has likewise expressed the view that migration could be as much a solution to climate change as a problem.

The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 delivers belated recognition that the many ambiguities presented by climate migration deserve international attention. It calls for a task force to be established to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.


The World’s First Climate Refugees
a study of people seeking asylum, not from war or an oppressive government but from climate change

from Seeker Stories

No simple link between climate change and migration
Dr Angela Oels, visiting Professor at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies outlines findings of research into the influence of climate change on migration

from Lund University

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