Migration and the climate crisis: the UN’s search for solutions

© UNICEF/UNI82205/Holt Men on camels and donkeys travel through a dust storm in the desert near the western city of Mao, in the Kanem Region of Chad.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


Throughout human history, migration and climate have always been connected, but in the modern era, the impacts of the man-made climate crisis are likely to extensively change the patterns of human settlement.

Dina Ionesco is the head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division at the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has been at the forefront of efforts to study the links between migration, the environment and climate.

As she explained to UN News, we are now living in an era where catastrophic climate-related events are linked to human activity, and this is likely to have a major impact on the way that we decide to migrate, and settle:

“The Atlas of Environmental Migration, which gives examples dating as far back as 45,000 years ago, shows that environmental changes and natural disasters have played a role in how the population is distributed on our planet throughout history.”

“However, it is highly likely that undesirable environmental changes directly created by, or amplified by, climate change, will extensively change the patterns of human settlement. Future degradation of land used for agriculture and farming, the disruption of fragile ecosystems and the depletion of precious natural resources like fresh water will directly impact people’s lives and homes.”

The climate crisis is already having an effect: according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 17.2 million people had to leave their homes last year, because of disasters that negatively affected their lives. Slow changes in the environment, such as ocean acidification, desertification and coastal erosion, are also directly impacting people’s livelihoods and their capacity to survive in their places of origin.

As Ms. Ionesco explains, there is a strong possibility that more people will migrate in search of better opportunities, as living conditions get worse in their places of origin:

“There are predictions for the twenty-first century indicating that even more people will have to move as a result of these adverse climate impacts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main UN authority on climate science, has repeatedly said that the changes brought on by the climate crisis will influence migration patterns. The World Bank has put forward projections for internal climate migration amounting to 143 million people by 2050 in three regions of the world, if no climate action is taken.”

“However, our level of awareness and understanding of how environmental factors affect migration, and how they also interact with other migration drivers such as demographic, political and economic conditions, has also changed. With enhanced knowledge, there is more incentive to act urgently, be prepared and respond.”

The Global Compact for Migration: a roadmap for governments

In the past decade, there has been a growing political awareness of the issues around environmental migration, and increasing acceptance that this is a global challenge.

As a result, many states have signed up to landmark agreements, such as the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Global Compact for Migration, which, says, Ms. Ionesco, marks a clear way forward for governments to address the issue of climate and migration.

“The Compact contains many references to environmental migration including a whole section on measures to address environmental and climate challenges: it is the first time that a comprehensive vision has been laid out, showing how states can handle – now and in the future – the impacts of climate change, disasters and environmental degradation on international migration.”

“Our analysis of the Compact highlights the priorities of states, when it comes to addressing environmental migration. Their primary concern is to “minimize the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin”, in particular the “natural disasters, the adverse effects of climate change, and environmental degradation”.

“In other words, the main priority is to find solutions that allow people to stay in their homes and give them the means to adapt to changing environmental conditions. This approach aims to avoid instances of desperate migration and its associated tragedies.”

“However, where climate change impacts are too intense, another priority put forward in the Compact is to “enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration”. States are thus looking at solutions for people to be able to migrate safely and through regular channels, and at solutions for those already on the move.

“A last resort measure is to conduct planned relocations of population – this means organizing the relocation of entire villages and communities away from areas bearing the brunt of climate change impacts.”

“Humanitarian assistance and protection for those on the move already, are also tools states can use. Finally, states highlight that relevant data and knowledge are key to guide the decision-making process. Without knowing more and analyzing better, policies run the risk of missing their targets and fade into irrelevance.”

A range of solutions to a complex problem

Responding to the challenges of environmental migration in a way that benefits both countries and communities, including migrants and refugees, is a complex process, says Ms. Ionesco, involving many different actors.

Solutions can range from tweaking migration practices, such as visa regimes, to developing human rights-based protection measures. Most importantly, they involve a coordinated approach from national governments, bringing together experts from different walks of life:

“There is no one single solution to respond to the challenge of environmental migration, but there are many solutions that tackle different aspects of this complex equation. Nothing meaningful can ever be achieved without the strong involvement of civil society actors and the communities themselves who very often know what is best for them and their ways of life.”

I also think that we need to stop discourses that focus only on migrants as victims of tragedy. The bigger picture is certainly bleak at times, but we need to remember that migrants demonstrate everyday their resilience and capacity to survive and thrive in difficult situations.

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