Climate Migrants Can't Wait for Global Frameworks

Fall 2021

Climate Migrants Can’t Wait for Global Frameworks

– Elizabeth Ferris

As climate change causes greater numbers of and more intense natural disasters, more people will be displaced from their homes, bringing urgent needs with them.

The very first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 signaled that the greatest impact of climate change could be on migration. Since then there have been varying alarmist projections of millions of people forced from their homes because of the effects of climate change, often turning up on the borders of developed countries. The relationship between climate change and human mobility seems clear.  We know that climate change increases the intensity and frequency of sudden-onset disasters – wildfires, cyclones, hurricanes, flooding – all of which displace people. There is increasing evidence that these disasters are interconnected. With 90 percent of the world’s large cities in coastal areas at risk of flooding and sea level rise, and droughts becoming more prolonged in other areas of the world, it is likely that we will see more people moving because of the slow-onset effects of climate change. 

Aerial view Bangladeshi farmlands in flood water. Salahuddin Ahmed Paulash/Shutterstock.

Some people will see the handwriting on the wall and use normal migration pathways to move before conditions become uninhabitable. Others will move after a disaster occurs, sometimes temporarily through evacuations, but sometimes permanently. And then there are people living in areas of high climate risk who lack the resources to move on their own and will require assistance to relocate.  But while climate change is likely to influence individual decisions to migrate, it is rarely the only driver of migration. Economic factors, family situations, and different levels of risk tolerance always play a role.

Of course, people have always moved because of environmental conditions; civilizations have risen and fallen because of changes in climate long before human-induced climate change was a factor.  Today scientists, using attribution science, are beginning to be able to separate out the impact of climate change, particularly in sudden-onset disasters, and attribute with a high degree of certainty the extent to which climate change – rather than normal climatic variation – is responsible for certain disasters. 

People have always moved because of environmental conditions; civilizations have risen and fallen because of changes in climate long before human-induced climate change was a factor. 

Climate change doesn’t affect everyone equally. The poor and marginalized not only have fewer resources to adapt to climate change but often live on the most inferior land, making them even more at risk from environmental hazards. The influential 2011 UK Foresight study found that migrants are likely to move from rural areas of high environmental risk to urban areas where the environmental risk is even higher. Indeed, much of the internal population movement due to climate change is likely to be toward cities which will be on the frontlines of responding to climate change migration. This is unfortunate not only because of the pressures migrants will place on municipal governments but also because cities are currently responsible for 71 to 76 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing those emissions and reducing global warming is likely to be even more difficult with burgeoning urban populations.

A group of people evacuates from the flooded area at Sapan Mai district during the massive flood crisis on November 13, 2011 in Bangkok. Credit: cowardlion/

Academics, policymakers and civil society groups are all turning their attention to climate migration; for example, one of the Biden administration’s first acts in office was to call for a report on how to incorporate climate migration into US refugee policy. But while there is a lot of emphasis on the potential for climate migrants to cross borders in search of safety, the fact is that most people will move within the borders of their countries. The World Bank’s updated and just-released flagship report, Groundswell, predicts up to 216 million internal climate migrants by the year 2050 if the pace of climate change continues on its present course. To put this into context, present estimates of internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to violence, conflict, and disasters stand at 55 million with growing numbers experiencing protracted displacement. It is hard to imagine how governments can respond to a number almost four times as high – from climate change alone – in the coming two decades. Even when compared with the 800 million estimated number of all internal migrants – including everyone moving to cities for jobs or to stay with family members or to study in another part of the country – 216 million is a daunting number.

Those who are displaced internally because of conflict, disasters, and climate change are considered IDPs and are covered by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. While the Guiding Principles are not a binding legal convention, they are drawn from existing international law and affirm the human rights of those who are forced to move within the borders of their own countries. The problem is that the record of translating these Guiding Principles into effective policies for IDPs has been uneven – at best.  Much more work is needed to encourage governments who are responsible for protecting and assisting IDPs to do so. The just released report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement may offer some concrete recommendations on how to do this, including for those displaced internally by climate change. 

This large-scale projected movement of people because of climate change leads to several questions for policymakers. Although it seems somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of things, there is the question of what to call people who move, at least in part, because of climate change? The fact is that most migration is multicausal – Hondurans move in part because of the devastation caused by back-to-back hurricanes (a climate driver) but also because of poverty (an economic driver) and at least some because of violence (a political driver). Our international systems aren’t very good at nuance. In terms of cross-border movements, our global normative frameworks, based on a binary distinction between forced and voluntary migration, are already stressed. Mixed motives for movement seem to dominate these days, whether it is migrants crossing the Mediterranean or Central Americans making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s difficult to fit these mixed migration flows into our pre-existing categories of ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant.’ It’s bound to become even more difficult as climate places a greater role in driving migration.  

Is there anything inherently different between someone who moves because their land has become uninhabitable, or their livelihoods have disappeared because of climate change and those who move because of poverty or violence?

Another basic question is whether the needs of those who move, at least in part, because of effects of climate change will be different than those who move for other reasons? In other words, is there anything inherently different between someone who moves because their land has become uninhabitable, or their livelihoods have disappeared because of climate change and those who move because of poverty or violence? Those who move suddenly because of rapid-onset disasters like cyclones or floods will likely have much in common with those who flee sudden-onset violence – at least initially. They need shelter, food, water, medical care, and some are likely to be housed in temporary shelters or camps. Unlike refugees, however, most of them will probably be able to return to their homes and start rebuilding. Those who move because of slow-onset factors, like drought and sea level rise, are likely to have more in common with those leaving their communities because of poverty or the search for better livelihoods. They are likely to follow the pathways of migrants searching for better economic opportunities which is likely to translate into increasing urbanization. Chances are they will be more likely not to return home, but instead, settle permanently in their new locations or to move further afield. After all, rising sea levels are unlikely to recede and droughts have a way of reoccurring. 

In this June 26, 2018 photo, a farmer removes dead scrub trees from his fallow field in the Iraqi town of Mishkhab south of Najaf. Iraq banned its farmers from planting summer crops that year as the country grappled with a crippling water shortage. Water levels across the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have fallen by over 60 percent in two decades, according to a 2012 report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Anmar Khalil/AP Photo

The 1951 Refugee Convention doesn’t mention the word climate or even environment, much less include environmental factors in the five grounds for refugee claims (persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion). Refugee advocates have strongly opposed using the term ‘climate refugee’ to describe those displaced by the effects of climate change. An effort to re-open and revise the Refugee Convention, they argue, could well lead to a more restrictive rather than an expanded definition of refugee in the current xenophobic global climate. The Global Compact on Refugees adopted in 2018, refers to climate change in terms of the context in which refugee movements occur, but doesn’t break new legal ground about how those moving because of climate change should be treated and in any event, it is a non-binding document.  

Given the fact that most people will likely move internally from climate change, much more needs to happen at the national – and local levels. Policies and actions are needed to reduce the risks of disasters and the displacement it will cause. National agencies such as FEMA in the US, India’s NDMA, and Protección Civil in El Salvador will need to be prepared for more disaster-related displacement, from setting up early warning systems and evacuation procedures to budgeting for more and more severe disasters. We also need national and local policies for recovery – not only to help people return and rebuild their damaged homes, but also to support their settlement elsewhere.

Policies are needed to support people to move to safer places – either individually, for example through buy-out programs or through planned relocations of entire communities. These are expensive undertakings and talk of managed retreat is almost always politically controversial. It is easier to postpone discussions on encouraging migration than to see migration as an essential climate change adaptation measure. But local authorities – mayors, city councils, local agencies – will be on the frontline of responding to climate change migration. Thankfully, exciting things are happening in local communities worldwide. Mayors are already taking actions in response to climate change – even when national decision-making is stalled. Groups such as the Mayors Migration Council are forging ahead in developing policies and practical tools for cities to learn from each other to prepare for and respond to climate migration. 

At the global level, there is not much appetite for a new treaty with binding obligations on governments to respond to a new, and as yet poorly-defined, group of people.  A new convention on climate migrants would first have to define who they are (is everyone moving from a drought-affected country a climate migrant? What about those who are displaced by earthquakes and volcanoes – environmental hazards to be sure, but not climate-related?) What obligations would this entail for receiving countries?

Even if a new global convention isn’t immediately in the cards, there are opportunities to build on existing frameworks and policies.

Even if a new global convention isn’t immediately in the cards, there are opportunities to build on existing frameworks and policies. UNHCR has issued legal guidance explaining how in some cases, those displaced for environmental reasons might have grounds for asylum claims. In January 2020, the UN Human Rights committee issued important guidance in response to an appeal from an asylum-seeker from Kiribati whose claim – based on climate change – was denied by New Zealand.  While the committee upheld the decision by the New Zealand court, it also recognized the right for asylum claims to be based on climate change, finding that returning people to countries where climate change threatens their survival is a violation of the right to life. This means that the effects of climate change in an asylum-seeker’s country of origin could and should be considered when decisions are made about returning rejected asylum-seekers.

New humanitarian visas could be introduced to respond to those who are displaced by disasters as a number of countries have already done; the Platform on Disaster Displacement has compiled a useful compendium of good practices which states are already using and which could be expanded. In the U.S., the current provisions for temporary protected status could be modified to apply to people who leave their country because of a disaster and not just to those already present in the U.S. when a disaster occurs.  

People watch the rescue process in the flooded area on August 17, 2018 in Pathanamthitta, Kerala, India. Kerala was badly affected by the floods during the monsoon season. AJP/

The 1951 Refugee Convention was intended to protect people who do not enjoy the protection of their governments. Given the fact that it will likely be impossible for governments to protect their citizens from the effects of climate change, this would seem to suggest a need to develop complementary protection measures as called for in a recent report by a Refugees International-convened Blue Ribbon Task Force.    

While modifying the 1951 Refugee Convention would be a politically-fraught process, it should be possible for governments or even regional bodies to come up with complementary forms of protection – not refugee status but providing some protection to those whose lives are threatened by environmental hazards, including the effects of human-induced climate change. Latin American and African states have already adopted broader definitions of refugees than the 1951 Refugee Convention. Latin America in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration and the Organization of African Unity (the precursor to the African Union) in its 1969 Convention included ‘events seriously disturbing public order’ in their definitions of refugees. Those definitions still need to be incorporated into national policies but offer the possibility of extending protection to those whose lives are threatened by climate change.  

Shifting the focus from negotiating international agreements to adjusting existing procedures and developing new visa protocols can help those who cross a border as a result of disasters.

In today’s world where anti-immigrant sentiment is alive and well, where multilateral institutions are weak, where (at least in the U.S.), some reject the evidence that climate change is occurring, and where there is little appetite for creating a new international treaty, we need to consider how to fine-tune the normative frameworks we have. This isn’t as sexy as launching a new convention, but it would bring real benefit to individuals and communities suffering the effects of climate change, who are likely to suffer even more in the future. Shifting the focus from negotiating international agreements to adjusting existing procedures and developing new visa protocols can help those who cross a border as a result of disasters. And supporting mayors and grassroots communities has the potential to bring benefits to the far larger numbers of people moving within the borders of their countries. Civil society groups and networks are already advancing bold ideas for responding to climate-induced migration and need more support. 

While it may be more exciting to draft a new international convention rather than call for small changes to existing frameworks, the effects of climate change are causing people to move now. Until the world is ready to take bold action, we need to consider how to use existing policies to meet current on-the-ground human needs.  

Dr. Elizabeth Ferris is an ISIM Research Professor at Georgetown. She joined ISIM in Fall 2015 after serving for nine years as a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Brookings Project on Internal Displacement and as an adjunct professor in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. She served as the interim director of ISIM for the 2017-2018 academic year while Dr. Katharine Donato was on sabbatical.

Prior to joining Brookings in November 2006, Elizabeth spent 20 years working in the field of international humanitarian response, most recently in Geneva, Switzerland at the World Council of Churches. She has also served as Chair of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), as Research Director for the Life & Peace Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, as Director of the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program in New York. She has been a professor at several U.S. universities and served as a Fulbright professor to the Universidad Autónoma de México in Mexico City. She has written or edited six books and many articles on humanitarian and human rights issues which have been published in both academic and policy journals. Her current research interests focus on the politics of humanitarian action and on the role of civil society in protecting displaced populations.

Cover art: In this July 26, 2021, photo, a man carries goods on his bicycle as he walks out of the the Yubei Agricultural and Aquatic Products World in Xinxiang in central China's Henan Province. Dake Kang/AP.