Climate Migrations

5 Misconceptions on climate migration

Contrary to common misconceptions, migrations linked to climate change consequences are real: between 2008 and 2015 it is approximately 22.5 million of people per year that have been forced to migrate because of climate related events. But rather than massive, international population displacements, most of them are in fact domestic and on a long-term scale. Instead of fear or anger, one should realise this phenomenon is not just someone else’s issue: climate change will profoundly transform territories both in developed and less-developed countries. It will have consequences and sometimes force people to move away. It is now time to tackle this issue, as local and international solutions exist and can be implemented. Populations’ adaptation and migrants protection are feasible means to cope with the effects of climate change and transform our world for the better.

L?archipel des Maldives compte 2 000 i?les, dont 200 seulement sont habite?es. Loin de la capitale Male? et de ces digues de protection, ces i?les sont menace?es par l?e?rosion due a? la monte?e des eaux. Leurs habitants seront les premiers re?fugie?s climatiques des Maldives.
Copyright : Guillaume Collanges. The Maldives englobes more than 2000 islands, and only 200 of them are populated. Those populations will be among the first to have to migrate due to rising sea levels.

The media rarely link human migrations and climate change despite their close connections. This lack of coverage could be explained by the difficulty to dissociate climate change and natural variability but also by the complex interdependence between climatic, economic and politic causes of migrations. However, such migrations are already happening and the projected increase in global temperatures will undoubtedly enhance this phenomenon.

Our working group, within the international NGO CliMates, is working on this issue. With members coming from Germany, Bolivia, India, Italy and France, we aim at spreading the voice of international youth on this question. Following our preliminary research, five major misconceptions on climate migrants have emerged.

5 Misconceptions on climate migration

1. “Climate Migrations don’t really exist”

2. “Climate Migrations will necessarily be large-scale and international”

3. “Climate Migrations will not affect me”

4.“When it comes to Climate Migrations, current international legal and humanitarian mechanisms are enough”

5. “There is nothing we can do”

Currently, migrations and refugees are associated in many people’s minds with fear and anger. In fact, the European continent is split about this issue. It is therefore easy to relegate climate and environmental migrations far away in the international priority list. Nonetheless, the problem already exists.The dynamics of migrations are very complex. People rarely move away because of a single reason. Most of the time, financial, security and environmental considerations are deeply intertwined. Nonetheless, climate change effects such as desertification, sea level rise, acidification of the ocean and natural disasters are very often involved in the reasons that force people to migrate. As these phenomena are increasing over the years, it is important to consider people principally threatened by these issues as a particular type of displaced populations.Indeed, maintaining the increase of the global average temperature below 2°C will not be enough to protect some territories threatened by rising waters and earth desertification. A study led by Maplecroft, a British global risks analytics company, in October 2013 evaluates the ten most exposed countries to the consequences of climate change. Most of these countries are within the poorest ones: Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Haiti, Sudan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cambodia, Philippines and Ethiopia. However, some countries with the largest economies are also affected, with India, China, Indonesia directly concerned. Some areas in developed countries are also already experiencing the first impacts of climate change such as the Halligen islands in Germany, Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt area in the Netherlands , Camargue and the Arcachon Bay in France.Every year, millions of people are forced to move because of climate change and its impacts are increasing in intensity and frequency. According to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), between 2008 and 2015, every year “an average of 22.5 million people have been displaced by climate-or-weather-related issues” . For instance, in the Marshall Islands, people are forced to adapt to the effects of climate change or leave. Other populations in landlocked areas such as the surrounding areas of Lake Chad have been forced to move to be able to sustain themselves . Even if there is no precise estimate of climate-induced migrations due to the complexity of migration paths, future forecasts vary from 200 million to 1 billion climate migrants by 2050.

For the main part, migration is not someone’s first choice. In fact, experts suggest that if people were actually to choose what to do to face climate change consequences, 3 out of 4 would probably much prefer to stay within their homes and try to adapt. Migrants are not willing to go away, they are forced to. Then, when severe degradations of their close environment force people to move, they tend to resettle in the closest area possible because of the lower cost of mobility, but also the cultural similarities allowing them to preserve their way of life.

Climate change produces two types of forced migrations. One is caused by natural disasters, the other one is due to the progressive changes, such as sea level rise or desertification.

On the one hand, since climate change will reinforce extreme events such as storms and tsunamis, many people will be subject to sudden displacement. But in this case of extreme events, people usually do not have time to move far and will relocate in the immediate vicinity of their homes, thus within their country. This is the case in Mongolia where nomadic herders are facing more intense and frequent dzuds episodes (Mongolian term to describe a severe winter). In addition to droughts occuring during the summer, these dzuds kill livestock and force nomads to migrate to urban areas. This massive internal migration lead to huge poverty-stricken districts around the cities and has thus tremendous socioeconomic impacts for the country.

On the other hand, slow climate change effects will cause changes in the environment forcing people to leave their homes. According to experts such as Christel Cournil, this type of climate migrations will occur in a much longer timescale than migration due to political reasons. A majority of these displacements will happen slowly within the country, from threatened areas to other ones. A believable scenario is the one of people leaving an area directly impacted such as coast lines or arid zones, in order to settle in drier lands or near sources of water.

Some territories will disappear or irreversibly change and thus force people to move far away, in other countries, but overall, most of climate migrations will be progressive and regional rather than mass international migrations.


Climate migrations affect everyone, either as populations directly in danger, as countries hosting climate migrants or through international cooperation, as we will later discuss.

Many people consider that developed countries are not and won’t be affected by climate migrations. However, as we have seen previously, many more countries than one could imagine are likely to be affected by this phenomenon. In France, Bordeaux and its surrounding areas are vulnerable to rising waters. In the Netherlands, solutions will have to be found in order to protect a territory under the sea-level. In addition to territories being in danger, there are areas in developed countries that are already unlivable. In the United-States, several communities such as Newtok, Alaska are already subject to environmental turmoil. These local populations are forced to move and find ways to preserve their way of life.

Even if the majority of climate migrations will be domestic, climate change will also spur population displacements in neighboring countries. As a result, regional as well as national dynamics may be destabilised. Large population displacements may also reinforce existing social tensions and bring into question national migration policies. Therefore, the phenomenon of climate migration does not only concern vulnerable areas, but also surrounding countries and regional organisations.

Finally, climate-induced migration is also a matter of international responsibility, since the effects of climate change are directly linked to human actions. Therefore, all states should take actions to tackle this phenomenon. The recent Paris Agreement underlines this shared responsibility, including differentiations between the different types of countries. All of us are also directly affected, for we all bare a common human responsibility to assist the most vulnerable.


Existing international mechanisms concerning climate migrations are in two realms : the legal and the humanitarian ones. International legal protection is limited in terms of jurisdiction when it comes to internally displaced people. Moreover, there is no specific legal protection for people forced to move because of environmental reasons. Environmental displaced people do not comply to the definition of a “refugee” as set up by the 1951 Geneva Convention . Indeed “refugees” are defined as persecuted people. The expression “climate refugee” has, in this way, no legal basis in international law and can lead to legal ambiguity. Climate migrants therefore only benefit from general humanitarian protection and assistance. This puts them at the same level as many other types of people in need, and the assistance received is temporary and not sufficient to meet their long-term needs to resettle. Development funds can also help some populations, as it is the case in Sahel, but this has similar drawbacks.

Current international mechanisms are not enough, and new international and regional measures could be put into place. At the international level, mechanisms other than a refugee status could be developed. Indeed, the term “refugee” in this situation is legally inadequate, but also criticised by the most concerned people, who claim that they prefer to “move with dignity”. Climate vulnerability already mobilises a part of the international community. Several project of conventions for the protection of displaced people propose mechanisms to protect these people and foster resettlement. The possibility of a legal status for climate migrants implicates, on a larger scale, migrations governance in general, since reasons for migrations are often multiple and complex.

As climate migrations will mainly be local and regional, regional and bilateral agreements have actually the most important role to play. With the disappearing of territories and states, many legal issues are at stake, especially sovereignty. Nonetheless, legal solutions and regional agreements can enable populations to resettle in another territory or states. Creative legal solutions, such as the ones developed by Mr. Michael Gerrard in the Marshall Islands , can structure sovereignty transfers and allow communities relocation.


Many different means of action are possible and already exist concerning climate migrations. Educating populations, fostering practical solutions, promoting technology transfer and regional cooperation are feasible and efficient solutions.

Education is a key point in helping populations to prepare and cope with climate migrations. Spreading information on the subject is within many people’s reach through personal involvement and media. In some vulnerable areas, people might not have access to this information but ideally it would allow them to generate regionally-appropriate solutions. In other areas, vulnerable populations are already tackling the issue with their own means. For instance in the Kiribati islands, the government put in place a training program to enable its population to find job opportunities in neighboring countries. Communication and education worldwide should promote these initiatives and foster international exchanges on solutions. Education is crucial in every country for everyone who is affected and can develop solutions. Education also paves the way for building resilience and fostering practical adaptation solutions.

Technical solutions already exist to help populations adapt to environmental changes. For instance, in the Netherlands, every year, the country invests important funds to guard against rising waters by building up dykes, backfills and floating houses. Architects are already working on the designing of aquatic cities, which would be inhabitable in 2050. Due to financial constraints, developed countries are generating many solutions that could be applicable in other contexts. In developing countries some technical solutions are also developed, but generally lack funding to upscale and become very efficient.

Technology transfers and financial support could prevent a large part of mass displacements. With financial means, States can set up adaptation or relocation policies for their populations. Without transfers and cooperation between developed and least developed and small islands developing States, the phenomenon of climate migration may actually be accentuated and lead to bigger impact on all countries. Since most migrations linked to climate change will occur on a long-term timescale, we still have time to implement these solutions. Thus, in the areas most concerned, such as East Africa, South Asia or Pacific Islands, some actions can be taken to build resilience and enable the communities to adapt to these change.

At an international scale, States are cooperating to generate solutions such as the Nansen initiative, launched by Switzerland and Norway in 2012. Based on voluntary initiatives and through consultations by regional organisations, this initiative aims to establish an agenda for the protection of environmentally displaced people. Regional agreements also play an important role in the planification of population displacements and can be organised to plan populations resettlement. Recent experiences in Australia and New-Zealand have shown that sustainable solutions are difficult to reach, as these states turned down Pacific islands inhabitants’ applications to relocate on their territories. Nevertheless, regional and bilateral agreements, even if difficult to achieve, would be the best tools to cope with climate-induced migrations.

More on the Climate Migrants project

Authors: Charlotte Blondel, Marion Courdier, Bertrand Delorme, Solène Dengler, Marine Denis, Clara Haas, Bénédicte Niel

author collage

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