Environmental migration: a new refugee crisis?


We’ve all seen the images: complete neighborhoods destroyed by tsunamis, communities leaving their homes due to persistent droughts, small islanders having to move because their island is slowly sinking into the ocean. Where will these people be able to build up a new life? How many challenges will they have to overcome before getting there? How will the world deal with this mass migration?

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 24.2 million people had to flee their homes in 2016 due to weather related disasters. Between 2008 and 2016, a total of 227.6 million people has had the same fate. Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the small island states have the largest populations at risk of becoming climate refugees, although extreme hurricanes can also cause severe damage to communities in the Caribbean and the United States, such as Katrina in 2005, Sandy in 2012 and Maria in 2017. Asia is vulnerable due to its highly populated, low-lying coastal regions and high vulnerability to tropical cyclones, which have been increasingly occurring in the last few years. Water scarcity and drought will also affect millions of Africans. By 2030, 25 African countries are at risk of experiencing water scarcity. Africa is also highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, notably in the river deltas of Egypt and Nigeria. In Latin America, communities are at risk of floods, droughts and water scarcity due to glacier melts depending on the country.

Looking at these numbers and future projections, it may thus seem logical to label those affected by these disasters and starting a new life elsewhere as climate refugees. However, this is not as simple as it seems. The 1951 Refugee Convention, which was signed before climate change became a topic of discussion, was designed to only protect those fleeing violence and persecution within their country based on either religion, ethnicity or political opinion. This is the main reason why agencies such as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) state that “climate refugees” should not be used, instead addressing them as “environmental migrants”. This view is also shared by the International Organization for Migration (IOM); such a term has no legal basis in international refugee law. However, everyone migrating due to environmental reasons are protected by international human rights law. IOM has also provided a working definition for this group of people:

“Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.” 

The UNHCR and IOM fear that misuse of the word “refugee” or trying to include those fleeing climate disasters in the Refugee Convention will undermine the already reluctant governmental support of refugee protection if this group would grow 20-fold due to this expansion. Bettini (2013) also poses the question whether dramatizing climate induced migration with shocking images that are often published in the media and coining these people as refugees will help their situation or actually damage an effective approach to this problem.

However, the debate of whether these people are refugees or not is a useless one, as this emerging problem will have to be dealt with one way or another. Several attempts have been made to create new international governmental policies, but none have yet been successful. In 2017, New Zealand tried to take matters into its own hands by proposing to create a special refugee visa for Pacific Islanders who are forced to move due to rising sea levels. The government wanted to grant 100 visas annually to these climate refugees. The plan was put to bed a year later due to Pacific Island nations stating that they would prefer to continue living on their islands while tackling climate change rather than fleeing their homes, stating that migration will be a last resort.

(Te Mana: Litia Maiava)

Just a few months ago, in December 2018, the UN Global Compact for Migration was signed by 164 countries. This is the first document which states that climate change is a cause of migration and suggests that countries work together to develop policies for environmental migrants. Although this agreement is voluntary and non-binding, the United States, Australia and several European countries chose not to sign it, so whether this document will result in new policies is not clear yet.

Ultimately, the only way to prevent a climate refugee crisis is by tackling climate change, and we all know how difficult a task that is proving to be.


Beeler, C. 2018. UN compact recognizes climate change as driver of migration for first time. Pri. Retrieved from: https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-12-11/un-compact-recognizes-climate-change-driver-migration-first-time

Bettini, G. 2013. Climate Barbarians at the Gate? A critique of apocalyptic narratives on ‘climate refugees’. Geoforum. 45:63-72. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.09.009

Biermann, F., Boas, I. 2008. Protecting Climate Refugees: The Case for a Global Protocol. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. 50(6):8-17. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3200/ENVT.50.6.8-17

Environmental Migration Portal. Retrieved from: https://environmentalmigration.iom.int/environmental-migration

H, W. 2018. Why climate migrants do not have refugee status. The Economist. Retrieved from:https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2018/03/06/why-climate-migrants-do-not-have-refugee-status

Manch, T. 2018. Humanitarian visa proposed for climate change refugees dead in the water. Stuff. Retrieved from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/106660148/humanitarian-visa-proposed-for-climate-change-refugees-dead-in-the-water

New Zealand cools on climate refugee plan. 2018. News24. Retrieved from: https://www.news24.com/Green/News/new-zealand-cools-on-climate-refugee-plan-20180316

Pearlman, J. 2018. New Zealand creates special refugee visa for Pacific islanders affected by climate change. The Straits Times. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/australianz/new-zealand-creates-special-refugee-visa-for-pacific-islanders-affected-by-climate

6 thoughts on “Environmental migration: a new refugee crisis?

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog post. It’s a very hot and current topic which needs attention!

    I think it’s important to distinguish environmental migrants arising from climate change induced environmental disasters, versus more ‘random’ environmental threats which may not directly be related to climate change. If a distinction is made, then it’s interesting to think that conception of environmental migrants is so new. This makes sense if we define environmental migrants solely as escaping climate change induced disasters, but if it takes into account all environmental disasters (including those which are not necessarily caused by climate change (i.e. Chernobyl accident, some volcanic eruptions)) the conception of environmental migrants would be expected to be formalized earlier…(?). What I’m trying to say is why are environmental migrants gaining more attention now when environmental disasters have long existed? Perhaps it’s due to the exacerbated effects of climate change/ global warming – induced disasters. I’d love to know what others think of this!

    Another point I wanted to mention is that I think your final sentence is a very good point. Although it’s definitely helpful and necessary to have a system in place to deal with environmental migrants, we should not rely on this because it avoids the problem instead of tackling it. As we have mentioned in class, a potential ‘moral hazard’ might arise in which the focus is turned towards the effect instead of the cause.


  2. Hi Alize! I really enjoyed your piece and is a topic I find extremely interesting. It’s crazy how people are forced away from their homes and land that they have had for centuries because of the climate. I thought the addition about the climate refugee visas from New Zealand is something that I’m surprised about and that makes me optimistic into hoping for support from countries in times like this. I hope that with this and the UN Global Compact for Migration we can at least try and help all the climate refugees. Do you think it will work? Or do you think people in the future will be less optimistic and more greedy on keeping their land for themselves?


  3. Hey Alize, although I think you describe the problem of environmental migrants really well, what I kind of miss from your blogpost is the interrelation between climate change and violent conflicts around land, water scarcity and droughts, which will maybe cause many more refugees/migrants and under much more dire situations than your blogpost suggests. Environmental degradation ‘on its own’ is not the only creator of climate refugees. I think this is also why the definitional issue does matter so much. Because of the historic emissions of the Global North, countries with existing violent ethnic and political conflicts Global South can be exacerbated by climate change caused by the Global North! Some scholars say that climate change has caused migratory patterns that made tension in Syria worse before the war broke out. The tensions in such countries are then partly to blame on the climate change caused by the Global North! Framing ‘climate refugees/migrants’ as only suffering from environmental degradation, perhaps ignores the suffering of those peoples. The climate justice component of migration issues also needs emphasis. I also think therefore that the use of the word ‘migrant’ is a unjust euphemism in these cases. The wording of ‘migrants’ does not do justice to the severity of the issue. I think I disagree with Bettini. Although I see the point that some people in the Global North will not very accepting of people that are “dramatically” coined refugees, I do not think using euphemism like ‘migrant’ in these cases will help at all. As you have probably read more about the issue than I have, what do you think? Is the definition-issue surrounding migrants/refugees different in cases of violence that are related to climate change?


  4. Hey Nina, thanks for your comment! I agree with you that it is strange that people being forced to move from their land due to environmental disasters are only now gaining more attention. I think this maybe has to do with the fact that the media plays a huge role in this: the more stories are published about these disasters, the more conscious people will be about the prominence of environmental disasters and the effects on affected communities. Linking this to climate change also adds to the realization of how big this problem is and that only reducing carbon emissions will not solve the issue.

    I think finding the balance between mitigation and adaptation is very difficult and will differ per country/continent. Western countries, which have historically emitted substantially more carbon than other countries, currently do not experience climate change induced environmental disasters as dramatically as the countries which have significantly lower carbon emissions. Therefore I would say that Western countries should focus more on mitigation, and also aid the countries that need to adapt to climate change effects. Hopefully this will make these communities more resilient and thus also reduce the amount of environmental migrants, which can simultaneously prevent mass migration and preserve communities (just like the Pacific Island nations strive for).


  5. Hey Katelyn, I’m glad you liked my post! Unfortunately, I think the impending environmental migration crisis will be dealt with even worse than the current migration crisis that Europe is dealing with. Looking at the revival and increasing popularity of nationalist movements in several Western countries, this will certainly have an effect on immigration policies if these parties come into power. As these movements are always “our own people first” and additionally also consist of climate change deniers, I think environmental migrants will not be recognized as such but rather as a “danger” to the “Western way of life”.

    Personally I have little confidence in agreements such as the UN Global Compact for Migration, due to the fact that it is voluntary and non-binding. Multilateral agreements take years to formulate and then act on, so I appreciate that New Zealand tried to come up with something on its own, although for now it’s on the back burner.


  6. Hi Pjotr, I appreciate your critical look at my post! I wholeheartedly agree that the combination of environmental disasters and conflicts about land and water increase the amount of people forced to leave their homes. While this was in my head at the time of writing this post, I didn’t explicitly mention it (I don’t remember anymore why).

    Western countries (or the Global North, as you call it) are to blame for climate change and its disastrous effects, which they don’t even experience as drastically! And then, making matters even worse, they want to ignore the climate change problems they have caused and also invalidate the suffering these refugees would endure if they would stay on their lands.
    I also disagree with Bettini, and although he is the only researcher that uses this reasoning (as far as I have seen), I think it’s pretty surprising that organizations such as the UN and IOM also discourage the use of “climate refugees”. These organizations should be fully aware of the suffering these people endure, and instead of being wary of international support for refugees dwindling by including those affected by environmental disasters and other environmental consequences (such as violent conflicts over land and water), they should emphasize all refugees are forced to leave their homes because they would not survive if they stayed. Just because climate refugees is an emerging crisis shouldn’t mean that they should receive less support than refugees fleeing political/ethnic conflicts.

    I think media also plays a big role in this, because more often than not it’s Western-oriented. Refugees are depicted as a huge wave of people that will “invade” Western countries and “disturb our way of life”. Nationalist and populist movements then use these fears to their advantage to paint these refugees as people that just want to live a “lazy” life off of Western financial support. The fact that the UN also fears the decline of (financial) support due to climate refugees further taints this misconception, I think.


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