Tag Archives: climate change

Myth buster. New briefing picks apart the myth and reality of migration and displacement linked to climate change


Download the migration and climate change myth buster




A number of myths have emerged about how climate change will influence the movement of people. There are connections between climate change and the movement of people. However these connections are not always obvious and the way the connections are described in the media is not always accurate. Our new myth buster looks at some of the common misunderstanding and explains what we do and don’t know about migration and climate change.

Alex Randall

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Guardian comment piece: creating new narratives for migration and climate change

This article by Alex Randall was originally ran in the Guardian on 17th of May.

This week the Guardian has been running a major series on “climate refugees” about the village of Newtok in Alaska, which faces an imminent threat to its existence from erosion.

The term “climate refugee” is problematic for a number of reasons. The first being that people who are facing movement do not like the term. The word “refugee” brings to mind a number of (not always accurate) images: tented camps, long lines of people walking, dangerous boat crossings. People facing the prospect moving hope that they will have some choice in the timing and circumstances of their movement and that when they arrive they will find work and become active members of their new communities. Their hope is that they will move with dignity.

President Anote Tong of Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific, told Australia’s ABC Radio that the people of Kiribati do not want to leave as refugees but as skilled migrants. Similarly, Ursula Rakova, a campaigner from the Carteret Islands is highly critical of the “climate refugee” narrative: “Our plan is one in which we remain as independent and self-sufficient as possible. We wish to maintain our cultural identity and live sustainably wherever we are.”

Apart from people’s own rejection of the “climate refugee” term there are also several other problems. It’s clear that there are connections between climate change and the movement of people, but the connections are not as clear as the “climate refugee” narrative suggests. The phrase conjures images of large numbers of people moving en masse over long distances and crossing international borders and possibly continents. It seems unlikely that climate change will produce this kind of human movement.

What seems more likely is that climate change might reinforce existing trends in short-term, short distance migration. For example, as subsistence farmers find it increasingly difficult to make a living in rural areas they may move to nearby cities to find work. Whole towns or villages will not move together: in fact, families may not even move together. Far more likely is that one or two household members will move, find work elsewhere and send money home to their community. This statement collected by the EACH-FOR research project from a farmer in Hueyotlipan, Mexico gives a sense of this kind of movement: “Times have changed … the rain is coming later now, so we produce less. The only solution is to go away, at least for a while. Each year I’m working for three to five months in Wyoming. That’s my main source of income.”

Another problem is that the phrase implies that it is easy to untangle the different causes of someone’s movement – that we might be able to pick out a group of people who have moved solely because of climate change. This is very misleading. Even when climate change has contributed to someone’s decision to move many other factors are often as, or more, important. This statement from a Somali farmer in a Ugandan refugee camp gives a clear sense of how multiple factors cause someone to move: “And since there was the war, we did not receive any support from the government. Therefore, there are combined factors that made us suffer: droughts and war. If war did not exist, then we might have been able to stay, but now that the land is looted, there is no way for us to claim it.”

The “climate refugee” narrative leads us away from other vital questions about the connection between climate change and migration: the first being how we protect growing cities. As climate change reinforces the factors pushing people out of the countryside, people will move into areas exposed to new climate-related risks in cities. This raises huge questions about urban planning, infrastructure and how cities plan to deal with the effects of climate change. There is also the possibility that climate change, rather than being a driver for new movement might actually prevent people from moving. Moving to find work is one of the key ways people are coping with falling incomes in rural areas. But moving requires resources, and as people become poorer, moving becomes harder. Climate change could in fact trap people in dangerous locations.

We need a new narrative that helps us address these vital questions, and which the people who are actually moving feel positive about. We need a new narrative in which we frame migration as a way for people to adapt to climate. Rather than being seen as a negative consequence of climate change, we need to describe moving in dignity as a way for some people to survive.

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Moving stories: the Sahel

The Sahel region is highly dependent on agriculture for livelihoods and the wider economy. Agriculture is almost entirely rain fed, dependent upon a 3-4 month rainy season that refills lakes and the rivers which, in turn, irrigate crops.  Annual rainfall is highly variable, some studies argue that the concept of ‘normal’ annual rainfall is almost meaningless in the Sahel. As well as erratic rainfall a number of other factors play an important part in creating the vulnerabilities of the people who live in the Sahel. Over the past half century a combination of land degradation, population growth and misplaced environmental and development policies have contributed to vulnerability. This vulnerability has in turn shaped patterns of migration and displacement. However, the changing climate is only one among a number of factors.

“Migration has now become an inevitable method of adaptation for us … As a means of survival for us and our animals, we are forced to continuously migrate despite all the risks involved. This is our form of adaptation. We have always mastered it, but if nothing is done to ensure the safety of our space and activities, we risk, one day, being forced to abandon our way of life and join the swelling ranks of the unemployed in the city.”

Hindu Oumarou Ibrahim, Peul Mbororo of Chad

At the Mentao Nord camp in Burkina Faso


Worsening environmental conditions in the Sahel have had a number of impacts on mobility. Historically, droughts have triggered massive displacement. The long drought of the “desiccation of the Sahel” that took place during the 70’s and 80’s created a large scale movement of people. This was primarily internal rather than cross border, and generally from the North to South of countries. It also created extensive rural to urban migration within countries. Where cross border movement did happen it tended to be from the landlocked Sahelian countries to the coastal countries.

However the connection between climate change and drought are not simple. The connections between drought and human movement is not simple either. Drought is often the result of natural variations in weather, however these variations are dangerously intensified by climate change. So while it is impossible to state that climate change caused a particular drought, it also not the case that climate change has no effect. The current understanding is that drought – including in the Sahel – is made more likely by human induced climate change.

“I crossed the border with my animals, my donkeys, my children and my wife. I traveled to Timbuktu crossed the river and came down to Burkina. I walked every day until sunet and after I would go to bed. The journey took three months. “ 

Malian man, in Burkina Faso

Further, the effect of drought on movement not simple. Moving usually requires financial resources and as income from farming falls, households have less money with which to move. During the severe drought in the Sahel region during 83-85 there was widespread displacement. However in Mali mobility actually decreased. Households did not have the resources to move, and so stayed where they were inspite of worsening conditions. This is an example of how a changing environment can in fact lead to less mobility, trapping vulnerable people in high-risk areas.

Encroaching deserts are threatening much of Africa’s arable land, if trends continue two thirds of arable land could be lost by 2025. The Sahel is particularly vulnerable to encroaching desert, this combined with drought and more perennial water scarcity is threatening livelihoods, the UNFP estimates the the 2011 sahel drought left 11m people without enough to eat. The 2012 current food crisis impacted on 18m people and left 1m children malnourished. This year the UN is again calling for $1.6 bn in humanitarian aid (the same figure as 2012) as 10.3 m face the risk of going hungry in 2013. This warning comes whilst the region is still in the grips of hunger.

The testimonies in this article are taken from the IOM’s International Dialogue on Migration, Climate Change, Environmental Degradation and Migration and the Refugees International video Sahel: Malian Refugees and Hosts Hit Hard by Crises


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Round up of news and research: climate change, migration and displacement

Displacement, Migration, and Climate Change: the Discussion at COP18. Yale Climate and Energy Institute.

“At COP18, climate-induced migration was not a major point on the official agendas of the various negotiating tracks, however one side event on December 3rd, 2012 chose to focus on this issue in depth. Sponsored by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the event highlighted recent research on climate-induced migration and discussed possible strategies to confront the challenges it imposes.”


The Many Faces of Climate Displacement, Refugees International blog

Alice Thomas of Refugees International writes … “As manager of the Bacon Center for the Study of Climate Displacement at Refugees International, I had come to Mali to assess the needs of hundreds of thousands of Malians, who were facing not only extreme weather, but a deadly combination of weather and war. “


Call For Papers: Special Issue of Refuge on environmentally induced displacement.

This special issue will explore the phenomenon of environmentally induced displacement (EID).  From climate change to extractive industries, from ‘natural’ disasters to increased urbanization, from conservation to mega-projects, landscapes and peoples’ place on them are being transformed at an unprecedented scale across the globe.


Event: 30th January. Arctic Indigenous Peoples, Displacement, and Climate Change: Tracing the Connections.

“For thousands of years, Arctic peoples have migrated in response to changing environmental conditions. But today climate change is putting unprecedented pressure on those indigenous communities.”

“On January 30, the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement will explore the relationship between climate change and population movements in the Arctic through three recent case studies.”

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Migration becoming common survival strategy in the face of changing rainfall

Alex Randall

The University of the UN and Care have release a report looking at relationship between changing rainfall, livelihoods and migration. We reported on the new maps the project produced  back in September. The final report of the project shows that migration is increasingly becoming a key survival strategy for people who’s livelihoods are impacted by changing rainfall patterns.

On the relationship between changing rainfall and migration the research finds:
    • Migration – seasonal, temporal, and permanent – plays an important part in many families’ struggle to deal with rainfall variability and food & livelihood insecurity;
    • Migration was found to have increased in recent decades in a number of the research sites;
    • Households with more diverse assets and access to a variety of adaptation, livelihood diversification, or risk management options can use migration in ways that enhance resilience;
    • Almost entirely within national borders;
    • Predominantly male, but with growing participation by women in a number of countries (with India as the exception where entire nuclear families moved together);
    • Seasonal, temporal or permanent migration patterns;
    • Largely by individual household members (except in the India research site);
    • Largely driven by livelihood-related needs (household income) in most countries, but with a growing number of migrants seeking improved skill sets (e.g. through education) in countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Peru;
    • A mix of rural-rural and rural-urban, with more productive agricultural areas (Ghana, Bangladesh, Tanzania), nearby urban centers (Peru, India),
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Doha: will this year’s climate negotiations create better support and protection for people at risk of displacement linked to climate change?

Alex Randall

Migration and displacement are rarely talked about in news stories about UN climate negotiations, in spite of the fact that some interesting progress has been made on these issues. This year’s talks in Doha are no exception.

The Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development has produced a short report of the areas of the talks that look at migration and displacement and the potential they hold for creating more support or legal protection for people at risk.

The most significant advance at the negotiations was two years ago when the talks took place in Cancun. The statement agreed “invites all parties” to consider

“Measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate, at the national, regional and international levels”.

Although this might seem like tiny piece of text it is actually very important. It indicates a first step towards considering displacement and migration within the UN’s climate negotiations. The paragraph could either be strengthened or diluted at Doha over the next couple of weeks.

The negotiations also contain a stream of talks focusing on “loss and damage”. This essentially means the ways in which countries might deal with the effects of increasingly severe and frequent natural disasters. Negotiations around loss and damage recognise that while adaptation might allow some areas to change and accommodate some of the effects of climate change, many areas will be facing sudden shocks that will create widespread loss of life, injury and damage to property and infrastructure. These disasters may also have migration and displacement consequences. In previous rounds of talks island states and Least Developed Countries have made proposals that would help them cope with the loss and damage associated with disasters. Their proposals included insurance and compensation to help with the financial costs of “rehabilitation” of areas damaged by disasters. The insurance and compensation could have helped these countries support groups of people forced to move by disasters. However the proposals were rejected.

Negotiations on loss and damage are handled by a working group at the UN negotiations called the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI). This year in Doha the SBI is considering new proposals on loss and damage and there is the possibility that something more positive could emerge.

As the Field report concludes:

The question now is: will climate displacement and migration finally be fully and bravely addressed in UNFCCC negotiations? Or is the future of climate exiles best determined through bilateral and regional agreements? It is clear that attention has been building with regard to this situation, but more action and international commitment is needed for more concrete steps towards dealing with the individuals vulnerable to climate displacement and migration, who ultimately face a rather bleak and uncertain future without sufficient legal safeguards to protect their rights or interests.

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World disasters report: special focus on forced migration

From the executive summary:  “This year’s World Disasters Report focuses on forced migration and on the people forcibly displaced by conflict, political upheaval, violence, disasters, climate change and development projects, whose numbers are increasing inexorably each year. The enormous human costs of forced migration – destroyed homes and livelihoods, increased vulnerability, disempowered communities, and collapsed social networks and common bonds – demand urgent and decisive action by both humanitarian and development actors.

The report analyses the complex causes of forced migration and its consequences and impacts on displaced populations, their hosts and humanitarian actors. It looks at the significant gaps in humanitarian protection for ever-increasing numbers of forced migrants who do not fit into conventional categories of protection, and the public health challenges caused by forced displacement, particularly for women, children and those with mental ill-health problems. It examines the ‘urbanization’ of forced migration, the role of climate change and environmental factors in forced displacement and how new communications, information and social networking technologies are reshaping the links between aid providers and migrants. It also tracks humanitarian funding for forcibly displaced populations, as well as the positive and negative economic impacts they have on host communities and countries.”

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We’re recruiting: executive director

COIN is looking for a new director. As well as our work on migration and climate change, COIN also runs several other innovative projects.

More information and the application form are available here. 

“Are you keen, willing to take some risks, live with uncertainty and deal with anything and everything and then some more. All tempered with experience, a fine mind and good people-skills.  We expect a certain level of resilience and maturity, and an ability to step around the dangers of burnout.”

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