Climate refugee 'crisis' will not result in mass migration - new research

| 4th February 2011
Climate change is already causing environmental degradation (Copyright: Mohammad Rakibul Hasan)

Climate change is already causing environmental degradation (copyright: Mohammad Rakibul Hasan)

Researchers dismiss 'alarmist predictions' about hundreds of millions of people being forced to migrate across international borders because of climate change

Climate change is more likely to lead to local and regional migration as people's livelihoods are lost through drought, flooding or other types of environmental degradation. Research by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in Africa and South America found most migrants were likely to move to other rural areas or local towns on a temporary basis.

Seasonal movement is historically common with, for example, pastoralists in East Africa having long-developed strategies to cope with unpredictable environments. In Sub Saharan Africa, the study found, many women migrate to towns during dry seasons to work as cleaners and street traders. While in the Bolivian Andes, women are already moving for 3-6 months of the year to take llamas to pasture.

A number of NGOs have predicted as many as one billion people could have been forced to relocate by 2050 because of the effects of climate change. However, the IIED findings back up other research that suggests relocation is likely to be local with people whose livelihoods are most sensitive to the environment also tending to be the ones who do not have the means to move very far.

The study says farmers should be helped to diversify their incomes to provide a 'safety net' against environmental degradation. But governments often view migrants as a problem and provide little support, the study found. As a result, when people have relocated they are often returning back to their original homes due to frustration with the lack of help in adapting to a new climate and different agricultural practices.

'Policymakers need to redefine migration and see it as a valuable adaptive response to environmental risks and not as problem that needs to be tackled,' said study author Dr Cecilia Tacoli, who said she was worried alarmist predictions would backfire and result in policies that marginalise the poorest and vulnerable groups.

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) says it still wants climate refugees to be given legal protection by the UN and international community.
'Whilst migration can be a positive adaptation strategy to environmental change, we must not lose sight of the fact that some people are being forcibly displaced. Climate change is putting vulnerable people into more precarious situations,' said EJF executive director Steve Trent.  'This is exactly what we found in Bangladesh, where families told us how their homes had been torn down overnight by cyclones and that their land remains inundated by floodwater. They did not have a choice, they had to move without warning or an opportunity to prepare or plan where to go.'

'Currently there are no legal provisions for people displaced as a result of climate change. That is why EJF is calling for a new international instrument for their recognition and protection,' he added.

Useful links

IIED report

Add to StumbleUpon
The first climate evacuation: what have we learned?
Earlier this year, journalist Dan Box won recognition from environmentalist George Monbiot for documenting the world's first climate change evacuation, of the Carteret islands in the South Pacific.
Dan Box Blog: climate change refugees
An inhospitable planet? As climate change forces increasingly large numbers of people to flee their homes, Ecologist blogger Dan Box considers what 'climate change refugees' actually means
Dan Box Blog - Paradise lost
Dan Box reports from a community in its death throes, as the Carteret islanders pack up their homes and prepare to become the world’s first climate change refugees
Atlantic Rising: sea level rise threatens the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela
Rising sea levels are forcing the migration of indigenous peoples and threatening the freshwater ecosystem of catfish and piranha found in the Orinoco Delta near the coast of Venezuela
Globalisation: the dream vs the reality
Globalisation sells Africans the Western dream. Immigration policies tell them they can’t have it. Where, Dele Oguntimoju asks, is the sense in that?


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here