A just vision for climate migration

Mozambique is the country most affected by flooding following heavy rains in the southern African region.

Tens of millions to up to a billion people could be displaced by climate change within the next three decades.

Enshrining the right to stay involves everything to protect the rights of populations.

A world wracked by climate violence is a landscape of displacement. Rising seas shaving coastlines. Farmlands depleted by saltwater and extreme heat. Encroaching deserts.

Coastal communities pummelled by cyclones. Ancestral territories deemed unlivable by extreme temperatures.

In eastern Africa, from Djibouti to Mozambique, millions have been displaced by torrential rains, droughts, and cyclones.

This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.


In the Pacific, where low-lying island nations are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, preliminary research suggests that people in over two thirds of households in Tuvalu and Kiribati would consider migration as a response to environmental shocks.

In Central Asia, environmental transformations have been documented as strong contributory factors in the movement of millions.

In 2017, nearly 68.5 million people around the world were displaced - a third by extreme weather.

From the World Bank to the United Nations, various institutions predict that between tens of millions to up to a billion people could be displaced by climate change within the next three decades.

But even these estimated figures are likely to be undercounts, given the often intricate ways in which climatic factors intertwine with others with negative consequences.


In addition to being a direct driver of movement through intensified extreme weather events - typhoons, floods, forest fires, the slow violence of climate change is an injustice multiplier, accelerating other deprivations and drivers of movement.

So in a reality of escalating climate-induced migration, what do justice-centred approaches to displacement look like? One possible approach calls for an almost paradoxical double-right: the right to stay, and the right to move.

The right to stay:

The opposite of displacement is emplacement: rooted connection within a territory, which requires the conditions necessary to reproduce life in it.

Yet, increasing fragility driven by climate violence has led to many communities being displaced in situ.

Loss of place, and its life-giving environment, leaves communities stranded in their own territories without the ability to sustain their livelihoods.

Resettlement and migration are often forwarded as a mitigation strategy, but what social, economic and political protections are needed for communities to live with dignity in their own homes?

Enshrining the right to stay involves everything to protect the rights of populations.

Enshrining the right to stay involves everything to protect the rights of populations: from bold climate mitigation measures to ensure a safe climate, to strengthened land rights for indigenous communities and smallholder farmers, to active policies to support rural communities, to debt relief measures for the Global South, and gender-sensitive strategies to protect women and girls.

The right to move:

But efforts to secure emplacement must live with the reality that significant displacement is underway and inevitable.

Even with current levels of global heating, many territories are destined to be unlivable, if not already unlivable.

The right to move is the right to have a pathway to safety, and mechanisms to rebuild a dignified life in a new territory. The obstacles to ‘the right to move’ are numerous.

Regimes of border imperialism, policing frontiers and criminalising those seeking to cross them in the hope of a better life, are being strengthened by the year.

Displaced communities today meet the reality of detention, deportation and death, whether in the marine graveyards of the Mediterranean, or the dangerous crossings of the Darien Strait.


Simply by extrapolating from the state of migrant rights protection today, we can easily envision a future of ‘climate apartheid’. 

In addition, the architecture of protection for climate refugees is minimal, although some early cornerstones are emerging. But even access to what is legally possible can be economically unrealistic.

One study of rural communities in Malawi found that ‘climate change is likely to increase barriers to migration rather than increasing migration flows.’

The aforementioned studies on attitudes towards migration across the Pacific found that the majority of people would not be able to afford the movement they deemed necessary.


Climate displacement will stretch the contours of migration in unprecedented ways, and many questions remain.

What kind of legal measures can protect the rights of those forced to uproot their lives by a systemic ecological crisis?

How can protect ‘new’ rights in a context where existing protections for migrants and refugees are being so swiftly eroded?

How can we address the cultural-spiritual challenge of belonging in a landscape that is continuously degrading and changing?

What is needed to face the challenge of changing demographic and social conditions in local communities receiving climate refugees, which in many cases are already facing significant climatic stress?

This Author

María Faciolince is the Power Shifts project lead at Oxfam, based in Barcelona, Spain. Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik is co-founder and co-editor at The World At 1C, based in Barcelona, Spain.


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