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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 64 - Friday, 27 February 2009
Climate Change and Migration: Reflections on Policy Needs1
Reflections prepared for MEA Bulletin - By Dr. Koko Warner, with Dr. Tamer Afifi, Ms. Olivia Dun and
Mr. Marc Stal Section on Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability, and Adaptation -
What, if anything, makes climate change induced migration unique? Are there aspects that require different responses than currently exist?

Environmentally induced migration is one example of complex and changing human-environmental systems (Berkes et al. 2003, Young et al. 2009, Gunderson and Holling 2002). Today, environmental change including climate change presents a new situation for human mobility embedded in coupled social-ecological systems (Castles 2002, IOM 2007, Lonergan 1998, Warner et al. 2008). By 2050, when human population is projected to peak, some 9 billion people will live on Earth. The majority of them will live in urban areas with crushing environmental footprints. Many megacities are located in areas prone to sea level rise. Climate change will visit urban and rural areas alike with increasingly frequent and violent hazard events. Flooding, intense storms or droughts, or more gradual but similarly intense changes in regional climates, place great stress on livelihood systems.

Mitigation of greenhouse gases will likely be insufficient to avoid global temperature increases of 2°C or more, making adaptation a necessity at all scales. Faced with an unconceivable scale of environmental change, migration may be an adjustment mechanism of first resort, or a survival mechanism of last resort (Bogardi and Warner 2008). Migration may be an adaptation mechanism for those with the resources to move early and far enough away from danger. Alternatively, in extreme cases and for those with fewer means to move, migration may be an expression of failed adaptation (IOM 2008, Renaud et al. 2007, Afifi and Warner 2009, Dun and Gemenne 2008, Stojanov 2008).

While awareness of the complexity of the social challenges associated with global environmental change grows, so does the diversity and fragmentation of institutional arrangements to address them. Nonetheless, it is not clear whether the current governance systems suffice to address the many issues that environmentally-induced migration raises, or whether new governance modes are needed (Pierre and Peters 2005, Biermann 2007, Galaz et al. 2008). It is therefore useful to discuss the implications of these global environmental and societal changes in the context of governance systems.

To what extent are the current international legal frameworks and operational mechanisms adapted to address the situation? What are the legal, operational and capacity gaps?

In this context, we define governance broadly as the regulation of interdependent relations in the absence of an overarching political authority, in part due to the many levels and actors, and also including an element of power and interest (Young 2002, 2004). Currently, many different international agreements, guiding principles, norms and institutions shape governance of human mobility.

A partial list of these governance “tools” includes the 1951 UN Convention and 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees (UNHCR), which is well established but does not clearly offer protection for those affected by environmental factors. Similarly, the guiding principles on internal displacement ((United Nations Commission for Human Rights 1998, Kalin 2000) do not address the full range of environmental variables that also bear on displacement. More generally, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Migration Working Group surveyed the limitations of international cooperation on human mobility (Ghosh 2000). The ILO has concluded conventions on the rights of migrant workers (such as the UN Convention on Protection of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, adopted on 18 December 1990, and a series of ILO Conventions and Recommendations). Yet member states (especially destination states) have not widely subscribed to these conventions. Under the WTO´s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), about 100 member states have made commitments to temporary admission of foreign nationals who provide services on a short-term basis and for highly skilled professionals.

These agreements, however, do not involve significant commitments on the part of a majority of countries to accept labor migration, let alone other forms of mobility including those discussed in this paper. Worldwide, numerous national, regional and international systems exist to address the humanitarian and other aspects related to natural hazards, both rapid-onset and slow-onset. On the side of global environmental change, a wide array of local, national and international rules, norms, treaties and organizations exist, but few have explicitly considered the interactions of ecosystems and human mobility (Brown 2008, Warner et al. 2008, Kolmanskogg 2008). In the current governance structure, country interests (especially that of industrialized countries) and the implicit system of reciprocity in international negotiations provides few incentives for active leadership in reshaping governance for human mobility and environmental change.

To what extent are governments and humanitarian actors prepared to address the challenges and cope with what may be a rapidly developing issue?

Migration has yet to be discussed systematically within the context of adaptation strategies to environmental and climate change. Some characterize migration as a failure of adaptation, rather than as a form of adaptation. Yet studies have found that migration is often a proactive risk diversification strategy for households facing environmental stressors amidst a range of other risks that must be managed at the same time (Berkes and Jolly 2001, Hussein and Nelson 1998). Both migrants and those who remain behind in environmentally stressed areas are agents with strategies and skills to respond to those stressors (Fussel and Klein 2006). Migrants often remain linked to communities that remain behind, whether as individual migrants or as larger groups such as environmentally displaced people. These links may be material (remittances), cultural/social or political, and shape the resilience and adaptation capacity of both those who leave and those who stay (Adger 2001). A consideration of thresholds and critical tipping points of social and natural systems would help move discussions about environmentally induced migration closer to adaptation. These points raise implications for migration and relocation in adaptation plans. However, governments do not (yet) widely view migration as an adaptation alternative, and very few National Adaptation Plans (NAPAs) mention migration or relocation options.

Opportunities and challenges

An opportunity and challenge for governance systems is to create policies and actions that flexibly address migration and environmental change, which in themselves are highly dynamic and nonlinear processes. This may mean a combination of approaches that have been shown effective in the past, including: improving education and training that facilitate access to alternative livelihoods in communities affected by environmental change; technical measures that complement better resource and land management; and enhancing access to other types of risk management tools such as risk sharing, risk transfer or insurance. Governance systems today have experience addressing these kinds of adaptation/development activities and can engage in such as “no regret” measures.

“New” approaches require exploration and discussion

Some approaches that have not yet been widely explored are also a needed part of governance responses in the future (Warner and Laczko 2008b). For example, migration and environment policies are currently rising separately on global agendas, but little has been done to link the two policy domains, either at the global, regional or national level. Adaptation and resilience are often discussed in terms of impacts on sectors, while what may be needed in the future is an understanding of adaptation and resilience that is much wider and holistic in scope (Pelling and High 2005, Few 2003, Paavola and Adger 2006).

The issue is complicated by the fact that, in the case of migration, both international migration policy responses and policies to address internal migration are involved. Policy dialogue, especially at the national level, is needed to understand how climate change impacts affect livelihood potential. It would be useful to provide a dialogue platform for exchange about the experiences in countries that are already using resettlement programs as a response to environmental stressors. Migration is a livelihood issue not only reflecting where people are emigrating from, but also where they are immigrating to. Relatively little is known about the longer-term capacity of sending and receiving countries to accommodate larger numbers of (environmentally forced or motivated) migrants, the political, cultural and economic tasks associated with such issues, nor the legal arrangements that might be needed to facilitate peaceful and systematic relocation of groups in the face of global environmental change.

Are new modes of governance needed to address environmentally induced migration?

Current institutional frameworks for managing migration and environmental change divide institutional management and responsibility along lines of environmental, migration and humanitarian needs (Boano et al. 2008). Likewise for governments, many of the environmental stressors they face within their territories result from transboundary issues including river delta management, desertification, and climate change. Responses and management often occur within a country’s borders and within specific ministerial lines (i.e. environment ministry, agricultural ministry, disaster management, immigration services, etc.) (Vlassopoulos 2008). This structure is partly suitable to address some forms of environmentally induced migration. For example, following rapid onset disasters, governments and humanitarian organizations mobilize to provide assistance to environmental emergency migrants on a largely short-term basis.

For longer-term displacement, however, assistance of different forms and of a more durable nature may be required. Institutional responsibility and governance become more blurred for slow onset events such as drought. The multiple causal links and difficulty of identifying the start of slow onset events such as drought until it escalates into crisis make governance of human mobility challenging for current institutions. Migration may occur, and vulnerability (both for those that depart and those that remain behind), often rises (see e.g. preliminary field results from EACH-FOR case studies in Niger (Afifi 2009B), the Vietnam Mekong River Delta (Dun 2009), and Egypt (Afifi 2009A) 2008. The nuances of environmentally-motivated and forced migration are manifestations of multilevel and non-linear coupled human-environmental systems. Effective governance will take more than matching institutions to the behaviour of ecological systems or to manage how institutions interact with each other

Climate change in particular demands new governance approaches for human mobility. The environmental driving variables are negative externalities caused by green house gas emissions (worldwide, but particularly in industrialized countries), while migration of this nature will occur primarily in developing countries. This combines with other driving variables of migration such as rapid urbanization and demographic shifts, local land use patterns, shifts in employment patterns and social structures, and economic and food crises (some of a global nature and some localized). Silos of institutional management will be hard pressed to effectively address the needs of migrants and their families if the wider context of resilience and adaptation is not considered.

Some facets of the current governance system may actively encourage myopic approaches to complexity. This highlights the role of social framing of system boundaries and risks (Scoones et al. 2007, Stirling and Smith 2007). For example, some NGOs and groups framed questions of accountability for climate change almost wholly in terms of the responsibility of industrialized countries to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Only until recently has a place been made for discussing how countries will cope or adapt with abrupt, uncertain change in a globalized and highly networked society (cf? Held 2000). The action of some groups within the current governance framework effectively delayed the discussion about resilience building and adaptation in general, and the question of human mobility particularly, while actual global environmental changes have developed nonlinearly and quickly.

Balanced approaches to confront climate change and migration

A mix of approaches and actions is now needed to confront human mobility coupled with global environmental change. Climate-related stressors combined with ecosystem change, such as sea level rise, and rapid-onset events, such as flooding, have the potential to drive migration or prompt national governments to plan for the relocation and resettlement of affected populations. Progress in five areas will help shape a new governance mode for the nuanced forms of human mobility and environmental change (Renaud et al. 2007).

Scientific basis. As the window for identifying appropriate adaptation pathways for climate change narrows, it is imperative to improve understanding about how changing environmental conditions affects individual and group decisions to migrate. Robust definitions can facilitate identification, measurement, characterization and appropriate policy responses. A new level of policy and scientific attention to this issue is required to identify the policy alternatives that  smooth the way forward and avoid tensions or even conflict over natural and social resources.

Multi-level awareness and adaptation. Knowledge about environmental degradation and climate change can arm governments, migrants and potential migrants against losses in human security. At the national level, countries must understand how environmental processes and environmental quality affect the living standards of their populations. As some environments become inhospitable to human habitation, people will be pushed to move elsewhere where their locally-specific knowledge may no longer apply. Displaced people may not always receive the support they need in their places of destination. Governance structures should facilitate awareness of human mobility adaptation alternatives, as well as maladaptive options and their consequences.

Improving legal frameworks. At the regional level, multilateral dialogue will be necessary about how to address, coordinate and ease environmental pressures as well as migration that results in part because of climate change. Policy and legal frameworks need to address environmentally-induced migration as well as resilience building in areas where people could become mobile due in part to environmental problems. Frameworks must be established for helping not only individuals and groups induced to migrate because of environmental change, and to address vulnerabilities that can drive both mobility and ecological degradation. New legal frameworks require flexibility, as well as appropriate tools to decriminalize human mobility while simultaneously addressing criminal activities such as human trafficking.

Adequate humanitarian response. Gradual and sudden environmental changes will result in substantial human movements and displacements, and these situations will require sufficient and timely humanitarian efforts to avoid escalating crises. It is essential to enable organizations such as the UNHCR, the IFRCRC and the IOM to effectively fulfil their mandates in helping different parts of the population of people on the move. Natural disasters may displace larger numbers of people for relatively short periods of time, while the steady and continuous impact of climatic drivers is likely to permanently displace many more people in a less visible way. In the face of environmental stressors, people in Egypt, Mozambique and the Mekong Delta have already adapted by migration and will do so in the future in many other locations. Beyond an humanitarian response, an integrated adaptation framework is needed with a focus on resilience.

Strengthening institutions and policies. Institutions in both source and receiving countries should work together to ensure safe, non-criminal and orderly migration relations. The magnitude of future environmentally-induced migration depends in part on longer term environmental and development policies.

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1 These answers are based on a forthcoming paper by Warner (2009) in a special journal edition of Global Environmental Change. More information on UNU-EHS´s work on environmental change and migration can be found at,, and These thoughts are a reflection of the teamwork of a larger network of colleagues. Professor Janos J. Bogardi, Dr. Fabrice Renaud, Dr. Tamer Afifi, Ms. Olivia Dun, Mr. Marc Stal and numerous other colleagues from the IOM and other academic, international, and operational organizations have contributed valuably to the understanding of environmental and climatic change and human mobility.
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