Throughout history, people have moved to secure their lives and livelihoods. But migration is not just a survival strategy; it can also spur economic growth and ensure greater political freedom.
People migrate to escape persecution or conflict, to seek a better life, or to be closer to family. Environmental changes — like drought or floods — have always played a role in the decision to leave home. But as human activities degrade the planet’s resources and accelerate climate change, these factors are reshaping migration patterns.
Extreme weather events already displace more people every year than all the world’s conflicts combined. The impacts of climate change undermine livelihoods, driving some to seek a living elsewhere. And where temperatures and sea levels are rising rapidly, people may be forced to flee their sinking shores.
As their environment deteriorates, people may adapt by choosing to migrate. Once in their new homes, they may be able to help those they left behind by sending money, goods, and skills.
But not everyone can or wants to migrate. Some are deeply attached to their homeland. Others do not need to leave because they have the resources to cope with the environmental challenges. And sometimes people who would like to move are trapped by their physical and financial limitations.
Around 20 million pastoralists live in the arid and semi-arid areas of Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Uganda, where they raise and sell livestock. For thousands of years, pastoralists and their herds have moved seasonally in search of more abundant water and grazing land.
However, Africa’s colonial rulers placed restrictions on pastoralists’ nomadic way of life, establishing national borders that cut through customary pastoralist areas. Today, conflicts, crime, and terrorist groups in the region have made it even harder to move freely. At the same time, pastoralists are often marginalised and subject to discrimination, further limiting the places where their livestock can graze.
Climate change is multiplying these challenges. During three years of consecutive drought (2014-2016), traditional migration patterns were useless, as water and cattle fodder diminished drastically across the region, forcing many pastoralists to sell their livestock. To avoid hunger and destitution, some fled the drought-stricken areas for refugee camps, including the world’s largest, Dadaab in northern Kenya. Others, lacking alternatives, turned to criminal and sometimes violent livelihoods, such as banditry and cattle rustling, spurring new conflicts and displacing even more people.
Where do you go when your (is)land disappears?
Island nations and coastal regions around the world are already suffering the effects of climate change. In Fiji, rising sea levels and storm-driven flooding are submerging the land and endangering livelihoods. In response, the government is relocating whole communities further inland or to other islands.
In 2014 the ﬁrst village to relocate — Vunidogoloa, on the coast of Fiji’s Vanua Levu island — moved two kilometres inland when other adaptation measures, such as placing houses on stilts or building seawalls, proved futile. The villagers were reluctant to leave their homes, due to their strong personal and spiritual connections to Vunidogoloa.
The process, which included moving the village’s cemetery, was emotionally and economically challenging, as well as very lengthy — plans to resettle Vunidogoloa date back to 1956. Given the challenges faced by this one small community, relocating the populations of entire islands or high-risk areas of coastal megacities will be a staggering task.
One of the world’s most populous countries, Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly cyclones and floods. Rising sea levels threaten the low-lying country, a quarter of which is less than a metre above sea level.
Bangladesh’s rural poor have been hit especially hard. As disasters become more frequent and severe, saltwater intrusion and droughts degrade their land and fresh water, causing crops to fail and water supplies to run short. Under these harsh conditions, many poor farmers are moving to the country’s big cities in search of new jobs and a better life.
As a result, the population of the country’s capital Dhaka — one of the world’s fastest growing megacities — almost doubled from 10.3 million inhabitants in 2000 to 18.2 million in 2016. Dhaka has not handled its rapid growth well: about 40 percent of its residents live in slums without proper housing or sufﬁcient sanitation. Fleeing the impacts of climate change, these new city-dwellers end up in living situations that are just as precarious as the homes they left behind.
Climate change and migration
People can be forced to move by armed conflict, political unrest, hazards (chemical, nuclear or natural), famine, or large-scale infrastructure or development projects. Most people who are forcibly displaced move from dangerous to safer areas within their own countries, a process known as ‘internal displacement’. Find more information in the 2018 Global Report on Internal Displacement, compiled by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
A closer look: gender and migration
No simple solution
While most people seek shelter within their own countries, some look for safety in other nations. People who move to new countries due to extreme weather are not protected by the international refugee convention, which only covers people fleeing violence or political persecution.
The Nansen Initiative, led by a group of nine countries, is the ﬁrst major international effort to focus on forced cross-border migration following natural hazard-induced disasters. The initiative led to the Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate, which was endorsed by 109 countries in 2015. The initiative’s Platform on Disaster Displacement helps governments and civil society develop concrete actions to fulﬁl this agenda.