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Adaptation Strategies Should Factor in Migration


Today there are more people on the move than ever before: one in every seven persons is an international or internal migrant, and almost every country is simultaneously a country of origin, transit or destination. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) acknowledged migrants’ contributions to sustainable development and made reference to migrants’ rights. However, Rio+20 failed to further connect the dots between migration, development and adaptation to climate change.

These policy areas are the closely intertwined strands of a common thread. If we leave migrants out of the debate, we discard both a significant phenomenon and part of the solution.

Environmental migration, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, is a reality

Unpredictable weather patterns, increased occurrence of dramatic weather events, slow changes such as sea level rise, deforestation and land degradation, already induce human mobility. Certain geographical areas are more impacted than others, in particular low-elevation coastal zones, mountains and arid regions.

Confronted with climate and environmental degradation, many people are simply compelled to move. In 2011, 14.9 million people were internally displaced by natural disasters, with 89% of the displacement occurring in Asia (IDMC[1]).

Ironically, the search for greener pastures can take people to places that are already under environmental strain. For example, the Foresight[2] project showed that in Africa and Asia, population growth and migration will mean that up to 192 million more people will be living in urban coastal floodplains in Africa and Asia by 2060.

However, migration is not necessarily an indication of vulnerability to extreme events or to slow degradation. It can also be a sign of empowerment, search for a better life and thus a strategy of adaptation to climate change. Migration, as an income diversification strategy, can build population resilience to climate change. A recent IOM report in Tajikistan[3] shows for instance that labour migration is the most important means of adaptation to environmental degradation.

According to the 2011 Gallup Survey[4], one in ten people across the world say they will move because of the environment. Whether these people will indeed leave is not the question. The question is how to best manage environmental migration, in order to make it an informed, safe and voluntary choice.

Through work on the ground and with a membership of 146 States, IOM is direct witness to the growing impact of climate change on livelihoods and human mobility. In 2011, IOM’s membership approved the establishment of a Migration Emergency Funding Mechanism for both natural disasters and conflict emergencies, and devoted the International Dialogue on Migration (IDM) to building capacities to address migration in the context of climate change. Work continues in 2012 on managing migration crisis situations, through a comprehensive framework that also addresses forced migration due to natural disasters.

Migration related to environmental change and degradation is one of the most ancient forms of human mobility. However, awareness about migration in the context of climate change has reached the international agenda only in very recent years.

One explanation is that environmental migration can be described as a multi-causal phenomenon, where environmental factors mix with other economic, social, cultural, demographic and political dynamics; thus making it difficult to disentangle the environmental factors from others.

Countries most vulnerable to climate change talked about migration in relation to climate change for the first time in the 2011 Dhaka Ministerial Declaration of the Vulnerable Forum. Language on “migration, displacement and planned relocation” was integrated in the UNFCCC climate change negotiations text only in 2010. Cancun Paragraph 14F represented a turning point in terms of policy awareness of the topic.

If we are serious about managing the impacts of climate change on migration we need more capacities, funding and political will. If we are serious about implementing Paragraph 14F, activities addressing the challenges and opportunities of migration in the context of climate change should be eligible for adaptation funding.

Four programmes can offer practical solutions for further managing migration in the context of climate change

First, the Programme for Loss and Damage of the UNFCCC acknowledges that extreme events, as well as slow onset events lead to loss of lives, cultures, ecosystems and territories and therefore can generate displacement.

Second, the Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) framework for action provides the right tools to develop populations’ capacities to be better prepared in case of disaster.

Third, the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) can provide practical applications to help manage human mobility in the context of climate change.

Fourth, National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) represent a unique window of opportunity to support least developed and developing countries in their efforts to integrate human mobility into adaptation planning.

Last but not least, existing migratory frameworks dealing with migration should include environmental and climate change considerations. Migration can be facilitated via safe legal migration channels at bilateral, regional and international levels.

Migration is a mirror that reflects the complex human, social and economic faces of climate change. The onus is on us to ensure that it clearly reflects reality.


1] Global Estimates 2011, People Displaced by Natural Hazard Induced Disasters, Internal Monitoring Centre (IDMC) 2012

2] Foresight Report, United Kingdom (2011)

[3] Environmental Degradation, Migration, Internal Displacement and Rural Vulnerabilities in Tajikistan IOM (2012)

[4] Gallup World Poll: The Many Faces of Global Migration, MRS 43, IOM, (2011)


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