It is no longer in any doubt that environmental damage and climate change have consequences for migration. Nevertheless, the multiple causes of population movement make it difficult to label certain migrations as environmental, just as they hinder the implementation of legal tools designed to protect persons displaced for environmental reasons. Re-politicizing environmental migration is therefore crucial for devising public policies that are capable of supporting and protecting the most vulnerable.

A 2018 report by the World Bank estimated that between now and 2050, more than 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Asia and Latin America will be pushed to move within their country because of climate change. This study reflects the growing scientific and political attention to the link between migration and the environment. However, the multiple causes of population movement make it difficult to characterize environmental migration and bring into play the legal instruments designed to protect displaced persons for environmental reasons.

Projections for internal climate migration, 2018-2050

Source: World Bank, Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration, 2018

Comment: Climate migration primarily affects countries of the South and first and foremost the poorest and most vulnerable. The World Bank report used as a source for this graph focuses on Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. According to these forecasts, forced displacement within migrants’ own countries for environmental reasons between now and 2050 varies between 31 and 143 million. According to the reference scenario, the most pessimistic, sub-Saharan Africa will be the most affected, involving over 3% of the population of its states, in other words 71 million people.

Characterizing environmental migration

Humans have always moved for environmental reasons: to acquire better farmland, adapt to new climatic conditions or flee natural disasters such as the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 and the Dust Bowl in the 1930s in the United States. It was only during the course of the 1980s, when environmental and climatic problems became political and international issues, that the debate over environmental migration intensified.

Two schools of thought competed with one another: the maximalists with their alarmist discourse announced that there would be mass migrations due to worsening environmental damage, whereas minimalists considered the environment to be one factor of migration among others. While the former, who mainly consisted of environmental specialists, predicted there would be millions of “environmental refugees,” the more skeptical, who were mainly migration experts, warned against depoliticizing the causes of departure and weakening the asylum system by using this term.

Today, research has taken on board the complexity of the problem and explained the recent changes, which are linked to the increase in extreme climate events and to deeper structural causes connected with urbanization and socio-economic inequalities. It shows the multiple dimensions to be considered: distance (environmental migration is much more often internal than international); timeframe (is it a temporary or permanent move? Is it the result of slow deterioration or a one-off event?); the conditions surrounding the move (is it forced? voluntary? accompanied? legal?). This has given rise to the following working definition, formulated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM): “Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

Challenges of projection and protection

Although it is no longer disputed that environmental damage and climate change have consequences for migration, producing precise data remains difficult. According to the IOM, forecasts vary between 25 million and 1 billion environmental migrants between now and 2050, the most often quoted estimate being 200 million. Because there are numerous factors involved, access to some regions is difficult, and migration has a potentially temporary dimension, it is not easy to produce a detailed breakdown of past migrations or to make projections. The accurate data that exist are mainly for moves that have occurred after natural disasters : according to the IDMC (International Displacement Monitoring Centre), since 2008, sudden disasters have caused an average of 25.3 million displacements per year.

Persons displaced due to natural disasters, 2008-2017

Source: IDMC,

Comment: This map shows estimates of the number of persons displaced per country due to natural disasters between 2008 and 2017. With the exception of the United States and Japan, natural disasters cause many more displacements in countries of the South, particularly Asia: more than 70 million within ten years in China, and more than 30 million over the same period in India and the Philippines. These per-country totals nevertheless mask geographies that are specific to the three top disasters (floods, storms, and earthquakes).

Displaced persons by type of natural disaster, 2008-2016

Source: IDMC ,

Comment: The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) calculates its estimates of internal displacements caused by natural disasters from many different sources (government authorities, international organizations, NGOs, the media, etc.). Although droughts are not included, floods appear to be the prime cause of displacement linked to global disasters between 2008 and 2016, followed by storms and then earthquakes.

Problems of projection are compounded by questions of legal protection. While the island states of the Pacific might cause the first “ persons made stateless by climat,” to appear, no international legal agreement protects the rights of environmental migrants. Some states, however, have accorded a temporary right of asylum to the victims of natural disasters, various regional documents on human rights contain provisions regarding environmental displacement, and the Nansen has produced a Protection Agenda for displacements linked to disasters, ratified by 109 governments.

There is therefore no official legal status to protect the climate refugee. However, has shown how such a figure can be exploited for political ends. First of all, some have depicted climate refugees as representing a threat to the security of developed countries, with the aim of alerting these countries to the urgent climate situation. In response to this neo-Malthusian approach, a second discourse, supported by NGOs and developing countries such as Bangladesh, has demanded basic rights for these “first climate victims.” A third discourse has transformed this status of passive victim into that of a resilient entrepreneur who emigrates in order to adapt. Although initially supported by the scientific community, this last perspective was later criticized for justifying relocation policies and laying responsibility at the door of the poor. Re-politicization of the environmental migration issue is therefore central to formulating public policies and creating legal instruments that are equal to the task of supporting and protecting the most vulnerable.

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