GPO 2023

Walking the talk of environmental migration in 2023

As the effects of climate change are transforming migration patterns worldwide, 2023 could be the year when more states implement solutions for environmental migration, by choice or by necessity.

Geneva Policy Outlook
Jan 30, 2023
7 min read
Photo by YODA Adaman / Unsplash

By Manuel Marques Pereira and Ileana Sinziana Puscas

Migration linked to the environment is not a new phenomenon. People have always moved to save their lives or in search of greener pastures and alternative livelihoods. The Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 left the mediaeval city in ruins, with an estimated 85% of the buildings destroyed and thousands displaced in makeshifts of canvas and wood. It also catalysed a reckoning between science and the divine across Europe and in Portugal on the origins of the disaster and the mitigation needed to avert future disasters. Immemorial is also the example of pastoralism in Africa, which witnessed people moving in the search of greener pastures since the domestication of cattle thousands of years ago. The seasonal movement of livestock is now changing as herders are moving much earlier in the agricultural season from North to South due to the changing climate. The dynamics (scale, patterns) of these movements are further impacted by the presence of national borders and land privatisation.

What is new about environmental migration is the political attention given to the topic since the mid-2000s. The increasing adverse impacts of climate change have put the environment on the global agenda, with world leaders annually negotiating binding agreements under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This culminated in the adoption of the 2015 Paris Agreement, a historical step for decarbonization and the first climate agreement to acknowledge the human rights of migrants. At the same time, the 2015 Mediterranean migration crisis raised the importance of safe, orderly and regular international migration. This led to the negotiation and adoption of the first ever global migration agreement, the 2018 Global Compact for Migration (GCM), which importantly, acknowledges the environment as a driver of migration.

Between 2008 and 2018, an average of 24 million internal displacements took place in the context of disasters. In 2021 alone, 23.7 million people were internally displaced as a result of disasters. Projections for 2050 show that some 216 million people could become internal climate migrants if we do not take decisive climate action.

More attention has been given to environmental migration also due to future projections showing abnormal scales and patterns of environmental migration compared to estimates of current movements. Internal migration, in particular, is shown to be peaking in current and future scenarios. Between 2008 and 2018, an average of 24 million internal displacements took place in the context of disasters. In 2021 alone, 23.7 million people were internally displaced as a result of disasters. Projections for 2050 show that some 216 million people could become internal climate migrants if we do not take decisive climate action.

While these figures are recent, the evidence is not. The first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 1990 already showed (and re-confirmed in its 2022 report), that climate change acts as a risk multiplier. Climate change intensifies and increases the frequency of natural hazards, thus impacting migration patterns and exacerbating socio-economic vulnerabilities and governance gaps.

The attention to the links between migration and the environment is poised to only increase in the coming years. This is in part due to the visibility that new media tools and channels give to the devastating impacts of climate change, but also because climate change is increasingly linked to security concerns, a subject on many national agendas. Another facet is the public’s increased awareness and demand of politicians to anchor environmental migration on national, regional and international agendas.

It is evident that environmental migration was a prominent topic in 2022. Governments, UN and civil society rallied around environmental migration in all major 2022 policy fora and around the multiple disasters seen throughout the year globally. Large scale disasters, such as the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa, floods in Pakistan and cyclones in Bangladesh and Philippines, lead to millions being on the move. The year also closed with images of people having lost their life or being trapped in their homes by the deadly blizzard hitting North America.

On the policy scene, five key milestones stood out in 2022 regarding environmental migration. Firstly, states recognized the need for better water development in rural areas to help livelihoods and curb irregular migration at the March World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal. Secondly, at the May 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire States re-acknowledged desertification as a driver of forced migration and decided to address the drivers of migration via sustainable land management, land restoration as well as green jobs and livelihoods for vulnerable populations. Thirdly, the May Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (GP22/GPDRR), the forum monitoring the implementation of the Sendai Framework, recommended addressing displacement risk and including it in disaster risk reduction policies and strategies. Fourthly, the need for more regular pathways for migration in the context of disasters, climate change and environmental degradation was called for by states at the May International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) in New York, USA, the forum to assess progress on the GCM. Finally and perhaps most importantly, the November 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) to the UNFCCC, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, took decisions on several areas relevant to migration (implementation, loss and damage, adaptation, financing). In particular, the decision to establish new funding arrangements, including a fund, to address loss and damage associated with climate change included migration, which creates a potential avenue for more climate finance for migration solutions.

These milestones are important as they offer a palette of solutions to environmental migration, stemming from global political and binding commitments to be implemented at local, national and regional levels. What is more, throughout the decisions, the importance of several overarching trends came through, including accounting for urban-rural dynamics, using nature-based solutions, the importance of working hand in hand with migrants, and the key role of women and youth in finding comprehensive solutions. These five achievements were brought together at the 113th Session of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Council in December 2022, in Geneva, Switzerland, which dedicated its annual high-level segment to the intersection between climate change, food security, migration and displacement. It was in this forum that states connected these five key milestones of 2022 on migration and the environment, laying out a coherent policy narrative on the topic, a need we have seen pending for many years. This coherence showed the first signs of institutionalising the topic of environmental migration.

2023 could be the year when we witness the institutionalisation of the agenda on environmental migration.

This has the potential to make environmental migration a long-lasting part of public policy work. It could take the form of increased human and financial resources specifically for environmental migration, creating inter-ministerial mechanisms to find solutions for environmental migration, making a standing agenda item on environmental migration in regional political bodies, or making political declarations and programmatic commitments to address environmental migration.

The institutionalisation process could also drive more action on environmental migration, by choice or by necessity. Such action usually targets one or more of the three types of solutions for environmental migration: i) solutions for people to stay, making migration a choice by building resilience to natural hazards and addressing the adverse climatic and environmental drivers that compel people to move; ii) solutions for people on the move, intended to assist and protect migrants and displaced persons in the context of climate change, environmental degradation, and disasters; and iii) solutions for people to move, enabling to manage migration in the context of climate change, environmental degradation, and disasters. These solutions can be transformed into institutional multi-year programmes and workstreams by states and other relevant stakeholders, a step that is still lagging behind policy commitments.

As more financing and political awareness is generated, these solutions have gained momentum for implementation in 2023.

Increasingly, climate, development and humanitarian financing is linked to environmental migration, with countries contributing to the GCM Fund, and making pledges for loss and damage, among others. Most prominently, the UN Secretary General Climate Ambition Summit in September 2023 in New York, USA and the setting up of the loss and damage funding arrangements (for which negotiations will take place in 2023), have the potential to turn the tables on the resources and political will available for environmental migration policy development and action.

Political awareness and efforts on environmental migration peaked last year and will have ramifications in 2023 too. The 2022 Kampala Ministerial Declaration, bringing together East Africa’s priorities on migration, environment and climate change, will have an accelerated implementation in 2023 towards COP28. The EU Working Document, framing the region’s approach to disaster displacement abroad, will see its application in the Geneva-based Platform on Disaster Displacement, chaired by the EU in 2023. The Pacific Climate Mobility Framework, drafted in 2022, has entered a formal adoption process in 2023 in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), leading the way on implementing solutions. Argentina's new migration law, which could allow environmental migrants to enter and stay in Argentina, may influence a similar approach across MERCOSUR, given Argentina’s 2023 Presidency.

The acceleration of action is driven by the ever-increasing adverse effects of climate change and a socially induced “prise de conscience” at political level on the need for safe, regular and orderly migration.

To conclude, environmental migration may be a historical phenomenon, but new ways and means to address and manage it are being put forward. The acceleration of action is driven by the ever-increasing adverse effects of climate change and a socially induced “prise de conscience” at political level on the need for safe, regular and orderly migration. Investments should continue to be made in policy coherence and the systematisation of initiatives on environmental migration. Stakeholders in Geneva could use the Geneva-based fora towards these goals too. Opportunities include the annual human rights and climate change resolutions in the Human Rights Council (HRC), the regular IPCC meetings in Switzerland, the preparatory work towards the 2024 Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), the IOM Council and the Global Refugee Forum (GRF).

About the Authors

Manuel Marques Pereira is the Head of the Migration, Environment, Climate Change and Risk Reduction Division of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). He is an expert with over 15 years of operational experience in some of the most acute migration crises in the world, including most recently, the Rohingya crisis.

Ileana Sinziana Puscas is a Thematic Specialist on Migration, Environment, Climate Change and Risk Reduction with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). She is a policy expert, with over 7 years of experience in migration, environment and climate change policy and programming.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Geneva Policy Outlook or its partner organisations.