Environmental Migration: How Climate Change Drives Human Mobility


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When we think about climate change, we think about polar bears and melting icecaps. And while we should definitely address global warming, 22 million people are displaced every year on average due to deforestation, flooding or other natural phenomena resulting in environmental migration.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines environmental migrants as “persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move within their country or abroad.”

In 2018, a total of 17.2 million people in 144 countries became environmental migrants with most of the displacements taking place in the Philippines, China and India.

Let’s take a closer look.

Leading up to environmental migration

Hurricanes and earthquakes aside, minor changes in a region’s topography or ecosystem can threaten the livelihood of those who live off of the land.

In Senegal, for instance, many are displaced due to fertile lands being absorbed by the Sahara Desert. The deforestation is currently being fought with agroforestry, but many have had to abandon their villages in the meantime.

Currently, the IOM has tracked over 28.5 million displaced people around the world finding Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia to be the most displacement-prone regions, as shown below.

(via IOM)

Well-managed migration

It is estimated that by 2050, 143 million people would have migrated due to changes in the environment. Thus, there is no denying that many communities worldwide will continue to face environmental migration.

That being said, relocation could be a sustainable solution if managed adequately.

Organizations such as the Platform on Disaster Displacement work to ensure the best practices proposed in the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda are implemented wherever possible. The agenda prioritizes three areas: data collection for knowledge accumulation, enhancing the use of humanitarian protection measures and improving the management of disaster displacement risk in any given country.

Aiding those affected by environmental migration will depend on both our ability to create spaces for those without a home and our commitment to rebuilding and restoring those areas affected by natural disasters or climate change.


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