© 2016 / Samuel Turpin

It cannot reasonably be assumed that climate change is the only cause of current and future migratory movements." GIEC 

The conclusions of scientific studies into the climate are indisputable: global warming of more than 2°C by the end of the century would have a catastrophic effect on the environment and on human activities as a whole. We can now clearly demonstrate the link between migratory movements and the effects of climate change on the ecosphere.

Since 2008, 26 million people per year on average have had to leave their home because of the degradation of their environment and natural disasters. This is three times more than migration caused by conflicts in the world. Millions of people are left destitute and end up forced to change their lives because of rising water levels, long recurrent droughts, soil acidity, the melting of the polar ice, soil depletion and pollution, and local weather events.


It cannot reasonably be assumed that climate change is the only cause of current and future migratory movements.

What is certain, on the other hand, is that environmental stress has a significant catalysing effect on other political, economic, social, demographic and security factors which cause movements of people. All of these factors are categorically interdependent.


Between 2008 and 2014, around 185 million people were displaced by environmental phenomena. More than 26 million per year on average." IDMC/OIM


A world in flux



More than a billion people in the world are currently on the move, either inside the borders of their home country or outside. One in seven people. The forms this takes, the routes and causes of current migratory movements are generally more diversified than just 30 years ago.

People migrate for demographic, political, security, economic, social and environmental reasons; temporarily or permanently; voluntarily or against their will; alone (to support their family) or with family members – not forgetting “comfort migrants”, seeking warmer conditions for their retirement.

Today it’s difficult to gauge the number of migrations caused by the environmental factor alone. Paradoxically, it is easier to put a number to the migratory movements caused by major natural disasters than “slow-impact” phenomena (such as drought or extreme temperatures).

Firstly, because the phenomenon in general is not adequately documented, because the countries – notably the poorest ones that are the most severely affected – do not have the statistical resources required, and also because it is difficult to isolate the environmental factor as the sole cause of migration. It is very often linked to other factors, notably the economic factor.

The risks posed by climate change affect all countries and continents. However, they have a more severe effect on disadvantaged people and communities, who lack the opportunities and alternatives to adapt and survive." IDMC/OIM

We now know with certainty that phenomena linked to climate change and the part it plays in the rapid transformation of the environment are among the causes of the migratory crisis affecting the world today. The effects of climate change – even with the recent Paris agreement aiming to restrict the increase in global warming to 2°C – will undoubtedly exacerbate worldwide geophysical and climatic phenomena and will have a catalysing effect on the other migration factors, triggering mass population movements over the coming decades.


We also know that in the near future people’s lifestyles will be affected by rising waters, coastal erosion, ocean acidification and soil salinization, drought, species extinctions and natural geophysical and climatic disasters, which will become increasingly severe.


The term ‘climate refugee’ is therefore not appropriate when this narrow definition is applied. Those who abandon their home for environmental reasons cannot claim the status of refugee.” . UNHCR



A difficult definition



Human migrations have been linked to the environment since the very beginning. The phenomenon is not a new one. Human history is brimming with examples of migratory movements linked to climatic and environmental phenomena. People have gradually moved towards areas where the climatic conditions were the most favourable to them, and the natural resources the most abundant. Political awareness of the importance of this factor, on the other hand, is very recent.

The first theories on migratory movements, developed in the late 19th Century, took environmental conditions into account as a “factor of migration”. This element was rapidly dropped from studies, however, reappearing only at the beginning of the 1990s. Migratory policy models today are based mainly on a dual concept: migrants are either forced to flee for political reasons (threats) and/or security reasons (conflicts) and may then qualify for the right to asylum in a host country and international protection, with the status of “refugee”, or they migrate “voluntarily” (for economic and/or social reasons) and in this case they cannot claim “refugee” status.


However, this philosophical and semantic dividing line may well no longer stand up to scrutiny in the light of contemporary migratory phenomena, in which environmental, economic, political and security factors are becoming closely linked and interdependent.

At present there is no legal, internationally-accepted definition of an “environmental migrant”. It is often the definition of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that is most frequently used.  This is an indication of the difficulty and the caution characteristic of this issue.

Those viewed as environmental migrants are people or groups of people who basically are forced to leave their normal home or leave it on their own initiative, temporarily or permanently, essentially for reasons linked to sudden or gradual environmental change that negatively impact on their lives or their living conditions, and who consequently migrate within their country or leave it ». OIM

This definition is challenged by part of the academic community with regard to one particular point, because it essentially affects a large number of people and therefore is likely to frighten certain governments, reducing their willingness to take people in and combined efforts made to tackle the problem. It is clearly not just a matter of semantics. It is also a very political issue, because the actions taken in response to it and the responsibilities of the parties involved depend on this definition. At this present time, nobody wants to risk taking a definite decision and everyone is happy with the ambiguity maintained by a deliberately flexible definition.


we must also consider that one of the serious strategies for adapting to the effects of climate change will be anticipating and organizing mass migratory movements». OIM

Migration is a political issue. Climate questions, environmental questions, and access to natural resources are also major issues on the geopolitical table.

A chronological analysis of the debate on environmental migrations since the mid-20th Century points to very entrenched political positions and constructs, which have sometimes had a counterproductive effect on public opinion, leaving an impression of bickering between scientists, sceptics and “scaremongering activists”.




A political issue

Can it be said that the current migrations are an inevitable consequence of climate change and environmental transformation, with a disastrous outcome in the making? Not only that - but it is now an established fact that the effects of climate change will lead to large-scale population movements.


Can organized, anticipated migration become a solution to climate change? This is in fact a hypothesis to be considered, with the risk, from a strictly geopolitical point of view, that these movements could be classified and exploited as a threat to security and stability which could lead to competition for natural resources and political and social conflict. The debate overlooks – often deliberately – positive contributions by migrants to local economies and in their country of origin.


The “organization” of migratory movements will also lead to a new debate, that of voluntary migration and forced migration. From an ethical point of view, can people be forced to leave their home, sometimes an ancestral home, with no consideration for the spiritual dimension involved? While migrants are vulnerable, those who choose to stay on the spot will certainly be even more so. At the risk of being punished. On the other hand, we can see how the process of adaptation could be subverted to drive entire unwanted communities out of an area.

Based on global warming simulations, it is believed that the lives of around 200 million people will be directly affected by 2050 and they will find themselves forced to migrate."






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