Migration and Climate Change: Shoring Up Communities and Commitments

, ,

  • 2016•10•17

    Julia Blocher and Cosmin Corendea

    World leaders gathered in New York on 19 September 2016 for a summit on large movements of refugees and migrants. This article is part of a United Nations University Migration Network series which reflects on the challenges and opportunities of the summit from various critical perspectives: migration governance and policy; forced migration; migration and environment; migration and health; migration and culture; and migration and development.


    In early September 2016, China and the United States – the two biggest producers of greenhouse gases — signed the Paris Agreement on climate change. It was a historic moment for the United Nations, for communities on the “front line”, and for millions of people already displaced by climate change.

    Why is it so important to cut global emissions? Because climate change reduces or reverses development through loss of resources and infrastructure; and because it forces millions of people to flee their homes, requiring them to adapt to new societies and unknown challenges.

    While migration is often presented as a failure to adapt to changing conditions, scholars increasingly recognise migration as a powerful adaptation strategy. There is therefore a need to better support and regulate migration at both the regional and global levels — a need felt most keenly in states on the front line of climate change, mainly developing countries.

    For example, US financial and political support for “climate-resilience programmes” in the Pacific Islands would help boost preparedness and reduce uncertainty. However, this long-term struggle requires more than bilateral aid from major donors. It requires a global migration compact — a comprehensive agreement for human mobility amid growing environmental challenges.

    Helping migrants to help their communities

    The summit’s draft outcome document is a roadmap for talks on the proposed migration compact. In line with past practice, it builds on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, welcomes the Paris Agreement, and reaffirms the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA).

    Crucially, the Action Agenda recognises the contribution of migrants to inclusive growth and sustainable development in the countries of origin, transit, and destination. Here, the evidence is clear: migrants contribute financially, materially, and/or politically to their home communities, not only in the wake of natural disasters, but also in support of longer-term development and resilience-building efforts. To further promote these contributions, the AAAA and Sustainable Development Goal 10.c commit states to reduce the cost of migrant remittances to less than 3% of the amounts transferred by 2030.

    A global compact would go further in seeking to maximise the scope and benefits of social remittances – that is, the skills and knowledge that migrants bring or send “home” from abroad. This is key because social remittances are often just as important to community development as money wired “home”.

    Principled but patchy protection

    If you lose your home or are forced to move due to a natural disaster, you are likely to face many challenges before receiving essential support. This is mainly due to poorly regulated coordination at the domestic, regional, or international level. There has been some progress in the form of legal instruments and international cooperation initiatives, such as the Nansen Initiative, the Platform on Disaster Displacement, the Migrants in Crisis Initiative, and the Global Form on Migration and Development. However, this progress has always been on the sidelines of core — and politically sensitive — migration issues.

    On the one hand, these initiatives represent important confidence-building, operational, and procedural guidelines for states’ responsibility to protect; on the other hand, not all states have agreed to contribute, so protection remains patchy. Recognising them as good practices would elevate this issue in global compact discussions. In turn, this would structure the international community’s work towards more coordinated and principled guidance to protect and assist people before, during, and after disasters.

    Leave no-one behind — regardless of borders

    It is important to note that most people uprooted by natural disasters are actually displaced within their home countries — in other words, they are “internally displaced persons” (IDPs). Between 2008 and 2014, 157.6 million people were internally displaced by weather-related disasters.

    Despite the overwhelming numbers, the summit did not address protection and assistance for this group of displaced people, partly because the focus is on “large movements of refugees and migrants” (emphasis added). IDPs should not, however, be left out of the efforts to alleviate poverty, instability, marginalisation, and exclusion. Their vulnerability is not only clear, but is also growing. All told, the process that kick-started in September 2016 represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring countries together to ensure that every person on the move due to climate change can contribute to inclusive, long-term development.

    The global compacts to be discussed between now and 2018 should focus on two aspects. First, states should implement existing agreements and guidelines, including those addressing disaster risk reduction and protection and assistance of displaced people — wherever they may be and whatever their migration status may be. Second, states should pledge to improve and increase safe pathways for all forms of migration, while helping migrants to safely benefit from work in their destination community, as well as to transfer financial, social, and political capital back to their source communities.


    This article originally appeared on the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) website on 16 September 2016. 

    Creative Commons License

    Migration and Climate Change: Shoring Up Communities and Commitments by Julia Blocher and Cosmin Corendea is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.