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Regular version of the site

Card Index: Climate Migration

From where — and to where — are people migrating because of climate change?

ISTOCK // undefined Darius Dan from flaticon.com

Natural disasters and long-term climate change processes, from rising sea levels to melting glaciers to soil degradation, are causing people to move to safer locations not yet affected by food and water shortages. Recently, climate migration has been on the rise globally due to environmental changes. What territories are more likely than others to experience out-migration, and why? A report co-authored by Associate Professor of the HSE Faculty of Geography and Geoinformation Technology Yulia Kuznetsova offers some ideas.

Climate migration: is it a recent phenomenon?

Actually, it has always existed. From the earliest days of mans’ existence, poor ecology and natural disasters have driven people and communities to places with better climatic and weather conditions. In the modern world, however, such migrations have increasingly been associated with global climate change.

In 2020, natural disasters led to more than three-quarters of new internal displacements globally. Most of these displacements were caused by weather phenomena such as storms, floods and hurricanes, and only a small part was due to geophysical events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. More than 60% of new disaster-driven displacements occurred in just five countries: China (5.1 million), the Philippines and Bangladesh (4.4 million each), India (3.9 million) and the United States (1.7 million).

According to the International Organization for Migration, the world may see as many as 200 million climate migrants by the middle of this century. Even this is a moderate projection — some others estimate the number to reach one billion by 2050.

Who are climate migrants?

Terms and definitions vary. The International Organisation for Migration uses the term 'environmental migrant', but neither it nor 'climate migrant' are legally recognised concepts.

Climate migrants are often considered a subset of environmental migrants: people who are forced to leave their home region due to dangerous changes to their environment, i.e. climate events and processes which compromise their well-being and livelihood, or even put their lives at risk.

How are climate events different from climate processes?

Climate processes usually occur over a long period, such as the rise in the global sea level, soil salinisation, glacier melting, water resource depletion, etc. In contrast, climate events include disasters such as hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, storm surges, and the like.

Climate processes can eventually cause dramatic changes to the environment, making it unfit for living. Migration outflows from such territories are probably irreversible, while relocations caused by one-off natural disasters can be temporary.

While careful analysis should precede linking specific events to climate change, it is obvious that climatic processes can lead to changes in the frequency, intensity and scope of weather and climate extremes. This increased risk of disasters, in turn, causes climate-driven displacements.

According to the International Disaster Database, 6,457 weather-related disasters were recorded worldwide between 1995 to 2014, of which an average of 335 events occurred each year between 2005 and 2014 – an increase of 14% from 1995-2004 and almost twice the level recorded between 1985 and 1994.

Is it true that weather-related disasters have caused an increase in displacements?

Yes, and quite noticeably so. According to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre, 17.2 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2018, while the number of new displacements in 2019 reached 24.9 million, of which only about one million were caused by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the remaining 23.9 million were due to weather events such as floods, hurricanes, droughts, and others. The 2020 figures are even more disturbing: 30.7 million of the 40.5 million were displaced by weather events.

Which countries generate climate migrants?

The World Bank estimates that three regions — Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia — will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050. Today, global climate change has led to increased migration from some countries of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America – mainly to Europe, North America and Russia, where the economic and climatic conditions are better. As for internal displacements, the general trend has been towards migration from rural to urban areas, since agriculture is highly vulnerable to climate change.

What is the situation in Russia?

The most relevant issues for Russia are, first, internal migration from those provinces with adverse climate conditions, and second, the inflow of migrants from Central Asian countries vulnerable to global warming. Climate-driven internal migration is still low in Russia, with only 11,500 people relocating due to climatic and natural factors in 2018. However, the proportion of young people among those who relocate for these reasons is quite high at 48%. People tend to move from Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic North to the Central Federal District, the Krasnodar Region, and the Republic of Crimea.

The Arctic is considered particularly vulnerable to climate change, with access to water, food, healthcare and other essentials at risk. People are leaving the Arctic zone mainly due to a combination of environmental, infrastructural and economic problems.

What countries generate most climate migrants to Russia?

Unsurprisingly, these are the Central Asian countries. The ranking of European and Central Asian countries in terms of vulnerability to climate change published by the World Bank names Tajikistan as the most vulnerable country, followed by Kyrgyzstan (third), Uzbekistan (sixth), and Turkmenistan (seventh in the ranking). Local communities are particularly affected by floods, droughts and extreme temperatures, and the rapid melting of glaciers in the Central Asian mountains can jeopardise access to drinking water very soon. This has led to increasingly high rates of outward-migration, mainly from agricultural areas dependent on water.

What types of territories are the most vulnerable to climate change?

There are three key types identified as the most vulnerable: coastal zones and islands, drylands and mountain regions. Permafrost regions require special attention, where the melting of ice sheets can lead to even higher rates of migration.

The main risk for coastal areas and islands is the rise in the sea level, estimated at almost 10 cm since 1993, with some 3.6 mm annual rise over the last decade and end-century projections varying between 0.3 m and 1.1 m of total rise. This means a high risk of flooding for low coastal areas. In Europe alone, 13 million people, in particular those living in the coastal areas of the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Poland, and Denmark, could be affected by a one-metre rise in the sea level. But the densely populated countries of South and Southeast Asia are the most vulnerable. In Bangladesh alone, a sea-level rise of half a metre could cause the outward migration of 5.5 million people.

Small island nations may disappear underwater completely. Those most at risk include Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, and several Caribbean islands. The entire population would need to migrate elsewhere. Some island countries have started preparations for relocation, for example the Maldives has set up a fund to buy land for the country’s 350,000 residents.

Besides flooding of coastal areas, what are the other consequences of a rise in sea level?

These include more and more extensive floods, cyclones and typhoons, and coastal erosion. There are many such examples in South Asia. Floods in September 2012 displaced 1.5 million people in the Indian state of Assam. In May 2009, tropical Cyclone Alia displaced 2.3 million people in India and 850,000 in Bangladesh.

Other consequences of sea level rise include saline intrusion into water supply systems and groundwater aquifers, causing freshwater shortages and soil salinisation. The latter has affected California, where the soil is becoming too salty for some crops to grow. In Southeast Asia, rapid salinity increase in the Mekong Delta is threatening the livelihoods of local farmers.

What are the risks in mountain regions?

Among these risks are increasingly severe extreme weather events, melting glaciers and changing precipitation patterns. Studies have found that glaciers in both hemispheres are melting more rapidly than at any point in the last 10,000 years. This may cause water supply in parts of Peru, Pakistan, China, India and Nepal to decline soon, since glacial snow and ice serve as a major source of freshwater.

The mountains of Central Asia and Kazakhstan are not yet experiencing problems with water, but the rapid melting of glaciers could cause major changes in the next 20 years or so. Out-migration is on the rise from mountain areas where the rural communities depend on mountains for water.

But mountain communities are not the only ones threatened by shrinking glaciers. Glacier melt keeps the rivers Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus flowing. Their densely populated lowland plains and deltas may face water shortages within the next 30 years.

Changes in precipitation patterns, including rain and snowfall are being felt by herders in the mountains of Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan, where a decrease in rainfall has affected seasonal grazing of livestock. Another point to remember is that ice sheet loss can have a negative impact on high-mountain slope stability and cause new glacial lakes, increasing the risk of outburst floods and mudslides.

What are the risks for dry regions?

The main risks here include land degradation, desertification and increased frequency of droughts, leading to the threat of water scarcity and famine. Drylands occupy about 46% of the landmass and are home to 3 billion people. Desertification areas are expanding. According to the International Organisation for Migration, up to 20% of drylands have degraded. 

It is estimated that with just 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, about 950 million people, mainly in South and Central Asia, West and East Africa, are expected to experience droughts, land degradation and water scarcity. 

How difficult is it to estimate the number of climate migrants?

This can undoubtedly be a problem for several objective reasons. Climate stressors often combine with economic drivers of migration, making reliable estimates difficult. Another challenge is to determine when exactly climate change becomes life-threatening. This has given rise to debates around the proposed 'climate refugee' status. The UN introduced the concept of 'climate refugees' in 2009 but then removed it due to an objection from a member state.

What was the argument that caused the UN to abandon the 'climate refugee' concept?

The rationale behind it is that migrants usually relocate in search of a better standard of living, while refugees flee from an imminent threat to their health and life (and, unlike migrants, cannot be sent back to their country of origin, according to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees). But the risks posed by climate change to health and life can increase gradually over a long period, and whether the term 'refugee' is applicable to such situations is debatable.

While still unresolved, the matter is on the agenda. The Global Compact on Refugees adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2018, states that 'climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters may interact with the drivers of refugee movements'.

Has anyone ever claimed climate refugee status?

Yes, Ioane Teitiota migrated with his family from the Pacific island of Kiribati to New Zealand and applied for asylum, arguing that the rise in sea level had rendered Kiribati uninhabitable for its residents. However, the New Zealand authorities denied Teitiota’s asylum application and deported the family back to their home country of Kiribati. The man filed an appeal with the UN Human Rights Committee. The Committee's decision on Teitiota's appeal was made public in January 2020 at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The Committee sided with Wellington, finding that the New Zealand court’s decision did not violate the applicant's right to life. However, the Committee effectively recognised the right to asylum in respect of 'climate refugees'. A Committee expert stressed that 'this ruling sets forth new standards that could facilitate the success of future climate change-related asylum claims'.

What international instruments address climate migration?

The rights of migrants are mentioned in the Preamble to the Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Russia signed in 2016 and ratified in 2019. Since 2015, the Task Force on Displacements has worked on developing approaches to address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change. 

In 2018, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts, a body established by the Parties to the Paris Agreement, published a report by its Task Force on Displacement containing recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimise and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change. The report mentions the rights of cross-border and internally displaced persons on par with the rights of refugees. There have been some other documents proposing approaches to the legal recognition and protection of climate migrants and refugees.

Can climate change cause social conflict?

Competition for diminishing resources, such as water and food, due to changing climate, can trigger serious conflict and thus generate flows of conflict-driven refugees. A combination of factors is at play here, in particular the socio-economic and political situation, exacerbated by climate stress. Particularly vulnerable are arid regions with intense competition for access to water and food.

An ecological crisis arising at least in part from climate change provoked the military conflict in Sudan's region of Darfur. Starting in the 1980s, precipitation in southern Sudan began to decline, so eventually there was no longer enough food and water for all. By 2003, fighting for resources had broken out between Arab nomadic herders and settled Black farmers.

In addition, global climate change may have been one of a number of factors that led to Syria's civil war. Between 2007 and 2010, the country experienced a prolonged and extreme drought, apparently associated with anthropogenic warming. The resulting agricultural collapse and water crisis precipitated large-scale migration from the countryside to the city. It was in this context that the 2011 Arab Spring protests took place, followed by the Syrian civil war, which led to massive displacements. According to international experts, the risks of such conflicts will increase as climate change progresses.

Does this mean that climate-driven migration is high on the agenda for the world's elites?

Perhaps one can say so. At least the problem has been recognized, although a legal framework for addressing it is still missing. There is hardly any country in today's world that has not experienced at least some effects of climate change. Everyone will have to adapt, but some countries will be affected to an extent that makes normal life no longer possible. Therefore, the issue of climate migration will become increasingly relevant.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, June 20, 2022