1.12.2009 | Von:
Thomas Hummitzsch

Debates on environmental migration

Das Dorf Derveni an der griechischen Küste am Golf von Korinth ist von dem durch die Klimaerwärmung gestiegenen Meeresspiegel akut bedroht.Villages on the Greek coast at the Gulf of Corinth are endangered by rising sea levels. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

The connection between climate change and migration

The fact that the rise in sea levels or salinisation of coastal areas as climatic processes, or hydro-meteorological natural catastrophes as climatic events, may trigger migratory movements is not disputed. However, environmental migration does not result froma single cause, but rather incorporates complex interactions of existing social, demographic and political contexts. [1]

When considering migratory movements in association with climatic processes or events, therefore, a distinction must be made between climatic and non-climatic migration factors, since migration is not necessarily going to occur for reasons of climatic events alone.

In this regard, adaptation strategies play a decisive role, for a society´s vulnerability always results from its particular risk situation in a geographic sense and the efforts such a society makes to adapt. [2] Thus hydro-meteorological catastrophes such as floods or tropical storms only lead to relevant migration phenomena if there have previously been political and social failures to adapt to the specific geographical risk. In the absence of early warning systems, cross-institutional rescue plans, flood plains or dams, a society's vulnerability in the event of hydro-meteorological catastrophes is increased, as evidenced by the impact of the 2004 seaquake in the Indian Ocean. The tidal waves of the resultant tsunami destroyed entire coastal regions in the Bay of Bengal and South East Asia. At least 165,000 people were swept to their deaths and 1.7 million were left homeless. Some of the main reasons for the devastating impact of the tsunami were the lack of an international early warning and information system as well as the uncoordinated and partially non-existent evacuation of coasts in the affected region. The razing of mangrove forests and elimination of flood zones in coastal areas, as well as their settlement, also contributed to the enormous casualty figures.

Not only catastrophes lead to emigration. It is even estimated that the steady degradation of habitable land due to climate change will in future be the most important trigger for international migration. [3] These predictably long-term consequences of climate change already represent a special challenge to the societies that may be affected, for the ecologically induced loss of habitable land is fundamentally "a social problem that can be avoided." [4]

Environmental migration is related to issues that make migration not only necessary, but also attractive, the so-called pull factors. These may be of a demographic, social, political or cultural nature. Population pressure, poverty, poor social welfare systems as well as poor governance in states affected by climate change are as decisive triggers for migration as climatic conditions. At the same time, environmental migration takes place in developing countries in an environment of urbanisation for economic reasons, making it difficult to distinguish environmental migration from "normal" migration in metropolitan catchment areas. Climate change is only one factor in a bundle of factors of varying strength. Migration itself can be interpreted as a means of adapting to the socio-economic and political realities under the conditions of a changing environment. [5] In cases of particularly drastic governmental mismanagement this can mean that a climatic event serves solely as an inducement to migrate, although the main causes are of a political and socio-structural nature. [6]

Environmental migration is therefore not solely based on a simple matter of cause and effect wherein migration is always triggered by climatic conditions alone. It is in fact much more complex than that. [7] If we wish to understand the motives for migratory movement, then previously-existing pull factors in particular play a decisive role. [8]

This mutual influence and overlapping of environmental factors with political, social and cultural aspects of migration means that it is not possible to differentiate clearly between voluntary and forced migration [9], which in turn affects the definition and treatment of people affected by environmental migration.

Categorisation of affected persons

There have been numerous attempts to find terminology and definitions for the migration scenarios described above. In addition to the term environmental migration used here, there are such expressions as climate change migration, forced migration and environmental refugeeism. In the English-speaking world the composite term climigration is increasingly common. As environmental migration also concerns a mingling of economic and ecological factors and it is virtually impossible to make a clear distinction between these aspects, some authors also refer to ecomigration . [10]

The affected people are mostly referred to as environmental migrants, but also as forced climate migrants, environmental refugees or environmentally displaced persons. The terms used for affected people is of decisive importance for categorisation as a migrant or refugee and the resulting consequences with regard to the international obligation to protect or provide for such people. In contrast to migrants, refugees are granted rights by the Geneva Convention concerning aid and services of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and may not be deported by receiving states (non-refoulement).

The term environmental migrant, coined by the IOM, is finding increasing international acceptance. To facilitate an initial basis for further research and data collection on the phenomenon, the IOM presented a working definition, according to which environmental migrants are "persons or groups of persons, who, for compelling 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 either within their country or abroad". This definition seizes on the dimensions considered by the IASC of duration, direction and voluntariness of the migration.

Scientists involved in the European research project EACH-FOR (Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios) based their studies on a three-part working definition. They distinguish between environmentally motivated migrants, environmentally forced migrants and environmental refugees. The environmentally motivated migrants differ from the latter two insofar as their change of location is voluntary. The difference between environmentally forced migrants and environmental refugees lies in the fact that forced migrants are subjected to a planned and long-foreseeable, but inevitable migration, whereas climate refugees are forced into sudden emergency migration by catastrophic scenarios. The EACH-FOR working definition does not consider whether in addition to the consequences of climate change there are also social, economic or political inducements to migration, whether the migration is temporary or permanent or whether the migration is only internal or also includes crossing state borders. [11] Like the IOM, the EACH-FOR study picks up on the idea of three levels of duration, direction and voluntariness, but emphasises more strongly than the IOM the possibility of there being mixed causes for migration.


Acketoft 2008, WBGU 2007.
Brown 2008.
Warner 2009.
Bogardi et al. 2007.
Graeme 2008, Warner 2009, WBGU 2007.
Acketoft 2008.
Brown 2008.
Jakobeit & Methmann 2007.
UNHCR 2008a, Zehrer 2009.
Kolmannskog 2008.
Bogardi et al. 2007.



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