Warner, K.: Environmental Change and Migration, 2012

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In recent years the topic of environmental change and human migration and displacement has become a topic of discussion in Europe. At 2008 report prepared by the European Commission to the European Council, stated “Europe must expect substantially increased migratory pressure” in the coming decades, highlighting the need for European policies to address the issue (Solana 2008). The Council of Europe report exploring laws to address environmentally induced migrants coming to Europe (Acketoft 2008, Ivanov 2009), emerging empirical research supported by the European Commission such as the “Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios project” (Jäger et al. 2009), and other recent European-supported research and policy endeavours such as the Foresight Project on Global Environmental Migration (UK).

This overview draws on patterns of environmentally induced migration which have emerged in recent empirical work and discusses how institutions and policies influence the forms of human mobility in the face of environmental and climate change. It helps assess institutional and governance needs related to environmental change and human migration. In this paper “governance” refers to the regulation of interdependent relations with many levels and actors, and also includes an element of power and interest (Young 2002, 2004) in situations and policies. Section 1 examines concepts and definitions related to climate change induced migration. Section 2 addresses questions about the level of preparedness within current institutional and governance frameworks to manage environmentally induced migration in the future. Where the paper identifies gaps in governance approaches, section 3 suggests ways to begin bridging gaps and define new modes of governance from European perspectives.

Concepts and definitions: Links to governance gaps in environmental migration

Terms and concepts such as environmental or climate change migration, environmentally-induced or forced migration, ecological or environmental refugees, and climate change refugees are used throughout the emerging literature, with no general agreement on precise definition(s) (IOM 2007, Dun and Gemenne 2008, Renaud et al. 2007). This overview uses the working definition of environmentally induced migrants proposed by the IOM: “Environmentally induced 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” (IOM, 2007).

The difficulty of establishing clear definitions of concepts and terms related to climate change induced migration stems from two issues. First, scholars have pointed out the challenge of isolating environmental factors from other migration drivers (Black 2001, Castles 2002, Boano et al. 2008). As migration is driven by a plethora of factors including climate change (IPCC 2007), it has been difficult to establish the causal relationships and consequences of climate change induced migration. This heightens the challenge of quantifying such migration and explains the wide range in expert estimates of climate change induced migrant populations.

It is also difficult to define the range of climate change induced migration because of the institutional and governance implications of doing so: Definitions of the “problem” (i.e. as a migration, humanitarian, development, security, or environmental issue) allow an assignment of authority to address environmentally induced migration.

How institutions and policies affect environmentally induced migration outcomes

Emerging empirical research indicates that environmental changes including climate change currently play a role in migration (Jäger at al. 2009, Warner et al. 2009). Distinguishing between rapid- and slow-onset events provides a useful point of departure for understanding the potential governance needs of migrants, as well as possible gaps in current institutions and policies designed to address human mobility. This section will explore how institutions and policy affect environmentally induced migration, pointing out the role of time, environmental stressors, the quality of policy interventions, and gaps in policy and governance.

One sub-set of environmentally induced migration is related to rapid-onset environmental changes—often in the form of natural disasters. This section discusses the current governance gaps related to managing human mobility in the face of rapid-onset environmental change, and highlights the importance of effective pre- and post-disaster management.

Rapid-onset climate events

The occurrence of migration related to rapid-onset events is perhaps the easiest to identify because the impacts of the environmental event are relatively observable, and in some cases reported by the media. Such events include severe weather such as flooding, windstorms, storm surges, landslides (often related to heavy rains) as well as geological occurrences like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. When rapid-onset natural disasters occur, often people must flee from the affected area to avoid physical harm or loss of life. In some cases homes are destroyed, making temporary resettlement in shelters a necessary risk management approach. Often during and after rapid-onset events, livelihoods are lost or interrupted through destruction of crops, livestock, or productive assets. These kinds of impacts can motivate people to move. The way that disasters of this type are managed plays a role in people’s mobility decisions.The time period of interest in governing human mobility and rapid-onset environmental hazards is typically the first 72 hours following an event for humanitarian relief efforts. The focus of these efforts is often around rescue, establishing temporary shelters, and medical help. Days following a disaster, humanitarian efforts may shift towards providing clean food and water, stabilization of local populations, and assessment of the situation. Often media is present in these first few days following an event, and play a role in mobilizing resources to pay for humanitarian assistance. In cases where people are evacuated or displaced due to a disaster, policy gaps often arise around where these people should go in the weeks, months, and sometimes years following a disaster. Two examples of evacuation and subsequent (permanent) displacement include Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the eruption of the Montserrat volcano in the Caribbean (Martin 2009).

Role of policy interventions and governance gaps (post-disaster recovery, legal status of displaced people)

For rapid-onset events, humanitarian organizations lead the efforts to assist people affected by and possibly displaced by environmental hazards, in coordination with national governments and donors. The efficacy of governance plays a critical role in whether migrants will return, or whether they will stay away indefinitely. Migrants will likely need support in integration, establishing livelihoods in new areas, and protection from any number of discriminatory practices. Soft law such as the Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced People (IDP) may protect these people to some extent, but the lack of recognition of environmental stressors as a legitimate cause of migration may limit effective assistance or protection. Following the 2002 earthquakes in El Salvador or the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, governments like the U.S. have granted temporary visas for migrants so that they could work and provide remittances and assistance to affected family members. It is unclear whether such practices will become an international norm, hence a partial gap exists.

Immigration laws of most destination countries do not recognize migrants arriving in part due to environmental impacts, accepting this subgroup only under already existing admission categories: Destination countries in Europe admit persons under family reunification statutes, asylum provisions, or labor market provisions. Humanitarian admissions in regions like Europe are mostly limited to refugees and asylum seekers which mostly ignore environmental aspects of human mobility. Some soft-law provisions are in place internationally regarding the protection of IDPs (Kalin 2000), but few systematic approaches are in place and this is often an overlooked policy area (Kolmannskogg 2008, Oliver-Smith 2009).

In Europe, the “Temporary Protection Directive" establishes temporary protection during ‘mass influxes’ of certain displaced persons. The term ‘mass-influx’ refers to situations where masses of people are suddenly displaced and where it is not feasible to treat applicants on an individual basis—defined on a case-by-case basis through qualified majority of the Council Sweden and Finland have included environmental migrants within their immigration policies. Sweden includes within its asylum system persons who do not qualify for refugee status, but have a need for protection. Such a person in need of protection “has left his native country and does not wish to return there because he or she:—has a fear of the death penalty or torture is in need of protection as a result of war or other serious conflicts in the country―is unable to return to the native country because of an environmental disaster.” (Aliens Act, 2005:716) Most recipients of this status are assumed to need only temporary protection. But the Swedish rules foresee that some persons may need permanent solutions. Similarly, in the Finnish Aliens Act, “aliens residing in the country are issued with a residence permit on the basis of a need for protection if . . . they cannot return because of an armed conflict or environmental disaster.” (Vikram Kolmannskog, 2009, p.4)

In summary, currently, many regions of the world are partially equipped to manage this subset of environmentally induced migration related to rapid-onset environmental hazards—largely because there are policies and mechanisms in place for prevention/risk reduction, humanitarian assistance, post-disaster rehabilitation. However, these mechanisms are mostly oriented towards the immediate aftermath of a disaster, and practice indicates important gaps which can make it difficult for people who have been displaced by a disaster to return to their homes and resume their normal lives.

Governance Gaps: Slow-onset events and migration

For slow-onset events, the intervening factors that prevent or enable people to return (or avoid migration and displacement in the first place) become more complex. The urgency for flight is temporally less pressing because the rate of environmental change is slower. People may not have a choice to return to their former place of residence due to the physical loss of their land, for example due to coastal erosion or sea-level rise. However in cases where the physical land is still available people may have the opportunity to return to their original place of living particularly if they can implement alternative livelihoods. Accelerated or slower environmental change can affect the livelihoods of people to a degree that some or all household members migrate. The relative importance of environmental factors in livelihoods helps determine how important the environment is when migration decisions are made. In some cases, alternative livelihoods or other coping capacities are possible in the affected area. Yet people may still choose to leave the area, anticipating worsening conditions. If alternative livelihoods are not possible in the relevant time frame, or if the impacted area ceases to fulfil its function (such as succumbing to desertification or sinking below the sea level) then forced migration could occur. Policy interventions will largely shape the outcome.

Slow onset environmental changes can negatively affect livelihood systems and contribute to migration pressures in the long term—the underlying environmental factors, however, may not be accounted for in migration patterns because they are slow and harder to observe.The occurrence of migration related to slow onset events is more challenging to identify because the impacts of the environmental event incremental, and seldom reported by the media until they become acute crises. Such events include climate change impacts such as regional changes in rainfall variability and seasons, sea level rise or the gradual degradation of ecosystems like desertification and land degradation, and loss of biodiversity. When slow-onset environmental degradation occurs, livelihoods like farming, herding, and fishing deteriorate. Yields fall, and the ability to diversify (such as supplementing farm yields with hunting or fishing) may decline. Communities and families may increasingly see migration (to urban areas or across borders) as offering more attractive possibilities to worsening life quality in areas affected by slow-onset environmental change. The way that the degradation is managed plays a role in people’s mobility decisions.

In summary, currently, few regions of the world appear equipped to manage human mobility related to slow-onset environmental degradation—some of which may be caused by climate change. The governance gaps related to this subset of environmentally induced migration come in part because of policy silos, because of the gradual nature of change itself, and because of the challenges of sustaining traditional livelihoods or creating alternative livelihoods. Further, the arising possibility that some areas of the world could become unable to support livelihoods at all—either because of extreme degradation or because they no longer exist in a habitable forms (in the case of permafrost melt, sea level rise, or desertification)—presents a major challenge to the governance of human mobility. Some countries such as New Zealand extend the opportunity for work-related visas to endangered low-lying island countries like Tuvalu, but these programs remain limited in numbers. The New Zealand visa program reaches less than 100 people per year, a quota which often goes unfilled because of concerns among sending communities of depopulating the country of Tuvalu (Jäger et al 2009).

Policy approaches for Europe: Human mobility in the context of climate change

The paper so far has outlined gaps and partial gaps for managing environmentally motivated and forced migration and displacement. This section examines some of the challenges in addressing the gaps identified in this paper: institutional and policy “silos”, identifying where to administer help, and assigning authority to address the problems. Then the section examines potential policy approaches – eminating from Paragraph 14(f) of the Cancun Adaptation Framework (the first-time ever inclusion of human mobility on an internationally agreed climate adaptation decision) and ways forward for environmentally-related human mobility.

For the reader´s reference, Paragraph 14(f) reads as follows:
14.  Invites all Parties to enhance action on adaptation under the Cancun Adaptation Framework, taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, and specific national and regional development priorities, objectives and circumstances, by undertaking, inter alia, the following: ….

(f)  Measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate, at national, regional and international levels;

The framing of human mobility in the climate negotiations is important for several reasons:

·      Mobility in the context of the UNFCCC is acknowledged as having a link to climatic change and framed as a phenomena to be managed. It provides a “technical” level (rather than controversial political dialogue) stepping stone for transitions between immediate-term use of existing approaches to necessary longer-term paradigm changes about population shifts, governance of borders and mobility, livelihood viability and planning in certain regions, etc.

·      Paragraph 14(f) couches human mobility within the realm of adaptation to climate change and subtly introduces the thought that adaptation may require societal transformations longer-term. This suggests that adaptation may be understood not only as marginal changes in the way people live in certain locations

·      Paragraph 14(f) frames human mobility as part of a wider range of measures that can be funded under the emerging climate finance regime to assist vulnerable countries adjust to current and expected climatic changes. Depending on how Parties articulate their adaptation needs, human-mobility related activities will be eligible for climate finance (ranging from managing migration, preventing or reducing displacement, and where appropriate undertaking planned relocation).

·      Paragraph 14(f) has significance for implementation. As the institutional arrangements for adaptation continue to be shaped, human mobility (and the other areas mentioned in the Cancun Adaptation Framework) will expand from a topic for discussion towards a topic for policy and operations. This will have meaning for development cooperation (particularly around livelihoods), humanitarian and disaster risk reduction work, urban and rural planning, etc.

·      Finally, Paragraph 14(f) provides an opportunity to further articulate policy options at appropriate levels (sub-national, national, regional, international) and along the spectrum of human mobility. The presence of human mobility in one policy forum (UNFCCC) has and will continue to influence discussions in other arenas, including the UN Security Council, the Global Forum on Migration (GFMD), the high level dialogue on migration, and regional fora among others.

These last two points are important because, arguably, few other arenas emphasize discussion, action/planning, and financial resources for implementation, as does the UNFCCC. As described in other literature (Warner 2010), the existing institutional arrangements to manage voluntary migration and mobility related to natural disasters are full of gaps. Few coordination or planning mechanisms are in place to address relocation related to environmental or climatic change (most are development-project related). Paragraph 14(f) provides initial inroads into these areas in coming years.


The paper has examined how institutions and policies affect environmentally induced migration, and gaps in current governance frameworks in Europe for rapid- and slow-onset environmental change. The analysis above identified the major gaps in governance for environmental change and human mobility in Europe. Existing strategies of humanitarian relief will help some people fleeing from rapid-onset disasters. However, the analysis suggests that new governance modes are needed to bridge gaps in protection and assistance for climate change migrants who cannot return after disasters, and people made mobile because of longer-term environmental change. New European governance approaches will need to consider the role of migration in adaptation, such as the new possibilities outlined in Paragraph 14(f) of the Cancun Adaptation Framework.


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Dr. Koko Warner, United Nations University, Head of the Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability and Adaptation Section, December 2011