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Environmental Migrants: UN Meeting Aims To Build Consensus On Definitions, Support, Protection

October 8, 2008
United Nations University
A growing international consensus to formally recognize and protect people uprooted by environmental problems is expected to accelerate at a major conference. Featured at the conference: early results of the first comprehensive empirical study gauging the extent to which environment problems influence migration decisions. Experts warn human trafficking could worsen in step with environmental problems.

A growing international consensus to formally recognize and protect people uprooted by environmental problems is expected to accelerate at a major conference in Bonn, Germany Oct. 9 to 11.*

Featured at the conference will be the presentation and discussion of early results of the first comprehensive empirical study gauging the extent to which environment problems influence migration decisions.

Experts estimate that by 2050 some 200 million people will be displaced by environmental problems, a number of people roughly equal to two-thirds of the USA today (or the combined population of the UK, France, Italy and the Netherlands).

And these migrants may well be different than the economically-motivated migrants today, who are typically young, able to work, able to make it overseas and send remittances home. Environmentally-motivated migration is expected to feature poorer people, more women, children and elderly, from more desperate environmental situations, and possibly less able to move far.

Conference participants will take up a variety of thorny challenges, including how to assess the relative importance of environmental, economic and social factors behind migration, and how environmentally-induced migration differs from other types.

Defining questions include how people or groups decide to move when the environment around them cannot support normal life, and whether resettlement programs organized by governments should be classified as environmentally-induced migration.

Also on the agenda: measurement of the problem and its drivers. For example, is it possible to measure or predict when migration might be triggered when environmental "tipping points" are passed? And how can the dependence of livelihoods on environment and ecosystem services be measured, thereby creating insights into the probability of environment-driven migration?

Finally, the experts will consider policy recommendations, such as legal instruments to protect and assist the different categories of environmental migrants.

Climate Change, Environment and Migration Alliance Forming

The conference will also serve as a platform to introduce the fledgling Climate Change, Environment and Migration Alliance (CCEMA). This Alliance is designed to help ensure, among other things, that policy-makers have an informed understanding of environment and climate change related migration issues and ultimately that pilot operational programmes can be implemented. CCEMA was initiated in April 2008 in Munich, Germany by the following founding members: UNU, IOM, UNEP, and the Munich Re Foundation.

"All indicators show that we are dealing with a major emerging global problem," says UNU Vice-Rector and conference chairman Janos Bogardi, Director of UNU's Institute on the Environment and Human Security, Bonn.

"The issue of migration represents the most profound expression of the inter-linkage between the environment and human security."

Says UN Under Secretary-General Konrad Osterwalder, Rector of UNU: "Environmental problems may not force anyone to cross an international border, but no one can deny the terrible similarities between those running from the threat of guns and those fleeing creeping desertification, water shortages, floods or hurricanes.

"Policy makers need good estimates on the numbers, origin and destination of people on the move due to environmental reasons. We hope this conference will fill some of the knowledge gaps and offer guidance to the world community on appropriate next steps as we prepare to cope with what may be a large, inevitable wave of environmentally-driven migration."

First empirical study

Preliminary findings from a two-year research program will be presented at the Bonn conference by the EACH-FOR (Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios) Project Consortium.

EACH-FOR case studies and interviews are completed or underway by consortium researchers working in 22 places: Argentina, the Balkans, Bangladesh, China, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Russia, Senegal, Spain, Tajikistan, Turkey, Tuvalu, Vietnam, and the Western Sahara.

With the exception of Spain, the researchers examined transition and developing countries where people are directly dependent on the environment for their livelihood and hence most vulnerable to environmental stressors.

Questions guiding the research include

  1. Who has migrated away from environmental degradation and change?
  2. Where are they coming from, where are they going?
  3. How does environmental degradation relate with other social, economic and political factors in making migration decisions?
  4. What assistance might have prevented the migration?
  5. What coping or adaptation strategies allowed some people in areas of environmental degradation or change to stay while others migrated?
  6. How did the migration occur (e.g. choice of destination, networks used)? and
  7. What is the perception of environmental degradation that triggers people to move?

Growing environmental migration may foster human trafficking

Experts are concerned that existing human trafficking networks would gain strength and new ones could emerge as environmental deterioration, climate change and disasters uproot millions of people. And they call for more research to identify and assess the environmental impact on human trafficking.

Within the EACH-FOR project, research revealed in Bangladesh that "women with children, whose husbands either died at sea during cyclone Sidr or are away as temporary labor migrants, are easy prey for traffickers and end up in prostitution networks or in forced labour in India.

"After (recent) floods, smugglers promised to bring groups of about 80 men from devastated villages to Northern India so that they could find work. These men had invested all their savings in the journey, but ended up in sweatshops at the Indian border, where they were tortured. Some entire families also fell victims of these smugglers."

"This trafficking has existed for a while, but was reinforced by recent disasters that created more vulnerable people."

Similar patterns have been traced at least in one more case study. Exploitation of people on the move by smugglers is reported more and more as the flow of informal or illegal migrants swells.

Additional highlights from the preliminary findings are appended.

Defining "Environmentally Displaced Persons"

Terms and definitions related to environment-related migration continue to cause major debates within international circles.

Three categories will be put forward at the conference: environmentally motivated migrant, environmentally forced migrant and environmental emergency migrant. These proposed categories are meant to streamline the debate by differentiating according to urgency and strength of the environmental trigger of migration.

In all cases, environmental degradation or change (e.g. disasters of natural origin, slow-onset land degradation, sea-level rise or other manifestations of climate change) represents a significant (but not necessarily exclusive) factor behind the person's departure or flight from their usual place of residence.

The displacement may be short-term, long-term (one to three years) or permanent. No distinction should be made between persons moving within a country or across an international border.

The term "environmental refugee" is debated for several reasons, the foremost being that "refugee" has a very specific legal meaning in international law, with special policy implications and political connotations.


Statistics issued in 2007 by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) show that in 2005 there were an estimated 191 million migrants worldwide, up from 176 million in 2000, and representing roughly 3 percent of the global population.

Estimates of the number of environmentally displaced people range widely. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 2007 conservatively estimated approximately 24 million people worldwide today have fled because of floods, famine and other environment-related reasons.

Although coastal zones constitute only 2 percent of the total land surface of the earth, these regions contain 10 percent of the current world population and 13 percent of the urban population. Additionally, about 75 percent of all the people residing in low-lying areas are in Asia, and the most vulnerable are the poor.

Among the root causes of migration are economic factors (poverty, unemployment), social factors (poor welfare or education), environmental factors (degradation of ecosystems, environmental disasters), and/or degraded security conditions (disrespect for human rights, persecution of minority groups, armed conflicts, etc.)

A sampling of preliminary findings follows (the full paper, Environmental Change and Forced Migration, is publicly available online from Oct. 8 at


Low-lying Bangladesh is often considered "the country that could be most affected by climate change," due to projected sea-level rise and flooding from melting Himalaya glaciers. It is also heavily affected by sudden disasters, such as cyclones.

One of the world's poorest countries, Bangladesh may lose up to one fifth of its surface area due to rising sea level; this scenario is likely to occur, if the sea level rises by one metre and no dyke enforcement measures are taken.

After recent floods and cyclones, many heavily salinized rice paddies have been converted to shrimp aquaculture. The shrimp, however, are too expensive for local markets and are almost entirely exported.

"This shift has resulted in important job losses, since shrimp culture requires a smaller workforce. Moreover, fishing has become increasingly intensive, and thus less profitable," according to the report.

"Following these natural disasters, households develop different strategies to expand their means of subsistence," according to the report, such as fathers temporarily heading into urban centers to look for work and sending money home.

The Government has created a ministry to deal with the aftermath of natural disasters, including resettlement of populations. However, no plan exists to deal with population movements in the slum areas of increasingly saturated Dhaka.

Given the region's political instability, "population movements associated with climate change could pose a threat to regional security," the authors say.


The 4,400 km Mekong River drains through a large portion Vietnam just four meters or less above sea-level.

Regular flooding of the Mekong affects 40-50% of the land area across nine Vietnamese provinces annually from July to November, an area that constitutes about 40% of the country's cultivated land inhabited by nearly 18 million people – a quarter of Vietnam's population.

As part of a flood management and environmental sanitation strategy, the government is undertaking planned resettlement of people living in vulnerable zones along river banks.


Spain "has been transformed within a few decades into Europe's main location for immigration," especially its south-eastern region, attracting retirees from other EU countries and labor migrants from Central Europe and Russia, Latin America and the Maghreb.

The authors note a recent transition from traditional family agriculture to industrialized production, leading to rapid growth in demand for already stressed water sources, an increase in river and groundwater pollution from fertilizers, and the employment of illegal immigrants.

These regions are also a magnet for vacation property owners and tourists, leading to a growth in demand for water for resorts, swimming pools and golf courses etc., "which may accelerate the process of desertification in the vulnerable areas of this region."

Meanwhile, "according to scenarios, Spain and Portugal will be most affected by climate change within Europe, with significant rise in temperature (5-7 degrees Celsius inland, 2100), lower rainfall, and recurring droughts.

"If non-sustainable use of the natural resources by agriculture and tourism continues, this together with the expected climate change conditions might lead to exhaustion of the water resources, soil erosion and desertification, which in turn might lead to an economic downturn and an out-migration in the future."


Almost a third (30.8%) of the people born in northwest Ghana now live elsewhere.

As well, seasonal migration by predominantly young adult men is an important way to supplement meager farm incomes.

Poor conditions at home combined with easy access to fertile lands in the more humid destination area make many Northerners decide to relocate to Ghana's middle belt.

Environmental push is more important for migrants with rural destinations than urban destinations as they migrate in search for better agro-ecological conditions. Environmental pull is also important: they predominantly settle in areas that have a good balance between soil, rain and (low) population density.

A cross-sectional analysis of natural resources scarcity and migration propensities shows that outmigration is heavier in poorly endowed districts. Annual rainfall has the strongest correlation with migration propensities.

A longitudinal analysis of rainfall and migration, on the other hand, shows that the period of worst environmental stress – the Sahelian droughts of the late 1970s and early 1980s – was a time of reduced out-migration from Northern Ghana. This period was marked by political turmoil and economic crisis in the South. Thus, factors other than the environment were of greater importance.

Evidence from semi-structured interviews suggests that families in northwest Ghana send family members south to work and send remittances to those remaining in areas where the environment and other factors are less accommodating.

Environmental migrants in Ghana migrate only regionally as these people tend not to have the means to migrate internationally. In contrast, people living in richer areas of Ghana are more likely to migrate internationally.


The researchers found that migration was linked to siltation in the Niger River, pollution and weeds, all affecting fish reproduction.

Men tend to migrate in search of income while women, children and the elderly remain. Over past decades the length of time men remain away has grown to few years at a time rather than just during the dry season, their absence resulting in both social and environmental impacts at home.

In one village, all the inhabitants were migrants from another village called Farka, abandoned due to soil degradation.


Researchers found that, in the absence of state-regulated controls after the Soviet Union break-up, widespread attempts to increase stock breeding led to overgrazing, which contributed in turn to an increase in soil erosion, landslides, flooding and migration.

No other factor (economic, social, or political) had greater importance in the migration decision reached by 30 migrant families across three provinces.

The government offered long-term home-building loans and new land in Southern Kyrgyzstan. However, due to overpopulation, the plots were very small, and in areas with little water or grazing area.

Many migrants subsequently moved to much worse places, financed by their savings and livestock. In the process, they reported, some of their family links were preserved, but almost all broader social networks were lost.

Those who remained behind were generally found to be better off economically than those who left, having preserved their land and animal stock.

"However, they are strongly affected by environmental disasters / deterioration and by out-migration," the authors say, adding that other impacts include smaller harvests, physical and psychological health problems, an ageing population, demoralized youth and deteriorating infrastructure.


Covered 93% by mountains, Tajikistan regularly suffers landslides, mudflows and floods as well as periodic earthquakes. Disasters have killed about 300 people in the last 10 years.

However the researchers found "the different kinds of land degradation have not yet become a reason for migration," to those with a choice. Most interviewees said important sources of income (mostly seasonal labour opportunities) keep them in place.

Between 2000 and 2004, Tajikistan resettled 7,664 households facing environmental threats such as floods or landslides. There are plans to resettle another 7,200 households between 2005 and 2010. Sponsored by the government and international organizations, the process includes land, help constructing a house and some financial compensation.


A chain of nine coral atolls and islets, Tuvalu is physically small and flat with a top elevation above sea level of 4.5 meters. Its entire population of 11,000 is subject to the immediate threat of rising sea levels.

Frequent saltwater flooding, accelerated coastal erosion and increasing trouble growing vegetables and plants have become day-to-day challenges, compounded by water shortages, waste disposal and overpopulation problems.

The top destination for those leaving Tuvalu is New Zealand, which has enacted a special labour migration agreement that allows a small number of citizens from Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Fiji into the country each year.

Contrary to media reports of a nation-wide resettlement agreement whereby New Zealand would accept Tuvalu emigrants displaced due to rising sea levels, New Zealand has agreed only to accept permanently a small number of Pacific Islanders annually. And Australia has said it will not consider admitting refugees from rising sea levels.


Buenos Aires and the country's other cities attract three of every five internal migrants in Argentina, many of the relocations strongly linked to flooding.

Until the 1980s, the country's Patagonia region population was growing; today it is shrinking. Migrants interviewed cite economic factors, which have been driven in part by environmental changes, including a dramatic decrease in average rainfall, along with unusual rainfall patterns including intense rains causing floods.

Such environmental changes have resulted in measured losses such as less electricity production and less production in the wine regions over the past 10 years.

Tourism has also been affected by reduced snowfall in the area, one of the most important for winter sports in South America.


Migration from Ecuador to neighbouring countries and the USA has been occurring for decades. Since the 1990s, growing numbers of migrants from Equador have headed to Europe, which is now the main destination.

The migrants are largely from Equador's coastal and Andean regions, each of which face different environmental issues.

The effects of El Niño (droughts and sudden floods) are the most powerful environmental driver of migration from the coast, according to the case study; in the Andean region, the problem of reduced water quality and quantity, combined with deforestation and erosion, have diminished the quantity, quality and stability of crops.


In the Chiapas region, intense tropical storms have had devastating impacts on agriculture (mainly coffee), washing away fields and, in many cases, homes. In the region's mountainous areas, such storms also cause landslides. All contributed to accelerating emigration from the region since the 1990s.

Meanwhile, emigration from some parts of Tlaxcala state, starting in the 1980s, is attributed in part extreme soil erosion and degradation caused by more intensive land use, along with changing rainfall patterns.

*Hosted by the United Nations University, the conference on Environment, Forced Migration and Social Vulnerability will capture the current state of research and debate on the issue and conclude with recommendations for moving forward.

Conference partners include the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Munich Re Foundation, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

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Materials provided by United Nations University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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United Nations University. "Environmental Migrants: UN Meeting Aims To Build Consensus On Definitions, Support, Protection." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 October 2008. <>.
United Nations University. (2008, October 8). Environmental Migrants: UN Meeting Aims To Build Consensus On Definitions, Support, Protection. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from
United Nations University. "Environmental Migrants: UN Meeting Aims To Build Consensus On Definitions, Support, Protection." ScienceDaily. (accessed July 22, 2024).

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