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  • Writer's pictureNaomi Grusby

The Challenge of Climate Migration

Photo Credit: Naomi Grusby

Refugee Projects is currently undertaking a review of climate migration, to better understand the implications of climate migration on immigration law and policy.  

As climate change intensifies, the number of people who are forcibly or involuntarily displaced is increasing at an alarming rate. In 2022 alone, a record 32.6 million people worldwide were internally displaced by natural disasters, as reported by the IDMC. These climate migrants are compelled to move both within and across borders due to a variety of climate related changes, both abrupt and gradual. Climate change also acts as a “threat multiplier”—it exacerbates existing factors that contribute to displacement such as poverty, resource allocation conflicts, and the loss of livelihoods. For this reason, climate migration is a broad category that encompasses individuals migrating for a wide variety of secondary reasons that are influenced by environmental issues. These reasons, whether directly or indirectly related to climate, ultimately result in unsustainable living conditions and compel people to seek refuge elsewhere.

It has been estimated that 3.6 billion people already reside in highly climate-vulnerable regions. However, accurately estimating the number of climate migrants remains challenging due to insufficient internal migration data and the categorization of many migrants under different labels, such as economic or political migrants. This complexity is compounded by the fact that, although commonly labeled as “climate refugees” in the media and public discourse, these individuals do not receive official recognition as such under international law. The 1951 Geneva Convention’s definition of “refugee” requires a clear persecuting agent, a criterion that can be challenging to establish in cases of environmental displacement, particularly when destination governments are unwilling to view climate migration as falling within the current categories under the Refugee Convention (race, religion, nationality, political opinion, membership in a particular social group). This lack of recognition directly hinders migrants’ ability to access visas, entry, asylum and refugee protection. Thus, while climate migration itself is not a new phenomenon, the unprecedented scale and frequency of displacements—in addition to the lack of legal protections offered—signals a growing crisis that demands immediate attention.

In the coming months, look for more from Refugee Projects on climate migration.

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