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Aerial shot of the Rohingya Refugee Camp, the largest in the world.

Aerial shot of the Rohingya Refugee Camp. Since August 25, 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya refugees have sought sanctuary in Bangladesh, constituting one of the swiftest and most extensive population movements in recent history. These refugees, predominantly from the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, are fleeing a situation the United Nations has deemed genocidal, stemming from decades of persecution and human rights violations. They have streamed into Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, joining a pre-existing community of more than 200,000 Rohingya who had fled in previous years. Presently, approximately 880,000 stateless Rohingya refugees inhabit Kutupalong, the world's largest and most densely populated refugee camp, with nearly half of them being children.

Credit: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury

Migration

Call to action:

Build resilient communities so people don't have to flee a climate disaster, and help those who do flee by rebuilding our migrant, asylum, and refugee systems with climate change in mind.

Climate disasters are forcing record numbers of people to leave their homes in search of safety or a better life, and climate migration is likely to expand as the crisis worsens. Sudden disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires force millions of people each year to flee. Slow disasters such as a prolonged drought can push millions more to move. It is estimated that between 216 million to over 1 billion people will be forced from their homes by 2050, either moving within their country as internally displaced or across borders as migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers. Climate migration often falls on those with the fewest resources to cope with disaster and loss of life and livelihood. It can fuel “close-the-borders” reactions and pull resources and attention away from efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. Global preparation and the establishment of safe migration corridors can reduce suffering and ensure that communities remain resilient.

Action Items

Individuals

Understand the different types of migrants. Migrants are people who are moving in search of work and security. Asylum seekers are generally defined as people fleeing persecution or danger and seeking safety in a new country. Both have fewer rights and privileges than refugees, who face persecution in their home country and are given a designated status under the International Refugee Convention and are provided care and services in the accepting country. Internally displaced people, or IDPs, are those who move within their nation’s borders, fleeing danger or disaster. They are often overlooked in the sphere of migration altogether. All four types of migrants are likely to increase in number as the climate crisis deepens. The systems in place to accommodate their movement are vastly unprepared for these increases across the entire world. 

Understand the multifaceted reasons for migration, why it is expected to increase, and how unprepared we are for climate migrants. Climate-fueled disasters are rarely the sole reason people migrate. Simultaneous pressures like poverty, poor work opportunities, gang violence and extortion, political corruption, government public service cuts, food insecurity, and housing shortages, as well as environmental degradation, like degraded soils, deforestation, overgrazing, overfishing, and pollution, make lives already difficult more difficult. Climate migration responses must recognize and address the multiple “push” factors that result in a family’s migration.

  • Climate change exacerbates preexisting conditions, including violence and instability. Compounding disasters in Central America—recurrent drought followed by hurricanes—have forced many subsistence farmers and their families to move to local cities, causing crowding and poor living conditions, reducing wages and job opportunities, and increasing encounters with violent gangs. Similar situations are playing out across Africa and Asia.
  • State and local governments are unprepared— or unwilling to be prepared— for an influx of climate migrants. The federal program for natural disasters in the United States is built to provide short-term aid, but in the case of climate displacement, little attention and funds are provided for migrants to integrate into new communities, including access to health care and financial assistance. Many infrastructure efforts, even in high-income countries like the U.S., are building vulnerable structures in climate-prone areas instead of building climate-resilient structures. Low-income countries do not have the funds or the capital to address the crises that hit them the hardest.
  • No high-income country has established refugee or asylum programs for climate migrants. Climate disaster is not currently covered under UN refugee designation rules. The UN has confirmed that in certain narrow cases, when a climate disaster intersects with violence, a refugee claim may be valid, but the UN does not recognize the term “climate refugee.” The U.S. does not recognize natural disaster alone as a reason to claim asylum.
  • Quota expansions blocked. Many high-income countries, particularly the U.S. and those in Europe, have blocked efforts to increase migrant quotas despite the increasing frequency and size of disasters. (Europe has made an exception for refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.) 
  • Most climate migration occurs within countries. Few countries are prepared for rapid and large-scale internal displacement triggered by climate crises. Australia is struggling to keep up with the health consequences of recent bushfires and heat waves that displaced tens of thousands. In 2022, 675,000 people in the U.S. were internally displaced by disasters. Cities in the U.S., such as Houston and the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, have slowly received climate migrants after overlapping disasters but have done little to recognize the influx and build the institutional capacity to serve climate migrants. Lower-income and marginalized communities are at greatest risk of displacement. 

Help change the narrative on climate migrants. Support climate migrants by sharing their importance in your local community. When migrants settle in a community, their name changes—they become immigrants. Share stories of immigrants helping communities thrive culturally, politically, and economically, and bust myths around immigrant contributions. A change in tone around migration can help climate migrants become welcome members of the community when they arrive. Messages include:

  • They build safe neighborhoods. In the U.S., violent crime rates are lower in neighborhoods with higher numbers of immigrants. Incarceration rates among immigrants are low. New York City is a great example, where a 1 percent increase in immigration was associated with two-thirds fewer crimes per year.
  • They contribute financially to society. Migrants are often accused of becoming a burden on society, such as taking more from state-provided health systems. However, the actual picture is complex. In the U.S., a cross-sectional study analyzed medical expenditures versus payments by immigrants, particularly those without authorization to live in the U.S., and found most pay more into the health-care system than they use.
  • They fill important roles in the economy. Many advanced economies with highly educated populations are experiencing labor shortages. While economies are extremely complex, migrants can play a role in reducing labor shortages.

Build climate resilience and community mobilization plans within your own town or city so people do not have to migrate after a climate disaster. A mobilized community brings all the community’s voices to the table, including Indigenous perspectives and youth voices. They know what resources are available and where and prioritize those who need resources most after a disaster, like people with chronic illness or disabilities, those who are food insecure, or those who live in remote areas. Climate resilience is an equitable response to climate change because disasters hit the hardest for those who are already struggling. Additionally, many people have built their cultures around their homelands, and migration causes not just economic and social but cultural disruption. Climate resilience helps people stay in their own communities where they have better access to resources and connections.

Pressure state and federal governments to amend their policies to accept and support climate migrants, allot funds to build infrastructure to prevent internal displacement, and support communities after disaster. 

  • Require governments to provide funding for community-level planning for climate disasters.
  • Demand resilience hubs or centers, community facilities that support the community during disaster and are utilized every day to support community development and wellness.
  • Ensure your national government adheres to global agreements on migration, including: Guiding Principles on International Displacement, the global standard “to prevent, respond to, and resolve internal displacement.” Also, the nonbinding but important Global Compact for Migration.

Build a culture of welcome toward migrants. Volunteer at and donate to local migrant shelters. Organize your neighborhood to incorporate new arrivals into your community.

  • In Germany, Willkommenskultur, a “culture of welcome,” started out as a political catchphrase but was quickly adopted by the brigade of volunteers who provided not just organized welcome parties, but access to services and neighborhood connections, for newly arrived migrants.
  • In response to overwhelmed migrant services in Maine, residents donated half a million dollars to a Community Support Fund and organized a welcome party, in contrast to other U.S. communities that surpassed their capacity for asylum seekers.
  • In Poland, when the government wouldn’t accept asylum seekers, locals stepped in to help those trying to cross the border.

Support organizations that welcome climate migrants and support sustainable climate-focused community development and climate justice. Many organizations along major borders, including the U.S.-Mexico border and islands in Greece and Italy that receive boats from Africa, are overwhelmed and need more support in order to provide basic humanitarian aid to new arrivals. Refugee centers at the edge of climate disaster zones quickly get beyond capacity when disaster strikes. 

Organizations

Health-Care Industry

Expand hospital or health center emergency preparedness plans with an eye toward the climate. Many resources exist to support climate migrants, like the Climate Resilience for Frontline Clinics tool kit, Climate for Health’s Moving Forward guide, and Healthcare without Harm’s numerous resources tailored for each region of the world.

  • Past disasters like hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, flooding, or wildfires may worsen or last longer. New disasters like wildfires in regions that previously did not experience them may be on the horizon. Emergency plans need to incorporate new risks.
  • Partner with communities to build local mobilization plans that link the community with healthcare providers, like community health centers in Puerto Rico did after Hurricane Maria. Together, identify and support those who may otherwise be left out of plans, like newly arrived migrants, people without authorization to live or work in the community, and the historically marginalized. 
  • Elevate the role of community health workers (CHWs) as members of the community and liaison between the site of health-care provision and marginalized segments of the community. CHWs should be included in the disaster preparedness team to help identify vulnerable community members who are most likely to be impacted by disaster, either because of their geography, poverty, or ongoing health concerns. CHWs have proven effective in assisting communities experiencing disaster, like in New York City during the COVID pandemic, and in ensuring treatment for childhood illnesses during active conflict and displacement in South Sudan.

Build a culture of care based on culturally relevant, trauma-informed global health. As migration expands, providers need to expand their outlook to incorporate diagnoses that are unusual in the immediate area but that a recent migrant may have. Additionally, people who have experienced climate disaster trauma need mental and psychological evaluation and support. 

  • Consider diagnoses outside of your region. Migrants may arrive with diseases uncommon in the area; simultaneously, climate change is expanding the ranges of regional diseases like chikungunya and Chagas.

Expand efforts in language justice. Expand and actively use interpretation services throughout a migrant’s visit, from appointment scheduling, to intake, and through the exam.

Non-Profit Organizations

Build community resilience by supporting climate resilience hubs.

  • In Louisiana, a coalition of NGOs called the Community Lighthouse Project is installing solar power systems, including battery storage at key community gathering locations they are calling “Lighthouses,” like churches, health centers, and community centers, to respond to crises like hurricanes.
  • In Northern California, the Norcal Resilience Network brings together community sites as models for resilience and provides resources to support other frontline communities in developing their own hubs.
  • Tunis, in partnership with the UN-Habitat City Resilience Global Programme, mapped the numerous and overlapping risks, including flooding, heat waves, and food, water, and energy shortages, and then built plans to specifically address those risks.

Support newly arrived migrants at international borders.

  • Partner with pro bono lawyers to help migrants navigate the legal system, like Project Corazon in the U.S. or the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Australia. 
  • Connect with health providers to ensure basic triage and case management as they move, like the Migrant Clinicians Network in the U.S.
  • Expand training and partnerships to be able to handle influxes of migrants. Migration can be irregular and urgent; flexible plans that can quickly expand when needs grow are essential.

Governance

Understand, voice, and respond to the risks in your region.

  • After a deadly heat wave, Chicago conducted a vulnerability assessment, and in response, is building green infrastructure to reduce identified heat islands. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Adaptation Resource Center (ARC-X) includes Chicago as one of dozens of case studies that are matched with resources to enact similar strategies.
  • Surat, India, working with the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network, partnered with local businesses, NGOs, and others to map the projected impact of climate on their city, which led to the city’s goal of building new water-management systems.

Pass legislation to provide funding and resources to local municipalities, cities, and counties to develop and implement preventative climate migration plans. Currently, governments at all levels are primarily responding to climate migration in a fragmented and uncoordinated way despite clear evidence that migration is increasing and the climate crisis will increase it further. But some regions are taking a holistic approach: California’s massive climate action plan includes resources for local emergency planners so they can build their local plans with the most at-risk in mind.

  • Build safe and coordinated migration pathways, including border crossings, that can quickly and humanely process an increased number of migrants, and resources to help migrants continue their journeys after crossing. A German government advisory panel recommended the government adopt a “climate passport” for people whose lands were lost due to climate change, an important strategy that other countries can adopt.
  • Consider newly arrived migrants’ needs, including access to safe, legal employment, shelter, food, electricity, health care, and communication, even in cases where infrastructure is disrupted. Pacaraima, Brazil, which provides universal health care regardless of migration status, was unable to provide basic health services for thousands of fleeing Venezuelans as their systems quickly became overwhelmed. Governments need to conceptualize and fund temporary influxes into basic systems to prepare for future crises.   
  • Enact emergency plans specifically for in-country climate disasters with an emphasis on the most marginalized and/or least resourced communities and people. Build infrastructure to support those plans, like resilience hubs.  In Fiji, the Standard Operating Procedures for Planned Relocations outlined how the small island will relocate communities that will soon be inundated by sea level rise. The Mongolian government, with funding and technical assistance from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, developed an early-warning system that alerted vulnerable livestock herders of incoming extreme weather and helped them to prepare, which resulted in economic benefits to the herders through the harsh winter.
  • Cities should prepare to receive displaced people from nearby communities.

Expand humanitarian aid programs to help affected countries support their communities in order to reduce mobility drivers. There’s a disproportionate impact on people already experiencing other socioeconomic vulnerabilities; those effects must be actively and sufficiently addressed in order to slow migration. Most high-income nations have funds earmarked for regional aid; in the age of climate crisis, these funds need to be rapidly expanded and targeted to climate migrants.

  • The European Union recently increased its humanitarian aid to 1.7 billion Euros for 2023, which includes over 330 million Euros for East and Southern Africa to meet the needs of people specifically displaced by climate change and armed conflicts in Sudan and elsewhere in the region.
  • Australia’s Partnerships for Infrastructure partners with Southeast Asian nations to support the region’s resilience and economic recovery related to climate change and poverty.   
  • Sweden is an example of a nation providing funding for programs via the UN Refugee Agency that meet the needs of their refugees, including safe shelters and 24/7 hotlines.

Enact global compacts to build international migration support.

  • Global climate treaties and agreements must financially support lower-income countries that bear the worst burdens of the climate crisis yet contribute to it the least. For example, drought in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia have caused tens of thousands of deaths in an area that has made little contribution to the climate crisis overall.
  • The Philippines adapted the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, and followed it up with coordination and agreements with countries of destination of Filipino migrant workers. Other countries should follow suit; the Global Compact is a critical first step to recognizing and acting on climate migration.

Integrate the voices and perspectives of women, elderly, and youth. They are more affected by the climate crisis and may have a greater impact on migration mitigation. 

  • The Barefoot College of India is a women-centered global network helping marginalized rural communities become key voices in their local sustainable development.
  • Mahila Housing Trust empowers women through sustainable development goals in India.

Learn

Listen

Before the Storm: Getting Out Front of Climate Displacement (Changing Climate, Changing Migration Podcast) (31 mins.)

Climate Migration (Podcast) (21 mins.)

Climate Migration—Not If, But When (Hothouse Earth Podcast) (34 mins.)

Changing Climate, Changing Migration (a series of podcasts)

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