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Climate Change and Natural Disasters Displace Millions, Affect Migration Flows

Climate Change and Natural Disasters Displace Millions, Affect Migration Flows

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The Nepal earthquake caused mass devastation and impacted the country's labor migration patterns. (Photo: Asian Development Bank)

Even as violence, persecution, and poverty have driven people to leave their countries in movements unseen since record keeping began (see Issue #2: Displacement Reaches Record High as Wars Continue and New Conflicts Emerge), climate change and natural disasters such as the massive earthquake that devastated Nepal in spring 2015 have played a significant role in influencing migration patterns. And climate-induced migration surfaced as a key concern at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as COP21) that took place in early December. In his opening remarks, President Obama noted the possible futures we face if climate change remains unaddressed: “Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields that no longer grow. Political disruptions that trigger new conflict, and even more floods of desperate peoples seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own.”

“Disaster displacement represents one of the biggest humanitarian challenges of the 21st century,” said Walter Kaelin of the Nansen Initiative, at a convention of the intergovernmental consultative process on environmental migration led by Norway and Switzerland ahead of COP21 in October. Between 2008 and 2014, 184.6 million people were forced from their homes due to floods, earthquakes, tropical storms, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters, with 19.3 million newly displaced in 2014, according to the latest available data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

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The driving force of such migration can be broken down into two types of natural dangers: rapid-onset trigger events and slow-onset emergencies. While extreme-weather events (e.g. earthquakes or floods) cause a direct and urgent movement of people, slower-onset climate change such as drought and erosion are becoming more frequent and persistent. Even as natural disasters have immediate displacement effects and can disrupt established migration patterns, climate-related emergencies—combined with a host of socioeconomic factors—are driving ever greater numbers to migrate internally and across borders. Though often interlinked, as incremental climate change can increase the risk of certain natural disasters, their onset and consequences have widely varying implications for regional migration and international policymaking.

Extreme Natural Disasters: Nepal Earthquake

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal in April had direct and immediate effects on the country’s labor migration patterns. The worst disaster in Nepal since 1934, the earthquake, and subsequent powerful tremors in May, claimed more than 8,500 lives and left at least 2 million people homeless. Before the quake, Nepal had been in the midst of a labor exportation surge mainly to India and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—by far the largest driving force in Nepalese migration. Nepal’s economy relies heavily on worker remittances, which accounted for 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or about US $4 billion in 2013-14. With more than 2.2 million foreign-labor permits issued by Nepal between 2008 and 2014, about 8 percent of the country’s population was overseas at the time of the quake.

Since the disaster, internal migration and displacement have spiked, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced around the country. International migration has seen a mixed pattern, with some workers returning, desperate to get home to find and support displaced loved ones, while others with no home to return to and facing difficult logistics or employers unwilling to offer leave time, have remained overseas. Though the government facilitated provisions for overseas workers to return home after the quake, the opportunity was largely underused, in part because some families determined that migrant’s earnings were more important. Furthermore, many families in Nepal have since sought to send a worker abroad to increase remittance income to provide necessities in the aftermath of the quake.

Slow-Onset Emergencies: Drought

Slow-onset climate concerns such as drought, rising seas, and erosion affect migration patterns in a more indirect way. Severe drought, alongside complex socioeconomic and political factors, has been a growing motivation for migration in parts of Africa and Central America, with implications for regional migration patterns. In 2015, Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe experienced extreme droughts with large impacts on both staple foods and cash crops, which will leave many with decreased means of sustenance or income, and may motivate migration to urban areas or across borders. Botswana in 2015 allocated emergency funds to support livestock farmers in response to the worst drought conditions in 30 years, with agricultural land badly hit by the lack of water; Southern Africa’s total production forecast was down about 7 percent from 2014, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2015 Crop Prospects and Food Situation report. With below-average rainfall and similar crop outcomes predicted into 2016, the undermining of rural livelihoods in farming and herding, and increased competition for resources, may contribute to migration decisions.

Long-term climate-related emergencies have significant impacts on employment opportunities, economic sustainability, and perhaps most importantly, food security. Drought in 2015 played a large role in exacerbating food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa—already plagued by numerous development challenges—to an unprecedented degree. In Malawi alone, 2.8 million people are estimated at risk of food insecurity between October 2015 and March 2016 as a result of drought and flooding. In Somalia, consecutive years of drought and famine have aggravated forced displacement sparked by protracted violent conflict, with 855,000 people facing crisis due to unreliable food availability through December, according to the Assessment Capacities Project. In Central America, food shortages, loss of farming jobs, and worsening hunger caused by prolonged droughts are contributing to migration decisions for poor families alongside high levels of insecurity caused by crime and gang violence, according to a joint World Food Program/International Organization for Migration study. Three and a half million people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have been affected by one of the most severe droughts in the region’s history, contributing to increasing migration within Central America and to the United States and Mexico.

Climate, Disasters, and International Migration

Migration patterns affected by climate-related phenomenon tend to change gradually. People move in smaller or less frequent waves, depending on how acute the crisis becomes or what their means allow, making such migration harder to track. International organizations and policymakers have begun to recognize the growing challenges—and potential protection obligations—of climate-related migration. On October 13, 110 countries participating in the Nansen Initiative’s final global consultation ahead of COP21 in Paris adopted a nonbinding contract to protect those displaced by earthquakes, volcanoes, and other climate-related hazards. Few disagree that the international community must react and provide aid to those displaced in the event of a natural disaster, but questions remain regarding the movement of people due to slower-onset climate change. In Syria, for example, a five-year drought may have contributed to increasing ethnic tensions and the onset of the civil war, giving rise to a contentious debate on the role of such climate-change effects on refugee flows. With environmental concerns increasingly linked to migration, finding policy answers may assume more prominence on the international migration agenda in the years ahead.


MPI Research


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Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). 2015. Global Estimate 2015: People Displaced by Disasters. Geneva: IDMC. Available Online.  

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