Efforts to Manage Climate Migration Are Slowly Growing, but Their Focus Is Often Indirect
Climate change is fundamentally reshaping patterns of human migration and displacement, triggering movement internally and internationally, and leaving many vulnerable people trapped in place. Migration in the face of climate change can be a positive choice, if done voluntarily and in an orderly manner. But it can also be unsafe and forced, creating problems for people who move and their communities at origin and destination.
The impacts of climate change are most acute in low- and middle-income countries. In response, donor governments and development organizations such as the World Bank and European Investment Bank have begun to work on the climate-mobility nexus, aiming to turn haphazard, unplanned climate displacement into voluntary, safe migration. But climate action efforts explicitly aimed at addressing environmentally induced mobility are nascent and many remain in pilot phase. The earliest large-scale program explicitly working on climate mobility began only in 2017, and there still are few flagship global or regional projects. These projects are relatively new and small in scale, largely because the links between migration and environmental change are complex, require context-specific solutions, and often intersect with many other reasons for movement. Thus, tackling these links has proven difficult, and projects to address this challenge remain rare.
In reality, a wide range of activities in the broader climate realm could indirectly help manage climate mobility, even if not described as doing so. For instance, many climate-focused projects that are designed to manage disaster risks or to train people on resilient livelihoods (such as sustainable agricultural techniques) also can lower the likelihood that people are forced to leave their homes as climates worsen. These projects generally do not make explicit connections to displacement, but when they target hotspots where displacement might otherwise be common, it is reasonable to consider them mobility related.
Projects that assist people who move for a range of reasons (including conflict, political instability, and poverty) also may have a climate link. People rarely move solely because of the impacts of climate change; more often, they face a mix of environmental factors, livelihoods stressors, security threats, and other issues. Development organizations cannot know the precise reason why each individual beneficiary moved, so projects that boost migrants’ access to climate-resilient livelihoods or infrastructure can also be counted as climate mobility projects.
Yet when looking at programs with an explicit climate mobility focus, the numbers are few. To understand how development organizations are operating in this space, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) sought to map climate mobility projects around the world, identifying 54 in total. This mapping, while not exhaustive, offers an informed outline of current operations. The projects ranged from one-year, U.S. $200,000, local-level initiatives specifically focused on climate migrants in African cities to U.S. $200 million-plus multilateral development bank-funded climate adaptation and resilience projects, only a few components of which specifically targeted migration. While focus on climate mobility may be increasing, there have been few attempts to map their scope and approach, and limited public evaluations to determine if programs are effective. This article offers an overview of these programs, both completed and ongoing, and the three major goals around which they are organized: helping people stay, helping individuals move, and assisting those who are already on the move.
Box 1. Methods
This article is based on research conducted by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), supported with a grant from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The research identified 54 climate mobility projects around the world by analyzing efforts of major funders and implementing partners. While it is likely impossible to compile a comprehensive list of all climate mobility-related efforts due to the ambiguous nature of climate-related migration, the research provides useful insights into present-day operations.
MPI researchers interviewed 21 staff members working on 12 of these projects in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, and Central and South America —selected to ensure a diversity of geographies, actors, and activities—as well as other experts from academia, global implementing partners, and donors.
The Goals of Managing Climate Mobility
Climate mobility-related projects can generally be categorized into three main objectives: Helping people stay in place, helping people move, and helping people already in transit or at destination. This typology has been championed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), one of the main organizations implementing projects on climate mobility.
Most projects reviewed by MPI helped people stay in place—by aiding community adaptation to climate change in hotspots where displacement is or is projected to be most acute—or offered assistance to people already on the move, such as securing green jobs for migrants and displaced people and building resilient infrastructure in migrant settlements. Least common were projects specifically to help resettle people affected by environmental change; since there are few international migration pathways for people moving solely due to a climate-related reason, these projects typically work on relocating communities away from climate-vulnerable areas, usually within the same country (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Primary Goals of Climate Mobility-Focused Projects
Notes: Data derive from mapping of climate mobility projects drawn from publicly available information primarily on initiatives funded by major international donors and implementing partners. The mapping is not exhaustive and does not seek to represent all projects on climate mobility, largely because many projects indirectly address the topic but are not explicitly labelled climate mobility projects. Projects addressing multiple goals were categorized based on what most of their activities sought to achieve.
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis.
Projects to Help People Stay
Of the 54 projects catalogued, 25 sought to help people stay in place or prevent forced displacement so that those who moved did so by choice. Most of these projects enhanced climate resilience in areas where individuals were routinely displaced or likely to be displaced, a determination that development organizations sometimes make using modeling. The best modeling is incredibly granular, helping policymakers know exactly which households, buildings, and infrastructure are most at risk due to climate events. For instance, to assess the flood displacement risk at the building level, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) has piloted a model that identifies the probability of floods and the impacts of potential flooding on housing, livelihoods, and critical services. IOM meanwhile has used satellite imagery to understand environmental risks in urban and peri-urban agricultural districts of Dakar, Senegal and Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
After identifying a particularly vulnerable location, the resulting project varies depending on context. As with all development projects, climate mobility programing aims to address specific local conditions; in some places, people need climate-resilient livelihoods such as trainings to engage in sustainable water management, while elsewhere they need hurricane shelters, and in others early warning systems to sound the alarm before the next disaster. Local communities can offer input on their needs and priorities, to ensure the project addresses the specific drivers of displacement. Oftentimes, these projects look identical to non-mobility-related projects, but because they are targeted to places modeled to have a high likelihood of outmigration, they are considered mobility-related.
Another approach to help people stay involves working directly with diasporas. Some projects encourage diaspora members to invest remittances in climate resilience projects in their communities of origin or ancestral homelands. This includes efforts to raise awareness on why and how to direct remittances to adaptation activities and create opportunities for diaspora members to invest in green startups or small businesses. This approach has been tried since at least 2014 by bodies including IOM, the Global Mechanism of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and the EU Global Diaspora Facility. But these projects have rarely been evaluated and it remains unclear how much money they have steered into climate resilience efforts.
Another approach is to work with migrants who voluntarily returned to their places of origin or who were deported, by providing training and income opportunities in green jobs such as sustainable forestry or agriculture. This “green reintegration” approach was piloted by IOM in Senegal in 2018 and later expanded in another IOM project that began in Senegal in 2020. Although the number of beneficiaries is typically very small, the approach has had some success; the pilot project’s training in green agroforestry jobs skills helped 14 out of the 15 returnees build sustainable, climate-friendly incomes. This suggests there is significant potential for more reintegration projects to systematically provide training or opportunities for environmentally friendly livelihoods.
Special Issue: Climate Change and Migration
This article is part of a special series about climate change and migration.
Projects to Help People Move
Just eight of the 54 projects reviewed worked to help people move, whether internally or internationally. A key focus for these initiatives is planned relocation, which involves moving the households and communities most at risk from severe disasters and climate events to safer areas, for instance inland and away from coasts affected by floods, erosion, or sea-level rise. Typically, relocation occurs within the same country.
While such activities are rare, governments and development actors have started preparations for planned relocation policies early. In Fiji, the government has begun relocating in part or in full dozens of vulnerable villages. It has developed national guidelines and laid out a process for consulting communities before, during, and after relocation. A project funded by the German and New Zealand governments is developing standard operating procedures and risk assessment methodologies for Fiji’s planned relocation, as well as financial management guidelines to operationalize its planned trust fund to provide funding for future relocations.
Preparing for planned relocation takes time, so interventions by governments and development organizations may not bear fruit for many years. Communities must decide to request relocation; governments and experts should undergo stringent processes to decide whether, when, and where communities should move; and new households, infrastructure, and jobs need to be created. This whole process should be culturally specific, accounting for people’s spiritual ties, the cultural value of their homes and community structures, as well as simply their types of livelihoods (for instance, people who fish for a living will struggle if they move far inland). This all takes long-term planning and national policy frameworks that, outside of certain Pacific Islands, are still rare.
Projects to Help People on the Move
When individuals facing climate impacts move—and often their best choice may be to move—they frequently go to areas that are also climate-vulnerable. For instance, many rural-urban migrants in the Philippines move to slums and informal settlements in Manila, where they regularly face severe floods. In some cases, people moving because of the impacts of environmental change are displaced yet again by climate events, in a process known as double climate displacement. Twenty-one of the 54 projects in this review worked to help migrants, displaced people, and others acquire green jobs, climate-resilient infrastructure such as water facilities and electricity, and access to services such as schools and health clinics.
It is very rare for projects to specifically target people who move because of climate change, because of the previously described challenges isolating individual migration drivers. So-called climate migrants often move for a mix of economic, social, and climatic reasons, such as agricultural or fishery livelihoods that become less profitable due to climate change. Development actors often work in climate-affected areas, but they cannot know whether each beneficiary is a climate migrant per se. A new hospital in urban Dhaka, for instance, is not a climate project, but could serve some of the thousands of climate migrants arriving in the city each day.
Instead, most of these projects support migrants to access green jobs and build their resilience to climate change, regardless of why they moved. For instance, in western Belize, migrants have lived in informal settlements since the 1980s, after moving for economic and political reasons. Yet each year, they experience floods and bushfires that are exacerbated by climate change. In response, the government and IOM are building flood drainage, hurricane shelters, and a health clinic, and training migrants as firefighters and health-clinic volunteers. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Pan American Development Foundation and IAMovement are training Venezuelan migrants (who similarly did not move because of climate change) to use vetiver grass for land restoration and make handicrafts, so they can both gain incomes and contribute to a green transition. One especially promising example is a project to support local adaptation planning in Mongla, Bangladesh, which would enhance resilience and support migrant integration in this smaller, secondary city. As more and more people move from other parts of Bangladesh to Dhaka, the city is struggling to support such rapid population growth; this project hopes to incentivize internal migrants to move to smaller alternative cities, with plans to expand to 26 towns and cities by 2030.
Box 2. Loss and Damage
In November 2022, governments across the world agreed to establish a landmark loss and damage fund. This marks a huge step towards turning the rhetoric of loss and damage—the commitment to avert, minimize, and address harms caused by climate change, particularly on low- and middle-income countries that are badly affected by climate change but contributed little emissions—into action. Planning for the loss and damage fund is still at the earliest stages but offers an important entry point for funding projects on climate displacement. The Platform on Disaster Displacement has launched a global program framed around loss and damage, piloting activities in Bangladesh, Fiji, Guatemala, and Kenya to assess displacement risk, enhance preparedness, integrate displacement and disaster planning, develop knowledge on loss and damage, and support access to finance.
The loss and damage approach often overlaps with efforts to help people to stay, to move, and on the move, but there are key differences. Its focus is on forced displacement, not voluntary migration, and on specifically climate-related disasters (excluding, for example, earthquakes). Perhaps more importantly, loss and damage is a novel concept to most governments. It will likely take time and involve controversial trade-offs before donors put up significant funding for loss and damage. Countries receiving this funding will need to figure out how they want to use it and how to ensure all relevant government offices are in alignment. Loss and damage is likely to becomes a more common approach for development actors, but it remains an open question whether rhetoric will turn into concrete operation.
Lessons for the Future
Programs to manage climate mobility are well underway and, while small in number, are growing more common and complex. Yet there is little information about their effectiveness. Of the 12 projects about which MPI conducted interviews, only one had gone through a formal external evaluation (although a second is underway). Still, there are a few clear trends about how development organizations are approaching climate mobility projects.
For one, these projects are increasingly based on sophisticated research and data, although only sometimes is that information derived from the local level. Climate modeling often determines where people are at most risk of displacement, but a lack of available local data—or unwillingness to use that information—can make it more difficult to design and target projects for the places where they will have the largest impact. For instance, projects that train migrants and returnees to work in green sectors would benefit from robust, reliable data about new and upcoming job opportunities in the green economy, but this information rarely exists.
Projects also place a strong emphasis on securing buy-in from local and national authorities. These officials tend to understand residents’ needs and the climate threats they face better than donors, and they play a more active role in the community over the long term. For instance, a development organization can build climate-resilient infrastructure such as a dam or sea wall, but it will be up to local authorities to maintain it over time. Securing this buy-in can be tricky; local authorities do not always have the same capacities to implement and monitor complex projects. Moreover, climate mobility programs often involve coordinating with different parts of government, including agencies focused on foreign affairs, the environment, agriculture, disasters, and housing; getting buy-in from each office is difficult and can slow down projects.
Finally, climate mobility projects tend to be quite new, although a few are beginning to look at scaling up and replicating to other countries. IOM, for example, has expanded its green reintegration project in Senegal to a larger number of beneficiaries. Some project approaches, however, are difficult to scale up. For instance, tapping into diaspora remittances to fund climate adaptation may seem admirable, but remittance projects have generally struggled to channel money into broader development and climate goals, since they are based on private funds sent for a family or community’s use. Nonetheless, there is immense potential to scale up many projects. Could all projects to support migrant livelihoods become green livelihoods projects? Could all reintegration projects become green reintegration projects? Could there be a more systematic partnership between organizations that model hotspots of climate displacement and donors who could fund projects in those regions? These are some of the questions facing development organizations as they seek to tackle climate mobility.
A Rapidly Evolving Space
Projects to make climate mobility safe, voluntary, and orderly are still new, and organizations’ approaches are likely to evolve as they fund more programming in this area. Projects to help people stay in place are likely to proliferate, given the general increasing interest in climate adaptation and especially if such projects are included in future loss and damage funding. Many will not be directly linked to climate mobility, but will nonetheless indirectly contribute to preventing forced displacement, especially if they are based on robust data about where and why people are being displaced.
Projects to help people move and those to help people on the move may become more common as more people migrate amid worsening climate impacts. This includes planned relocation projects and developing national relocation policies, which now tend to be focused on the Pacific Islands. More broadly, development organizations may prioritize migrants and displaced people in their projects to develop green job opportunities or build climate resilience in general.
The impacts of climate change on migration will only become more severe and widespread, and as the patterns of climate mobility change so will the projects and approaches taken by these development organizations. To tackle a challenge of the scale and complexity of climate mobility, more projects will be needed addressing all aspect of the nexus. Although still quite new, developmental organizations’ support for climate mobility-related projects is growing and promises to rapidly evolve.
The author thanks Camille Le Coz, Beatrice Dain, and Shreya Bhat for their research assistance.
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