Climate migration keeps growing — but doesn't look as you might expect

Internally displaced people due to severe flooding in Kenya. Photo by: Anouk Delafortrie / EU ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

The Shebelle, one of Somalia’s two major rivers, went completely dry for the first time in 2017. That same year, the number of new people displaced in Somalia because of disasters shot up to 899,000, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Despite different mitigation measures, the trend continues to move largely upward.

Concern Worldwide removed silt from one section of the river, with the possibility of preventing flooding once the river again filled and eventually overflowed — an increasingly common occurrence in the region.

“If you look at it from a country perspective, the impact was deep for the local community who are within a certain area ... but going downwards or upwards [along] the river, then the situation remained the same,” said Mercy Gitau, a WASH specialist with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Somalia.

Amid proclamations that a new, great international migration — sparked mainly by climate change and its varied impacts — has begun, the reality of climate-induced displacement remains largely invisible, contained within countries.

Nearly 25 million people were displaced in 2019 because of natural disasters, compared with approximately 8.6 million displaced by conflict and violence. The figures for those displaced due to disaster vary each year but have steadily trumped the number forced to flee because of violence since 2008. Around the world, the number of people displaced within their own countries rose by almost 25% in 2019.

“What we see in those instances where we have some insights is that people stay within as close by as possible usually or move into the next urban area. So open urban centers are really the magnet, in a sense, for most of this type of displacement, so people can seek other opportunities for livelihoods, etc.,” said Bina Desai, head of programs at IDMC.

“What we are seeing, and will continue to see, is more and more people coming to the towns. It’s becoming harder and harder to remain in the villages.”

— Mercy Gitau, WASH specialist, Norwegian Refugee Council

“That often results in people really not wanting to return. And that has, of course, significant policy implications because it's really about resettlement to some extent. Very often, the preferred option is local integration,” Desai continued.

Among other reasons, many displaced people stay within their own nations due to “push factors” keeping them out of neighboring countries — even if those borderlands offer a more familiar landscape than urban centers. In Somalia, pastoralists whose livelihoods are threatened by the cyclical nature of intensifying floods, followed by drought and then floods once again, are finding that neighboring countries are experiencing similar environmental threats, according to Gitau. In other cases, the cost of cross-border migration can be prohibitive.

“And if they cross to the other side of a [border], then this can actually cause conflict — over water and pasture, especially. So you find people will refrain from crossing and just try to move around and within the country until all options are actually exhausted internally,” Gitau said.

“What we are seeing, and will continue to see, is more and more people coming to the towns. It’s becoming harder and harder to remain in the villages,” Gitau continued.

There were 80 million people forcibly displaced worldwide in mid-2020, according to the UN Refugee Agency, and 45.7 million of them were internally displaced. Approximately 26.3 million were refugees, who moved to other countries.

“Based on the data available, most people do not migrate internationally. A lot of people are made more vulnerable because of climate change, and it is not the poorest people who migrate. A lot of them choose to migrate locally to the closest place,” said Camille Le Coz, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

But this data doesn’t necessarily match some of the myths on climate-induced displacement — including that large-scale climatic events will prompt equally large, sudden movement of migrants into richer countries — which have concerned experts.

“I think it's a huge issue. And we're trying to show that the evidence doesn't corroborate this perception that climate impacts are going to result in mass movements. It's just such a distraction from the social and political and economic issues across the globe, really — and not just in low-income countries but also in middle- to high-income economies — that need to be handled and tackled,” Desai said.

One of these issues is that people who migrate because of climate-related problems still lack formal recognition or international protection.

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UNHCR released guidance on protection for climate refugees late last year. This marks a step forward in the quest for recognition, as the guidance acknowledged “that climate may induce displacement in different ways, and we need some sort of way to protect people who may cross borders in that context,” said Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager for the climate displacement program at Refugees International.

There tends to be less contention around climate’s role in prompting internal displacement — and whose responsibility it is to provide for these displaced people — since there are humanitarian assistance mechanisms already in place to serve these populations, according to Ober.

A handful of countries, such as Fiji, have recently launched long-term internal relocation programs for citizens impacted by climate change.

But the response to climate-linked displacement is often still grounded in an immediate humanitarian response or a drive to help people return to their homes — even if climatic events or trends have rendered those homes increasingly unlivable.

“The institutional setup and the funding streams are still not fit for purpose in the sense that they should allow for this longer-term perspective of, for example, the need for local integration. With that, you just have to have completely different actors around the table, from urban planners to local education and health service providers,” Desai said.

There should also be recognition that technical mitigation methods, such as drought-resistant crops, might only go so far in creating sustainable solutions for people, Ober said.

“Has climate change changed your home so dramatically that you couldn't return and a dignified life and actually adapt to it in a way that we traditionally think of? I think that is the ultimate question,” Ober said.

This focus area, supported by the U.N. Development Programme, explores how climate change and other planetary imbalances impact the rising trend of human inequality and vice versa. Visit the Focus on: People and the Planet page for more.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.