Flooding Across Borders? Are Environmental Problems Causing International Migration?

Nearly 30 years ago, the term “environmental refugee” came into regular use, and today’s incarnation – the “climate change refugee” – continues to provoke popular and political interest. Using the term “environmental/climate refugee” to describe people who move for environmental reasons (e.g. drought, flooding, pollution, natural disasters) has, however, sparked numerous debates. The disputes are partially related to the fact that the legal definition of a refugee does not include protection for people displaced by the environment. In addition, it can be difficult to disentangle environmental from other motivations for migration, such as economic and political ones. Thus, although environmental migration has become a subject of global significance, a number of key issues remain unclear, including proper terminology, how environmental and non-environmental factors interact to lead to migration, and who should be responsible for re-settling or assisting the people who move. Furthermore, much scholarly work has been theoretical in nature, and there is continued need for insights provided by empirical research.

Most migration, regardless of whether the environment is its primary cause, occurs within national boundaries. Nevertheless, within popular media, security circles, and state governance bodies there is growing interest in understanding how environmental problems contribute to migration across international borders as well. A particular concern, especially for governments in the Global North, is whether climate change will increase migration flows out of the Global South, leading to ‘floods’ of ‘environmental refugees’ escaping sea-level rise, natural disasters and prolonged droughts. Given the many implications for policy and the governance of international migration and of climate change, along with Drs. Luisa Veronis (University of Ottawa) and Robert McLeman (Wilfrid Laurier University), I conducted a systematic literature review of scholarly articles published in English presenting empirical research (both qualitative and quantitative case studies) on international environmental migration. The key findings of the review of the roughly 30 studies fitting those criteria are outlined below.

The take-home message is that environmental factors can and do influence international migration, but the relationship is highly mediated by political, economic, social and demographic factors. In numerous studies where environmental factors were found to influence international migration, the environment was rarely the sole driver. In particular, it was common for researchers to see a link between economic and environmental motivations for migration, especially in subsistence households that rely on the environment for their livelihoods. For instance, farmers or herders in regions of sub-Saharan Africa might say they migrated to find a job because of crop failure or loss of cattle (i.e. for economic reasons), but researchers would trace these economic motivations to environmental change, such as a drought. Furthermore, most cases of international migration in the reviewed studies were short-distance moves to neighbouring countries (e.g. from Nepal to India, Haiti to the Dominican Republic, Niger to Libya), or places where migrants had established social networks. In some case studies, such as Haiti, poverty was linked to a lack of governmental support for social programs, environmental restoration and agriculture, so that in the face of environmental hardships, participants expressed that there were no options available to them other than migration.

After reviewing the case studies we also want to stress that the focus of researchers and policy-makers should not just be on environmental migrants, but on people who are unable to migrate away from environmental problems. The role of gender and social class is particularly striking in this regard. For example, in Niger where men were the primary international migrants, women remained behind looking after children and elderly family members. Even with potential benefits from remittances, it could be a struggle to maintain the household and undertake all the environmental restoration on their own. In Honduras after Hurricane Mitch, the migration of well-off community members negatively impacted the communities that migrants left behind because their departures led to less local investment, fewer employment opportunities and a smaller customer base for local businesses. These cases show that gender and social class play a role in determining who can migrate out of poor environmental conditions and that there can be a range of side-effects for the people who stay behind, from further environmental deterioration, to economic and social instability.

There is also the case of small island states in the Pacific that are expected to be the future sites of displacement due to sea-level rise. Interestingly, the studies reviewed found that at present, environmental problems are not leading to migration from those islands and that many community members are actually rejecting the “climate refugee” label that has been imposed on them. Instead, many residents are fighting for their “right to stay,” which further complicates the linkages between environmental change and (im)mobility.

The existing evidence suggests that more alarmist notions of ‘environmental refugees’ flooding into the Global North are unfounded at present. Although international migration related to environmental factors does occur, it is primarily happening on a regional scale or according to established social networks. The findings of our review suggest that environmentally-influenced international migration is unlikely to be indiscriminate, but tied to the context of support available in households, regions, states and through transnational networks. Moving forward, future research and policy should focus on mitigating the effects of climate change and acknowledging that migration—whether short- or long-distance, temporary or permanent—can be a proactive action taken by individuals and households. More focus should be placed on helping to create conditions in which people are not forced to leave their homes, as well as removing barriers to mobility so that people who do not have the resources to migrate in times of environmental stress are not made more vulnerable.

The full article is available online under Open Access.


Obokata, R., Veronis, L. & McLeman, R. (2014). Empirical research on international environmental migration: A systematic review. Population and Environment. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11111-014-0210-7


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Reiko Obokata

About Reiko Obokata

Reiko Obokata is an MA candidate at the University of Ottawa, Canada working under the supervision of Dr. Luisa Veronis, and within a broader SSHRC-funded research project entitled Environmental Influences and International Migration to Canada. Her thesis research was conducted with Filipino newcomers in Ottawa and examines the relationship between environmental factors and transnational migration.

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