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Who are “Climate Migrants”?

Climate migration is an issue that is raised more and more often in international and domestic areas, drawing attention from both the Biden administration and the United Nations, among others. Despite the increased attention on the topic, there is still little agreement on a universal definition for the term, who falls under the definition “climate migrant,” or even the use of the term itself. 

There are multiple phrases that have been proposed for a person who is forced to move due to environmental or climate factors. Climate-displaced person, environmental migrant, climate refugee, climate migrant, and environmentally-displaced person are some of the terms in use in research, articles and governmental documents. Part of the difficulty of agreeing on a widely used definition of climate migrant is likely because it is difficult to determine any one causal factor for migration. Migration is almost always multi-causal, and it is hard to point to any one factor as the deciding factor. Disentangling people’s reasoning for leaving their country is difficult, as their reasons will often prove to be complex and multi-layered, and migrant surveys tend not to reflect this nuance. In addition, climate impacts are being felt in different ways around the world, meaning that people’s reasons for migrating that are related to climate changes are also different. Overall, the phenomenon is highly complex, and agreeing on a definition has proved challenging. 

Each potential nomenclature comes with its own pros and cons. The term “climate refugee” is not particularly popular with international organizations, lawmakers, or the migrants themselves, with most arguing that the term is inaccurate. Legally, people displaced by climate change are not refugees, since they do not qualify for refugee protection under the terms of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, which provides protection for those having a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their own countries. Those who are displaced by climate change also dislike the term, claiming that it can be stigmatizing, strips them of their humanity, and often does not accurately reflect their circumstances. 

Dina Ionesco, the head of the Migration, Environment, and Climate Change Division at the U.N.’s migration agency (IOM) wrote an op-ed pointing out that the term “climate refugee” overlooks key aspects of human mobility. She highlights that most climate migration is internal, that migration is not always forced (especially in the context of slow-onset climate processes), and that isolating environmental reasons for migrating from humanitarian, political, social conflict, or economic reasons is difficult. She fears that creating a category for climate refugees might exclude people who move for a mix of reasons, and that opening the 1951 Convention for debate might weaken refugee status overall. Finally, she emphasizes that existing bodies of law, preventive strategies, and migration management strategies should be utilized. Many migration experts agree with her qualms regarding the term, asserting that migration should not be framed as a single-cause issue and arguing that migration is always multi-causal, with climate change acting as a threat multiplier that exacerbates existing issues in people’s home countries. 

“Climate migrant” also comes with negative implications for the opposite reason, as the word “migrant” may suggest “a degree of volition in the decision to move,” which does not accurately reflect that many displaced by climate feel as if they have no choice but to move. However, the term is more accurate than “climate refugee” under existing legal frameworks and is more inclusive of internally displaced migrants. The term “environmental migrant” still incorporates the term “migrant,” but it includes internally displaced persons and avoids the legally tricky territory of “climate refugee.” Some argue the term is even more inclusive than “climate migrant” because it comprises people who are affected by environmental degradation, but it could also be seen as a “mushier” term, since it does not directly tie the phenomenon to climate change. The term “climate-displaced person” tests best with American audiences. According to a survey of 1,200 people conducted by Oxfam America and the Sierra Club, U.S. participants could most easily recognize the term “climate-related displacement,” which made them more likely to support policy responses aimed at the issue. However, the term fails to tie the phenomenon to existing definitions of “migrant” and “refugee,” representing people who have crossed borders.  

Areport on the impact of climate change on migration, released by the Biden administration in October 2021, largely avoids the debate on terminology. The report uses the term “climate-change related migration,” defined as “an umbrella term describing the spectrum of climate change’s relationship with human mobility,” to refer to the phenomenon of climate migration. The report mostly refers to climate migrants as “displaced individuals” or “individuals displaced by climate change.” In a footnote, the report notes that the term “climate refugee” is used within the popular discourse but explains that most climate migration scenarios do not fall under the legal refugee definition, echoing the points made by others on the inaccuracies of the term. However, the report also utilizes “climate refugee” once in the body of its text, when discussing Russia’s potential reaction to climate migration. The report’s use of broad definitions for the phenomenon and the people displaced by it underscores the lack of agreement that has been reached on terminology. 

Beyond the challenges of deciding on terminology, defining who exactly falls into the category of “climate migrant” can be extremely difficult. For example, Guatemalan farmers affected by droughts and shifting weather patterns (both of which have been exacerbated by climate change) have been migrating to the United States since at least 2018. Guatemalans arriving at the border in 2021 continue to cite climate-related reasons for their migration to the southern border of the United States, implying that these drivers have been a factor in Guatemalan migration to the United States for at least three years, and could continue to drive future migration to the United States. But these migrants could also be classified as economic migrants, since they are migrating due to a dearth of economic opportunity. Their economic livelihood depends on farming and, having been robbed of the ability to farm in their homeland, they left to seek better economic opportunities. Their circumstances are exacerbated by climate change, but they are not migrating exclusively for that reason, making the application of the term “climate migrant” difficult. 

The definition of climate migrant, narrowly applied, would likely only apply to a very small slice of people who are forced to move directly because of climate change. Those would include inhabitants of islands threatened by sea level rise that are in danger of sinking or disappearing into the ocean, like Tuvalu. However, even these people have had difficulty securing asylum or recognition that climate change might force them to flee from their homes. Ioane Teitiota, a man from Kiribati (another island threatened by sea level rise) who drew global attention as the possible first climate refugee, had his asylum claim denied by New Zealand, and was sent back to Kiribati. Though the U. N. Human Rights Committee later ruled that governments cannot return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by climate change, the bar for securing asylum remains high. 

Another complicating factor is that many people forced to move by climate change initially will move within their own countries, as opposed to across borders. According to some analysts, “massive international flows of climate refugees are unlikely, except under generalized and persistent conflicts.” In other words, climate migration will remain largely local, unless climate-related conflicts occur, in which case the international migration response to climate change could grow. The modeling study that came to this conclusion supports an increasing agreement among scholars and experts that much climate-induced displacement will be contained within countries, and that internal displacement due to climate change will far outweigh external migration and national governments will be left to figure out domestic strategies for dealing with climate displacement. As the Biden administration’s climate migration report points out, climate migration can also be temporary, seasonal, circular, or permanent – in other words, there are temporal aspects to climate migration that should be considered, in addition to geographic aspects. 

Wealthy countries and migrant-receiving countries will increasingly need to recognize the impact of climate on migration. The U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America, released by the Biden administration in July 2021, recognizes the impact that climate change has had on the Central American region and its migration dynamics, and aims to build resilience to address climate change and food insecurity and improve disaster preparedness. Despite the still-evolving terminology and definitions of climate migration, narrowly tailored strategies to address climate resiliency will be necessary in more and more countries.  

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