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Climate Migration

Exploring the Interplay between Climate Change and Human Mobility

14 December 2023

Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns. Such shifts can occur naturally, caused by changes in the sun’s activity or large volcanic eruptions. However, since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. When fossil fuels are burnt, they release greenhouse gas emissions that act like a blanket wrapped around the Earth, trapping the sun’s heat and causing temperatures to rise.[1]

Climate change impacts people's lifestyles and often compels them to leave their customary residence to other areas, either within their own country or across international borders towards other neighboring countries. Climate change also necessitates adjustments in economic activities and daily lifestyles as a means of adaptation. This may involve transitioning away from the declining agricultural sector towards alternative economic sectors, such as services.

These climate-driven population movements have given rise to a new term in the field of migration studies known as “climate migration.” This term specifically refers to the movement of people for reasons related to sudden or gradual change in the environment due to climate change. The International Organization for Migration defines climate migration as “the movement of a person or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment due to climate change, are obliged to leave their habitual place of residence, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, within a State or across an international border.”[2]

In this article, an attempt is made to shed light on the relationship between climate change and human mobility. 

The Migration and Climate Change Nexus

First, it must be acknowledged that the climate change that the world is witnessing now is an established scientific fact that cannot be denied. Another established fact is that climate change does not only affect the countries causing those changes but also has an impact on all parts of the world. In fact, countries that do not contribute significantly to climate change are the most affected by these changes. For example, statistics indicate that the continent of Africa is the most affected by climate change, even though it contributes the least to causing those changes. Climate change changes the lifestyle of residents and often forces them to leave their usual places of residence and move to other regions, whether within the same country or perhaps crossing international borders towards other neighboring countries.

Migration due to climate change is mostly internal migration. When migration is internal, people who move through these migrations are under the responsibility of their governments/countries, as they do not cross international borders and do not seek the protection of another country or at the international level. As for slow climatic change, which may take a long time for its negative consequences to appear deliberately, migration due to these long-term effects does not appear to be forced migration (displacement), but one must consider those effects and be well prepared to deal with the consequences of slow climatic change, as is the case with the sudden climate change effects. [3]

The Impact of Climate Change on Migration

International migration represents an important human and economic phenomenon in mankind history, as migration has contributed to the creation of a global culture through cultural cross-fertilization between different communities and cultures. Migration also has an important role in pushing forward sustainable development efforts, whether through making available the labor force that economy needs, especially for countries with demographic deficit, or through remittances from migrants that they send to their home countries. Internal migration also contributes to the distribution of the population within one country in a way that meets the needs of the national economy, as citizens within the country usually move to the regions where economic activities are concentratedCitizens within the country usually move from rural to urban and from the countryside and small cities to the capital and major urban agglomerations that usually account for the largest share of economic activity, especially in the countries of the South. 

Migration becomes troublesome only when that migration turns from choice to compulsion. This type of internal migration is called displacement, which is the same as forced internal migration or the equivalent of forced migration and asylum in relation to international migration. There are many types of forced internal migration (displacement), as displacement can be due to wars and conflict, as is the case in Syria, which, in addition to the massive refuge of its citizens to neighboring countries, is witnessing the presence of nearly six million displaced persons who left their usual places of residence and were forced to move to other governorates inside Syria. Displacement can also be due to development projects such as the construction of dams. An example of this is the displacement of the people of Nubia after the construction of the High Dam and the exposure of their villages to drowning under the water of Lake Nasser. Finally, the number of people displaced due to climate changes has increased greatly in recent decades. A recent report issued by the World Bank in September 2021 indicates that the world will witness 216 million displaced persons due to climate change by 2050. This number represents approximately three percent of the total world population and is equivalent to a country the size of Brazil. The report explained that climate change has now become one of the most important drivers of internal migration (displacement) in many regions of the world. 

The report also indicates that the regions most affected by climate change in terms of displacement are Sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of displaced people by 2050 is estimated at approximately 86 million internal migrants (displaced) due to climate change, followed by the East Asia and Pacific region (48.4 million migrants), then the South Asia region (40.5 million immigrants), followed by the North Africa region (19.3 million immigrants), and the Latin America region (17.1 million immigrants), then the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region (5.1 million immigrants). See the Table 1 below for more details.


Climate Migration
(Million Inhabitant)

Percent to Total Population

Sub-Saharan Africa



East Asia and the Pacific



South Asia



North Africa



Latin America



Eastern Europe and Central Asia






Table 1: Expected climate migration by the year 2050 by region. Source: Source: World Bank (2021). Groundswell: Acting on Internal Climate Migration, Part II, The World Bank, Washington DC.

Figure 1: Expected climate migration by year 2050 by region (in Millions)

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration[4] (GCM) calls for a deeper understanding of climate change as an important driver of migration. The GCM includes specific commitments to address the drivers of climate migration and to develop policies to better protect climate migrants. The GCM also recognizes the need to enhance collaborative analysis of data on climate migration and the exchange of information between different parties to improve monitoring, understanding, forecasting, and addressing migratory flows, including flows that are driven by both sudden natural hazards and long-term risks and impacts of climate change. The GCM also calls for the development of adaptation and resilience strategies, considering potential impacts on migration and displacement.


There is no doubt that migration due to climate change is a reality that cannot be avoided. However, at the same time we can adapt and reduce its negative impact on people’s lives by taking the necessary measures. This includes not only includes reducing emissions, especially in the main countries producing them, but also by taking appropriate measures to mitigate the effects of climate change on individuals. Immediate action is required to develop long-term plans to deal with these changes through programs that support flexibility and the ability to adapt to those changes. 

Migration should not be the first choice for those facing climate change. Instead, reinforcing resilience and adaptation should be the primary choice. Adaptation could be practiced through an array of methods, such as preparing residents to change or modulate their current or inherited means of production. Adaptation may also involve changing economic sectors, such as transitioning from agriculture to industry or services. 

Lastly, it is crucial for citizens to be aware of the hazards and consequences of climate change. This can be achieved through various means of communication, as well as by incorporating the issues of climate change into basic education. Awareness raising is the cornerstone for any effective intervention, whether these interventions aim at strengthening resilience or improving adaptation.



[1] United Nations (2023). What’s Climate Change? United Nations, New York. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/what-is-climate-change, 29.11.2023.

[2]IOM (2019). Glossary on Migration, International Migration Law No. 34. International Organization for Migration, Geneva.

[3] Hassan, K. (2021). Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals, Gazeeret Elward Bookshop, Cairo. (in Arabic)

[4] International Organization for Migration (2021). Global Compact for Migration, https://www.iom.int/global-compact-migration, 09.10.2021.