Migration, Environment and Climate Change

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Environmental factors have long had an impact on global migration flows, as people have historically left places with harsh or deteriorating conditions.  However, the scale of such flows, both internal and cross-border, is expected to rise as a result of accelerated climate change, with unprecedented impacts on livelihoods and communities. These movements can have positive and negative effects on local coping capacity and the environment in areas from which these migrants originate, as well as in their temporary or permanent destinations.

Migration, climate change and the environment are interrelated. Just as environmental degradation and disasters can cause migration, movement of people can also entail significant effects on surrounding ecosystems. This complex nexus needs to be addressed in a holistic manner, taking into account other possible mediating factors including, inter alia, human security, human and economic development, livelihood strategies and conflict. Migration often seems to be misperceived as a failure to adapt to a changing environment.  Instead, migration can also be an adaptation strategy to climate and environmental change and is an essential component of the socio-environmental interactions that needs to be managed.  Migration can be a coping mechanism and survival strategy for those who move. At the same time, migration, and mass migration in particular, can also have significant environmental repercussions for areas of origin, areas of destination, and the migratory routes in between and contribute to further environmental degradation.

IOM applies its comprehensive migration management approach to the complex linkages between climate change, the environment and migration. Through its activities, IOM helps to reduce vulnerability of populations exposed to environmental risk factors; assists populations on the move as a result of environmental causes; and builds the capacities of governments and others to face the challenge of environmental migration.

IOM's central objectives in managing environmental migration are:

  • To prevent forced migration resulting from environmental factors to the extent possible.
  • Where forced migration does occur, to provide assistance and protection to affected populations, and seek durable solutions to their situation.
  • To facilitate migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change.

Migration, Environment and Climate Change in South-Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia

The region covered by IOM’s Vienna Regional Office is predominantly comprised of countries which are economically and institutionally able to provide initial emergency response. Landscapes are as diverse and far-reaching as the region itself, spanning 11 time zones of forest, tundra, desert, tropics, coastlines, mountain lakes and canyons. 

Much of the land is prone to rapid-onset natural disasters such as flash floods, earthquakes and mudslides, as well as to slow-onset changes with graduated effects, such as protracted droughts, harsher winters and desertification. The region has also seen some of the worst ecological disasters in modern history, such as the disappearance of the Aral Sea, and the tragedy of Chernobyl.

Changes in environment have a large impact on migration decisions, as many rural families rely on agriculture for primary or supplemental income, and others engage in subsistence farming. While each corner and community of South-Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia face different challenges, some key commonalities are water management or scarcity, and recovery from natural disasters. This serves to make preparedness, disaster risk-reduction and community stabilization measures essential, and IOM has engaged in wide-ranging activities such as psychosocial support for flood-displaced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to revival of traditional Azeri wells, to emergency response for mudslide-affected villages in Tajikistan.

IOM's Climate Change Activities

Community Support for Water Access

Trained water engineers, or kankans, work at Ilanli-3 kahriz in Gal village, Azerbaijan. The village depends entirely on the traditional underground water supply systems, called kahrizes. Gurban, a community leader, describes the situation prior to the project: “People here experienced a lack for water throughout the summer”.

IOM's involvement and interest in the field of migration and the environment is long established, but has received renewed impetus due to the increasingly irrefutable evidence surrounding climate change and its impacts.  One of IOM's first publications on the issue of migration and the environment dates back to 1992.  In 1996, a symposium on "Environmentally-induced Population Displacements and Environmental Impacts Resulting from Mass Migrations" co-organized by IOM, UNHCR and the Refugee Policy Group, was pioneering in its comprehensive discussion of the cycle of environmental damage and mass migration and the measures and actions that can prevent, mitigate and reverse environmental degradation causing, and resulting from, population displacements.

Policy
IOM offers a forum for policy dialogue as well as guidance on policies and practices appropriate to addressing the challenges facing mobile populations today, including those resulting from extreme environmental events or gradual environmental degradation. IOM has organized, co-organized and participated in numerous events, including regional and international conferences on the topic.

Research
IOM undertakes extensive research on various aspects of the migration–environment nexus, in particular with a view towards fostering interdisciplinary approaches, improving existing data and producing policy-relevant research. 

Operational Activities
IOM has developed a wide range of operational activities over the years ranging from humanitarian response to displacement caused by natural disasters to promoting adaptation to gradual environmental degradation through migration and development activities. In general terms, IOM's response aims to increase communities' resilience to underlying risk factors and expected changes in their natural environment. 

Partnerships
IOM is committed to close cooperation with governments, international and non-governmental organizations and other relevant stakeholders to develop more comprehensive strategies to better manage environmental migration and to address potential impacts of migration on the environment.