Institute for Public Policy Research Conference on Climate Change and Forced Migration

Date Publish: 
Monday, April 28, 2008 - 16:00
Brunson McKinley, Director General, International Organization for Migration

Sincere thanks to IPPR for organizing this event.  It is an
honour to join such a distinguished gathering for a discussion of
such an important topic.

Ladies and gentlemen, the theme of my intervention today is
this:  environment and migration are both prominent on the
agendas of policy-makers researchers and international
organizations, IOM among them, but too often the two issues are
dealt with on separate tracks.  We need a way to link
migration and the environment more closely.  We also need a
better understanding of the complex interrelationship between the
two phenomena, one which would allow us to “connect the
dots” and address these issues comprehensively and
effectively, nationally and internationally.

Some Definitions

For a start, we need to study more deeply and define more
clearly, if possible, the scope and nature of the
migration-environment nexus. 

There is a medium to long term dimension to the problem. 
Changes in rainfall patterns, gradual desertification and rising
sea levels are already causing large and steady population
dislocations.  Often the environmental driver is coupled with
economic, social and developmental factors and trends that can
accelerate and to a certain extent mask the impact of climate

Many observers, myself included, believe that climate change is
also responsible for another frequent cause of population
displacement -- cataclysmic natural disasters.  We need to
know more about the extent to which global warming is in fact
responsible for an increase in frequency and intensity of such
disasters.  We need to assess objectively whether the melting
of the polar ice-caps will lead to a re-weighting of the tectonic
plates and result in stronger and more frequent

Both gradual processes and extreme environmental events cause
migration, but in different ways.  The more gradual phenomena
lead to the abandonment of agricultural land, massive urbanization
(itself a cause of environmental degradation), unemployment and a
new incentive to migrate internationally.  Sudden natural
disasters destroy homes, villages, farms and businesses to which
survivors often never return.  What happened to Banda Aceh is
an extreme example, but there are many others.

National and international response mechanisms are different for
gradual and sudden population dislocations.  The world is
better prepared to deal with the impacts of sudden natural
disasters than with longer term pressures.  IOM is part of
several networks -- governmental, civil society and military --
that spring into action after a tsunami, a typhoon or a volcanic
eruption.  Ironically, the very unpredictability of individual
events puts a premium on preparedness. 

Gradual population moves resulting from environmental
degradation do not benefit from analogous, “in-place”
coping mechanisms.  Economic and development planning is still
the prerogative of national governments in most parts of the world
and the national emphasis leads to serious gaps in the ability of
the international community to react systematically. 

Decreased rainfall in Mexico leads to the impoverishment of
maize farmers.  An inevitable consequence is increased
pressure to migrate internally and internationally, yet no
mechanism exists to factor the environmental and international
migration dimensions into a single policy or operational
response.  Moreover, predictable disasters are at a severe
disadvantage when it comes to mobilizing funding compared with
“front-page” disasters.

Put another way, extreme environmental events are usually local
but provoke an organized and coordinated international
response.  Creeping disasters are usually bigger than any
single country but are handled, or not handled, nation by

While on the subject of distinctions, let me address a question
of terminology.  Those of us who live in Geneva have a natural
aversion to the term “environmental refugee”, a
misnomer under international law   We have to be careful
as well with the expression “forced migration”,
developed to link the plight of refugees with that of internally
displaced persons.  Of course people can be forced from their
homes by natural phenomena as well as politico-military events, and
of course such people deserve assistance to restart their lives,
but to suggest that they need the same “protection” as
refugees or IDPs may not be helpful in the search for workable

To be sure, beyond the humanitarian, economic, migratory and
developmental dimensions of climate change, the phenomenon is today
being cited, by Javier Solana and the European Commission among
others, as a potential threat to international peace and
security.  Competition for scarce resources, it is argued,
could lead to environmental conflicts, which could in turn generate
greater refugee flows.


In the immediate, however, and to contribute constructively to this
debate, IOM has proposed to its Member States a working definition
of “environmental migrants” as “persons or groups
of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive
changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or
living conditions are obliged to leave their homes or choose to do
so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within
their country or abroad”, and I now submit it for your

You will notice that our definition also covers the option of
migration as a normal, or near normal, adaptation strategy, notably
at early stages of environmental degradation. Sometimes a move
dictated by hardship can have productive results.  A
successful migrant can improve his own lot and, through
remittances, the lot of those he or she left behind.  There
are cases where money from overseas has led to better irrigation,
crop diversification and improved agricultural techniques.

Some Examples and Some Numbers

While not forgetting my main theme of the need for better
cooperation and more comprehensive international action along the
environment-migration nexus, let me first give you a few examples
and a few numbers. 

According to the World Disasters Report of the IFRC, the number
of people affected by natural disasters is rising steadily and
reached an annual average of 18 million by the turn of the century,
before the tsunami.  How many of these millions have also
entered IOM’s figure of roughly 200 million international
migrants is hard to determine.

Developing countries suffer up to 98% of the casualties in
natural disasters.  Geographically, South and East Asia,
sub-Saharan Africa and small island states are already the hardest
hit.  These are the very regions where the warming trend is
likely to be above the global average. 

Asia accounts for almost 70% of all lives lost through natural
hazards.  An estimated 10 million people have been displaced
in Africa over the last two decades because of environmental
degradation and desertification, and the numbers are

Researchers at a recent meeting in Munich co-organized by IOM
and the United Nations University gave an interesting example of
the direct impact of climate change on livelihoods.  In the
Tambacounda region of Senegal, particularly affected by soil
erosion, 90% of the men between 30 and 60 years old have migrated
at least once in their lifetime.  Some came back, most did

Environmental change affects countries rich and poor, but it can
affect disproportionately the less prosperous communities in richer
countries.  We saw that happen when the dikes broke in New
Orleans.  In the state of Alaska, four indigenous communities
on the west coast of Alaska are at risk from the disappearance of
sea ice and consequent strong storm surges, eroding the land on
which they are living.  They can and will move to safety, but
their way of life will change, perhaps not for the better.

According to the latest UNDP Human Development Report, climate
change directly threatens development plans and could stall or even
reverse progress to date.  UNDP’s particular concerns
are in agricultural production and food security; water stress and
water insecurity; ecosystems and biodiversity; and public
health.  UNDP estimates that rising sea levels and exposure to
natural disasters could result in temporary or permanent
displacement of 330 million people in the course of this

What to Do?

The International Organization for Migration has an obvious role
in addressing the linkages between environmental degradation,
climate change and migration.  We welcome the growing
recognition of these linkages by the European Commission and
UNDP.  Nevertheless, we need to bring more partners on board,
including in the context of the Conference of Parties to the Rio
Climate Convention.  Migration issues should be
“mainstreamed” into the world’s climate change
discussions and policies and vice versa.

In addition to more discussion and sharpened thinking in
individual fora, we need more collaboration and coordination
internationally, globally and regionally.  I want to take this
opportunity to let you know about a new initiative in this
direction.  IOM is in discussion with UNEP, UNU, the Munich Re
foundation and other civil society partners and researchers to
create a “Migration and Environment Alliance” as a
forum and as a catalyst for new projects and ideas.


Our common goals include to:

  • devise comprehensive policy approaches to address the human
    security challenges linked to climate change, environmental
    degradation and migration, based on sound research and encompassing
    emergency relief and humanitarian assistance as well as
    preparedness and planning;
  • launch a Global Research Agenda to develop innovative research
    methods and cross-cutting approaches to migration and the
  • provide targeted support to the most vulnerable countries
    through capacity building partnerships aimed at improving the
    ability of these states to cope with migratory threats and
    challenges posed by climate change;
  • put in place incentives to channel financial and non-financial
    resources of migrants in order to render local livelihoods more
    sustainable and to reduce environmental degradation caused by human
    activity; and
  • promote assistance to national strategies adopted in response
    to the degradation of natural resources, including the inclusion of
    migration approaches.

If the Alliance idea takes off, as I expect it will, it will
represent an important first step in international understanding
and recognition of the links between migration and the
environment.  We have seen in recent years that the migration
dimension of globalization has begun to receive much wider and
deeper recognition in many disciplines:  economic, social,
developmental, health, security and others.  One key to this
development has been the partnership forged by IOM with partner
specialized agencies such as the World Bank, WHO, ILO, UNCTAD, UNDP
and others.

My aspirations for the Migration and Environment Alliance are
equally high.  I count on the support of the distinguished
representatives of states, organizations, private sector and civil
society to contribute your ideas and your enthusiasm to this new

Thank you for your attention.