Skip to main content

Migration — across and within borders — has long been a key livelihood and risk-management strategy. Studies have estimated that up to 150 million people could move due to environmental and climate pressures by 2050. Within the research community, the term “mobility” is more widely used to better convey the diverse range of human movements linked to climate change, which are often cyclical rather than permanent. 

IDRC has long recognized the need for high-quality, evidence-backed research to better understand issues of human mobility in the context of the climate crisis. Pulling together the knowledge developed across more than a decade of dedicated investments in innovative climate and adaptation research, our core findings have been clear:   

  • More emphasis is needed on the challenges faced by internal migrants. While there is heightened political interest in international migration, most migrants remain within their country of origin. Internal migrants are largely invisible and undocumented. We need to invest research effort in documenting and understanding short-distance and in-country migration.  
  • Long term migration is triggered largely by perceived environmental risks and economic opportunities. This highlights two important factors that governments should look at: First, since perceptions are often skewed by disinformation, mobility can result in people settling in places that are even more vulnerable. When it comes to migration, combating disinformation is key. Second, decreasing the inequalities and injustices that trigger migratory movements is an important adaptation intervention — even when adaptation is not the migrants’ main objective.   
  • Migration patterns are strongly gendered. Other intersecting social factors, such as education, age, traditional social norms and marriage status, determine who can benefit from mobility, and indeed who can move at all.  
  • Mobility is not an option for everyone and does not benefit all groups equally. Those who cannot migrate are often the most vulnerable. When they do migrate, vulnerable populations often remain highly vulnerable, as they have fewer resources to re-settle and their rights are easily ignored or abused.  
  • Future mobilities research should consider the multiple risks and trade-offs migrants face and should look beyond both international and urban-rural mobility to better reflect the trans-local nature of livelihood-based movement.  
  • Rather than focusing on walling out migrants, policymakers should embrace mobility as a long-standing adaptive response, and as a cornerstone of development policy. As such, it presents an opportunity to reform care, employment and integration services and opportunities, and to tackle structural inequality.
Yolanda Tapia Castillos, 77, lives in the drought stricken area of Quebrada Carcamo Norte, Chile.  She has lost many of her crops and has had to cut back all over her avocado trees.
IDRC / Ivan Kashinsky
Yolanda Tapia Castillos, 77, lives in the drought stricken area of Quebrada Carcamo Norte, Chile. She has lost many of her crops and has had to cut back all over her avocado trees.

Deep links between climate change and human migration

The importance of human mobility as a climate-change adaptation option was first recognized under the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change with the adoption of the 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework. Recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make extensive references to the impacts of climate change on migration (IPCC Oceans and Cryosphere, IPCC Land Report and the IPCC 1.5-Degree C Special Report).  

While understated in the Paris Agreement, it will be an area of rising importance for future climate negotiations. COVID-19 has reinforced deep concerns around mobility among vulnerable people living in climate-change hotspots. The evidence is clear that migrant populations in these regions remain largely overlooked in economic development policy, adaptation to climate-change efforts, and spatial planning.  

Though it is increasingly understood that the links between climate change and migration should be seen in the context of sustainable development, there remains some debate and considerable media interest in the security implications of climate-induced mobility. Even as migration is gaining acceptance as a legitimate adaptation option, with the potential to increase social resilience to climate change, few developing countries have policies in place to support migrants in destination areas or their families left behind in source areas.

Advancing knowledge on mobility in the context of climate change 

Mobilities research in climate-change hotspots conducted through the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) sheds light on the many forms of mobility underway and the complex motives that drive individuals and families to uproot.  

A partnership between the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and IDRC, CARIAA contrasted the lives of migrants and non-migrants to assess if and how mobility increased their resilience. And it showed how unplanned and unsupported mobility could compound the inequalities and exclusions that many of those vulnerable to climate change already face. IDRC’s findings from the CARIAA initiative — which continue to make their way into peer-reviewed publications after the initiative’s conclusion — have added to a growing body of research that suggests that, for most migrants, climate change is an invisible driver. Few people identify themselves as environmental migrants.

A recent synthesis (English-only) highlights previously separate CARIAA findings from multiple studies of mobility in densely populated low-lying coastal areas, semi-arid regions, and glacier- and snowpack-dependent river basins. It identifies evidence-based priorities for mobilities research that can support development policy in the context of a changing climate and the social and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Informing policy and practice through research knowledge 

The research knowledge and evidence-backed findings from CARIAA also proved deeply influential on migration and adaptation policies at both the regional and international levels:  

  • As the United Nations Global Compact for Migration was being negotiated in 2017 and 2018, CARIAA produced cross-program syntheses to convey lessons that challenged the dominant discourse on migration, which largely reflects developed-country fears of mass migration from the South. CARIAA insights underscored the need for greater assistance to be directed to developing countries already grappling with high levels of internal migration.  
  • CARIAA results fed into globally influential reports, including the World Bank Groundswell report on climate change and migration, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report on African Migration for Structural Transformation, and the International Organization for Migration’s Atlas of Environmental Migration. 
  • In Bangladesh, CARIAA’s local research partner drafted the refugees and remittances policy of the Ministry of Labour and Employment in 2015 and, over 2017-2018, coordinated the Bangladesh National Dialogues to inform the United Nations Global Compact on Migration. Today, this same grantee chairs the committee responsible for the implementation plan for the National Strategy on the Management of Internal Displacement in Bangladesh. Two grantees from the Climate Adaptation and Resilience (CLARE) initiative, and an IDRC program officer sit on the committee’s International Advisory Group. 
  • In Ghana, the Interior Ministry and Ministry of Local Development sought input from research partners to ensure that the national Policy on Migration addresses the challenge of internal migration.  
  • Research on how labour migration contributes to social safety nets and climate resilience informed Tajikistan’s National Adaptation Plan, National Development Strategy and the National Strategy on Climate Change Adaptation until 2030, and the resulting Local Adaptation Plans of Action 
Sustainable water
Centro de Apoyo a la Gestión Sustentable del Agua y el Medio Ambiente Agua Sustentable
Sustainable Water

Emerging research directions – and a new partnership

Under CLARE, IDRC’s new research partnership with FCDO and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), gaps in knowledge about migration will be addressed under the theme of Development in a changing climate, which aims to inform equitable and sustainable development in a rapidly changing climate, focusing on actions needed until 2030 and beyond. A greater proportion of investment under this theme will support research to address near-term adaptation, tackling barriers to, and opportunities for, effective, timely and equitable responses from local to regional scales. 

In looking at the equity and social consequences of climate change, research will aim to better understand the implications of climate change for displacement and mobility. In contexts of conflict and fragility, research will explore how migrants can be supported in ways that protect and enhance their rights and wellbeing and help them to avoid maladaptation. 

A justice lens is also being applied to planned relocation efforts for communities impacted by climate change. Bangladesh is the first country globally to develop a National Strategy for Planned Displacement linked to climate change and is leading the way to test approaches. IDRC investments will ensure that such actions are just, and that relocation efforts help to build the resilience of the most vulnerable.

Top image: Sokoine University of Agriculture