Climate migration - How the changing climate forces some to leave everything behind

Written by Anna Terporten and Antonia Landwehr

Posted on March 4th 2021

Since 2008, approximately 26.4 million people have been forced to leave their homes as a result of the destructive consequences associated with natural disasters like floods, wind storms, earthquakes, or droughts, and the numbers are expected to keep rising: Researchers from Columbia University predict that, due to the continuous exacerbation of the state of the earth’s climate, applications to the European Union will increase by approximately 28% by 2100.
Who is considered a Climate Refugee?
A person who has to leave his or her home to move to another country, another continent or, a safer location within his or her own country is referred to as a refugee. However, for various reasons, the term “climate refugee” is frequently considered to be problematic. Climate change is usually not the sole underlying reason leading to peoples’ livelihoods being threatened, and therefore, forcing them to migrate. The consequences of climate change usually combine with other causes like the lack of job opportunities or conflicts forcing people to search for better places to live. As a result, it is often difficult to separate the causes leading to people having to leave their homes. Thus, currently, there is no formal definition of the term “climate refugee”: The term is not yet recognized and protected under international law.
Most affected countries

As the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, emphasizes, Climate Change per se is not directly a cause for migration but can rather be seen as a risk multiplier. Altering climatic conditions contribute to slow-onset events such as desertification, rain pattern shifts, sea-level rise or ocean acidification. All of this can lead to worse harvest or water scarcity, resulting in food conflicts and thus forcing people to leave their homes.

It is expected that the consequences of climate change will affect every country to some degree. However, developing countries, countries dealing with conflicts, or countries affected by high levels of poverty will likely be affected by climate change most strongly. Thus, it is expected that higher rates of migration will occur in these countries. Additionally, in many developing countries peoples’ livelihoods strongly depend on natural resources which also makes them more vulnerable to natural disasters. Wealthy countries, with a well-working government, on the other hand, are better equipped to protect themselves against catastrophes like floods, storms, or droughts, leading to lower rates of migration. Considering the high chances of an ever increasing high number of climate refugees, it is important to know how to handle such a crisis.

How to manage this crisis?

Current approaches reveal one major problem that applies to almost all consequences of Climate Change we experience – it is reactive instead of proactive. What does that mean? It means that there are too little preventive measures designed to anticipate migration flows. Instead of focusing how we could prevent the outbreak of crises that force people to leave their homes, we only take action when it’s too late. One of the biggest problems to occur in the near future is the fact that Climate Refugees are unlikely to return to their home countries, since their homes are not viable for the long term anymore. This distinguishes them from refugees fleeing from war and persecution, since they might return once the situation is less dangerous.

What indeed would be needed is a proper risk management plan by identifying in advance which regions are likely to develop conflicts soon. This would enable development agencies such as the UNHCR to generate strategies to prevent displacement from the start, which ultimately minimizes the costs for both refugees and governments. It should also be noted that nowadays, many Climate Refugees stay in their home country and simply move to another region within the nation’s territory. This is why it is important to enable states affected by Climate Change to handle the consequences of global warming on their own, thus ensuring that the Climate Refugees do not need to move beyond the borders.

Climate Change and Social Justice
The issue of Climate Refugees is ultimately linked to Social Justice. The countries most affected by global warming are the developing countries that have only little resources to properly handle its consequences and protect its citizens. This article is a collaboration between Amnesty International Maastricht and Maastricht for Climate. We believe that the fight for human rights and the Climate movement are closely interlinked and need to develop common approaches to tackle the problems of today’s world. A sustainable future must go hand in hand with good living conditions for all humans.


European Parliament (2019). The concept of ‘climate refugee’ Towards a possible definition. Derived from:

Gaynor, T. (2020). Climate change is the defining crisis of our time and it particularly impacts the displaced. Derived from:

Podesta, J. (2019). The Climate Crisis, Migration, and Refugees. Derived from:
Randall, A. (2020). Climate Refugees: How many are there? How many will there be? Derived from:
Tower, A. (2020). We need to talk about Climate Migration as a Justice Issue. Derived from:

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