Climate-related migration is a much more complex phenomenon than simply a person leaving their home to look for a new place to live in when the rising temperature and its consequences make life impossible.

That is why solutions to environmental migration also need to be thought of from several angles, writes Simo Kohonen, Manager of the IOM Country Offices in Finland.

This text was originally published in Fingo's guest blog (in Finnish). 


”This is devastating. Really unbelievable.” 

At the beginning of April, Charles Kwenin, IOM Regional Director for Southern Africa, stood in the middle of a stone cairn. Around him were laying large boulders and wood debris, between which water, colored red by the sand, was bubbling up. 

Cyclone Idai struck in March 2019 with tremendous force, wiping out towns and villages in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. The storm affected the lives of millions of people. More than a thousand people died, and hundreds of thousands were left dependent on humanitarian aid. Mozambique suffered the worst destruction. 

Charles Kweni and his colleagues had been invited to Zimbabwe to the place where there used to be a small village. He spoke to the video camera, visibly upset. 

Before, there were 77 houses on the site, Kewnin explained the situation. Apart from the houses, the storm had taken their 160 inhabitants with it. 

Climate change is real. IOM and other humanitarian organizations are more and more frequently responding to environmental disasters that force people to move. Since 2008, an average of more than 21 million people has been forced to leave their homes each year due to weather-related disasters. 

As the climate gets warmer, the number is likely to increase. By the year 2050, it is estimated that there will be between 25 million and one billion environmental migrants in the world. Many are wondering how European countries will be able to respond to a possible new refugee crisis, when the higher than usual number of asylum seekers in 2015 already caused political problems. 

Environmental migrants are often referred to as "climate refugees". Our idea of a climate refugee is a person who leaves their home to find a new one in a new country when the rising temperature and its consequences make life impossible. 

However, the current definition of the UN Refugee Convention does not recognize environmental reasons as a basis for refugee status. I have also been asked whether the refugee agreement should therefore be changed so that those who set off for climate reasons would also receive protection. 

Responding to the need for protection and aid is a big challenge, but I would avoid the term climate refugee, as it does not describe the problem at hand now or in the future. For the same reasons, a new or modified Refugee Convention would not solve the problem. 

There are at least three reasons for this. 

First of all, climate change is rarely the only reason for migration, and it is difficult to estimate when migration is specifically driven by climate change. 

Global warming does increase the number of extreme weather events, but environmental change does not always come in the form of a storm. It can also be very slow and combined with social, economic and political factors. 

For example, drought is already a serious problem, and it is often intertwined with other social and environmental problems. A good example of this is Afghanistan, where a severe drought was estimated to have driven more than 250,000 people from their homes last year. According to OCHA, which coordinates the UN humanitarian aid, responding to the need for aid was made difficult by the fact that, in addition to the drought, the combination of conflict, development problems and chronic poverty weakened the local people's chances of surviving the disaster. 

Second, not all migration due to environmental change is forced. 

The slowly changing environment drives people to move, but not everyone is fleeing an acute humanitarian crisis, but some of the reasons for leaving may be the desire for a better livelihood and living conditions. 


Third, the majority of migrants who move for environmental reasons stay within the borders of their home country. Some people – probably the most vulnerable ones – are unable to escape even from dangerous conditions. 

Therefore, if we were to create a new convention for climate refugees, it would inevitably leave out a large part of those in need of protection. 

A more descriptive term than climate refugee would be environmental migrant. According to the IOM definition, environmental migrants are people who leave their homes temporarily or permanently due to harmful environmental changes. 

Solutions to the situation of environmental migrants must be thought of from at least three angles: 


1) Prevention 

We need effective climate action. Emissions must be reduced in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. 


2) Disaster preparedness and risk minimization 

Currently, and probably in the future, the majority of the world's refugees and internally displaced people live in developing countries and precisely in those regions where the chances of survival are the lowest. It is important that we develop the ability of people and communities living in risk areas to reduce disaster risks

In well-prepared societies where support networks work, lives are saved and not as many people have to flee their homes when disaster strikes. 


3) Conventions and regular routes 

Refugee conventions are not enough. In addition to them, we need a comprehensive system based on voluntariness that guarantees controlled, humane and safe movement of people. 

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration recognizes the complex environmental causes behind migration. It is therefore necessary to ensure that states use already existing legal mechanisms to ensure the implementation of a human rights-based migration policy. 

Although it is difficult to say anything about the future with certainty, we cannot ignore the topic. In addition to preparing for the future, those who have already lost their homes due to environmental reasons need our support. 

In the area affected by the Idai storm, relief work will continue for a long time. To date, IOM has assisted more than 250,000 people in Mozambique alone. When we help the state rebuild destroyed areas, the goal to get the people back on their feet even stronger than before. 

Twitter @kohonsi

The writer works as a Manager of the IOM Country Office in Finland and a Regional Coordinator for IOM in Sweden, Estonia and Denmark. 

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 13 - Climate Action