Meeting the needs of people displaced by climate change

Farmer James Kuony Malual in Akobo, South Sudan can no longer depend on the weather. The rains don’t come when they used to, and when they do, they cause worse flooding than he’s ever seen. PHOTO:  Paul Jeffrey/ACT.

By Sabine Minninger, Dr. Katherine Braun, and Christian Wolff

The Climate Action Summit on September 20, part of the UN General Assembly, will draw policymakers, academics and civil society from around the world to New York. That’s why ACT Alliance, Bread for the World and the Open Society Foundations are hosting the workshop Addressing the Protection Gap – Human Mobility and the Climate Crisis in International Frameworks in New York on September 19. It will raise awareness and encourage collaboration among a variety of stakeholders in the international community.  

To meet the needs of people on the move, to protect climate-affected communities and individuals, and to ensure they can move with dignity, we must reimagine current frameworks and create new ones. Those who permanently lose their land or livelihoods should have access to alternative long-term solutions which include socioeconomic rights and preserve their cultural life. 

People fleeing the effects of the climate crisis because their livelihoods are destroyed must be supported and protected, as must those who elect to stay. To address the current protection gap, international responsibilities must respond to the needs of both. 

Climate (in-)justice 

Global warming has led to more intense and frequent weather events around the world. Slow onset weather events such as sea level rise and desertification and sudden events such as droughts, tropical storms and hurricanes, heavy rainfall and floods disrupt the lives of millions. Most will not be able to move. 

Industrialized nations and emerging economies with high levels of emissions are primarily responsible for the climate crisis. Although they have contributed the fewest emissions, the countries most affected by the impacts of climate change are the so-called least developed countries (LDCs). 

Within them, those most affected are those groups that are already the most marginalized. They are constrained by their geographic location, but also by limited coping and adaptation capacities: the lack of financial, technological and technical resources, insufficient social protection systems and poor governance. Most will not be able to move. Those who can, lack sufficient international protection and regular pathways. 

Human mobility and climate change 

The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), notes that 3.3 to 3.6 billion people worldwide live in environments vulnerable to climate change. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that since 2008, 288 million people have been displaced within their own country’s borders due to climate-related disasters. In 2020, 30.7 million people in 149 countries were displaced for this reason. An unknown number of people have had to leave their homes due to slow-onset processes such as drought or sea-level rise. 

The worst impacts have yet to be felt. The IPCC Special Report “Global Warming of 1.5°C” notes that climate change will significantly speed up migration. By 2050 more than 140 million people will be threatened by drought, desertification, crop failure, storm surges and rising sea levels just in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. Under the most optimistic scenarios, slow-onset processes and extreme weather events will drastically impact the habitability of the most affected areas of the world. 

The climate crisis amplifies and interacts with already existing threats and security risks, exacerbating humanitarian crises, social and political conflicts, economic insecurities and existing vulnerabilities, compelling more people to move. 

What is human mobility in the context of climate change? 

Human mobility in the context of climate change (HMCCC) includes internal displacement, seasonal and permanent cross-border migration and planned relocation. 

The impacts of climate change can affect human mobility both directly and indirectly. Climate change can reinforce, decrease or redirect existing movements of people, often from rural to urban areas. It influences temporary and seasonal as well as permanent migration patterns. 

Human mobility in the context of climate change (HMCCC) is determined by the nature of the hazard, and social, economic, political and demographic factors, among others. Women, children, LGBTQI,, the elderly, people with disabilities and members of ethnically and racially marginalized groups have the fewest resources to prepare for and protect against the impacts of climate change and disasters. 

Tailored solutions are necessary to respond to the needs of affected populations, especially people living in vulnerable situations. They should not be left behind. 

Human mobility can be an adaptation strategy, if…. 

Human mobility can be an adaptation and risk reduction strategy and may help reduce vulnerability, but only if human and social rights are protected and if movement is voluntary, safe, and orderly. This was confirmed in the Sixth IPCC Assessment Report on Vulnerability and Adaptation. The higher their freedom of mobility, the greater is the potential for individuals, their communities of origin, and host countries. 

The protection gap 

International protection and the freedom to move remain severely restricted. We are far from realizing the principle of “migration in dignity.” Climate migrants are not covered by the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. The absence of regular pathways for migration forces people to take life-threatening migration routes and exposes them to human rights violations, labour exploitation and gender-based violence, and other threats.  

Planned relocation processes are often accompanied by non-economic loss and damage and human rights violations, including to economic and cultural rights. Internal displacement is insufficiently addressed and lacks financial resources and institutional capacities. 

Regular pathways for migration support coping strategies which protect lives and prepare communities for future losses and damages. Yet people who wish to stay should be able to.  

It is the responsibility of the international community to protect people affected by the adverse effects of climate change, to assist with adaptation measures, and to address loss and damage to ensure all lives are lived with dignity. 

A people-centred human rights- and equity-based approach  

A large and rapidly increasing number of climate migrants and displaced people, and those at risk of displacement, must fend for themselves without protection to ensure their rights. HMCCC is also increasingly seen as a security risk. We are far from closing existing protection gaps for affected people. 

A people-centred, human rights- and equity-based approach to “averting, minimizing and addressing displacement” requires policy frameworks that respond to the rights, needs and aspirations of people whose lives and livelihoods are directly affected by the impacts of climate change. This is especially the case when those impacts (combined with other stressors) make them particularly vulnerable. 

This approach demands diverse, coherent policy approaches to ensure that people can stay in the face of a changing climate or can migrate freely and with dignity within or across borders.  

HMCCC has been part of climate negotiations and UNFCCC mechanisms since the 2010 Cancun Agreement but is not yet sufficiently included in climate policy. There is far too little funding available, especially regarding cross-border migration, displacement and planned relocation as adaptation. 

What is needed 

To protect people threatened by climate-related displacement, states should ensure the full implementation of the Paris Agreement to keep global warming at 1.5°C and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet the UNFCCC goal. Human mobility should be more effectively included in UNFCCC processes by strengthening existing international initiatives and including HMCCC in workstreams on adaptation and Loss and Damage. 

Climate finance should support action on displacement and migration. States should be supported by the UNFCCC in addressing HMCCC. The financial architecture must be improved to meet different needs, for example through differentiated, targeted funding streams. 

Human mobility should be a pillar in proposals to international climate financing instruments, including adaptation scenarios. According to the polluter-pays-principle, and to implement climate justice, a needs-based Loss and Damage Fund should secure additional funding for mitigation, adaptation, Official Development Assistance (ODA) and humanitarian aid. 

To address the rights and needs of people displaced by the climate crisis, cross-silo strategies in Climate Action, Disaster Risk Reduction, International Protection and Migration Policy are urgently needed. The effective participation of affected communities and civil society organizations is essential. 

The protection gap for displaced persons and migrants affected by climate change must be effectively addressed in migration policy. Host countries of internally displaced persons need greater support. Where planned relocations are needed, planning must be inclusive and human rights must be respected. 

States should improve migrant protection in situations of vulnerability by applying more predictable and human rights-based frameworks based on regular and legal pathways. 

Additional protocols to protect climate-induced cross-border migration must meet international human rights obligations. 

Industrialized countries should fulfil their commitments to dedicate 0.7% of their GNIs towards Official Development Assistance (ODA). Some can be dedicated to financing measures to address HMCCC. They must avoid conditionalities that link the provision of ODA to the establishment of restrictive border and migration policies. All financial support should favour grants over loans, particularly in interactions with LDCs and especially climate vulnerable countries and be accompanied by swift and effective debt relief for these countries. 

Sabine Minninger is Senior Policy Advisor on Climate Change with ACT member Bread for the World. Dr. Katherine Braun is Migration Researcher and Policy Advisor for Refugee Affairs and Human Rights with the Church of Northern Germany. Christian Wolff is the ACT Alliance Policy Advisor on Migration and Refugees. They are co-authors of the ACT/Bread for the World study: Addressing the Protection Gap – Human Mobility and the Climate Crisis in International Frameworks, released in March 2023.


ACT Alliance at the International Migration Review Forum


ACT Alliance participated in the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF), from the 16th to the 20th of May in New York. The following comments were submitted by ACT at the policy debate session on May 18.

ACT Alliance is a member of the Global Coalition on Migration (GCM), and endorses the recommendations made in its Spotlight Report on Global Migration. We are also a founding member of the Climate, Migration and Displacement Platform (CMDP), whose remarks we support as well.

We welcome the policy debate today but remain concerned that we are now further from the aim of making migration more humane and bringing a much-needed paradigm shift than when the GCM was adopted. The progress declaration of the IMRF in its final form, although initially more ambitious, makes this painfully clear.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that migrants are still vulnerable in many situations. Urgent action is needed to better protect their rights. Such action is indeed possible when there is political will.

Examples of positive practices in response to the pandemic included the swift implementation of alternatives to detention, suspension of returns, and the simplified regularisation of status for undocumented migrants. This showed that a different way is possible. 

Conversely, indiscriminate border closures, massive layoffs, unplanned returns, and exclusion from access to health measures have hit many migrants hard and have disproportionately affected migrant women.

Thus, the pandemic has glaringly shown how arbitrarily the political process treats migrants.

The scope of changes needed can only be achieved if states focus on Objective 5 of the GCM, enhancing the availability and accessibility of regular migration pathways.  It remains one of the most under-fulfilled objectives of the GCM.

Despite the initiatives some states have taken to improve their own array of pathways, the reality is that they remain limited in scope and fall far short of what’s needed.

There are tools in the GCM and other instruments that can and should be used to turn regular pathways from a privilege for the few into a rights-respecting and gender-responsive reality to address current mobility and protection needs. These include labour mobility agreements, free movement regimes, and improved procedures for family reunification and academic mobility. They also include practices for admission and stay to address vulnerabilities in migration, based on compassionate, humanitarian or other considerations, which can complement other tools and help close protection gaps.

The UN Network on Migration’s Thematic Working Group 3 on regular pathways, which was co-led by ACT Alliance (together with the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network and OHCHR), issued a Guidance Note on this topic last July which we hope will lead to more consistent adoption of these much-needed policies and practices.

Migration and climate change

As a network that has been advocating for climate justice for many years, we would like to insist that climate change is not so much an “emerging challenge” as it is an intensifying crisis, which must be addressed on multiple fronts. In the context of human mobility, which interacts with climate change in complex ways, this means that we must avoid one-dimensional policy responses.

There are those whose lives and livelihoods have already been massively impacted by climate change, and who may even be forced to relocate in the not-too-distant future. Many others have been facing tough circumstances and have had to supplement family income with occasional cross-border work. Others still may have gone abroad for a period of time with the intention to return, only to realize that the basis of their livelihood has continued to erode, so they may need to extend their stay, change their status, or be allowed to leave and return, depending on their situation.

All of them would benefit from a more holistic and flexible approach by states to the question of regular pathways, so that they are not forced into situations where their options are diminishing and they may end up without status, without protection, and without hope. In this, the climate crisis is creating groups whose needs are at the same time very specific, but also common to migrants in general. For all of them, a human-rights based approach to regular pathways that overcomes the current hesitancy of states, is central to preserving their dignity and creating a brighter future.


Finally, we would like to recall the importance of complementarity between the GCM and all other relevant frameworks, not least the Global Compact on Refugees, which promotes the elaboration of complementary pathways. Lessons from this should be applied in the context of GCM implementation, so that human rights, refugee rights, and migrants’ rights are upheld coherently and consistently, and so that no person is excluded from additional protections and opportunities on account of a disconnect between government policies.

We thank you for this opportunity.

Prepared by Alison Kelly, ACT’s UN Representative, and Christian Wolff, ACT’s Migration and Displacement Programme manager.