Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Svenja Enge

Svenja Enge

Svenja Enge is a master's student in “Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security” at the United Nations University-EHS in cooperation with the University of Bonn. Since April 2017, she has been a student assistant for TransRe. She has a strong interest in natural hazards and especially in the interrelations between climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Her academic focus lies on the assessment of risk in hazard-prone areas, particularly in the light of global dynamics such as migration and climate change.

May 23rd 2017 by Svenja Enge

Thinking Migration Policy Differently at the 2017 Bonn Intersessional

In November 2015 we celebrated the Paris Agreement as the first step against climate change through the collective power of a multinational alliance. At this time, our blog highlighted that the agreement, while being a good start in many respects, does not go far enough in addressing climate-related mobility as one of the most immediate and pressing consequences of climate change. On the positive side, human mobility has not been ignored in the Paris Agreement: Climate-induced displacement has been recognized in the “Decisions to give effect to the Agreement” , which mandate the creation of a Task Force on Displacement to “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”. However, the Task Force’s concrete topics and practical role have been left open, questioning its effective implementation.

Now, almost two years after the Paris Agreement was signed at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP), the UNFCCC is preparing the 23rd COP in Bonn. From May 8th to 18th 2017, the UNFCCC’s Subsidiary Bodies for Implementation and for Scientific and Technological Advice as well as the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement met for the Bonn Intersessional, which is one of the preparatory conferences for the COP23. Still, it is not completely clear which role climate-induced migration will play in the agreement’s implementation and future climate change negotiations.

I attended two of the several side events hosted by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Both panel discussions focused on the latest news on climate-induced migration, bringing together speakers from a variety of perspectives, including representatives from the Internal Organization on Migration (IOM), the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and more.

 Steps Forward in Integrated #Migration and #ClimateChange Policies |NEW BLOG @TransReProject

What’s so difficult about the migration discussion?

Migration remains an ambivalent topic representing both risks and opportunities.

On the one hand, migration is often perceived negatively. The Pacific Climate Change and Migration Project (PCCM) assessed Small Island States Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Nauru, and predicted that climate change will lead to more rural-urban migration. According to Robert Oakes, a contributor to the PCCM, this tendency might dramatically increase the exposure and vulnerability to climate-related hazards by intensifying socioeconomic and ecological pressures in urban centers.

On the other hand, livelihoods and health of migrants are often just as threatened in their homes, to a large share due to direct and indirect impacts of climate change. In this respect, successful migration can also be a reasonable (if not the last) adaptation strategy to reduce the societal pressure in emigration areas and create new livelihoods and possibilities to earn money, skills, and knowledge. This perception of migration as a means for adaptation is also supported by the latest findings of Susanne Melde’s research within the MECLEP Project (Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Evidence for Policy). According to MECLEP, the impact of migration was mostly considered positive among people with migration experience – not only in terms of income and employment, but also related to levels of education and health, family relationships, food security, and safety. Both scenarios – negative and positive migration outcomes – are valid and important to consider.

What does that mean for policy makers?

In order to understand when migration is a threat and when it is an adaptive strategy we shouldn’t forget the differences between voluntary migration and displacement.

“People migrate anyways – it is not a new phenomenon – because always they have adapted to a changing environment. But what does that mean for adaptation? And is it really as negative as most countries assume it to be?" asked Susanne Melde.

In many areas affected by climate change, migration is a part of regular life. The free decision of a migrant to move is increasingly perceived as a basic human right that policymakers should respect instead of either displacing or retaining people.

In this regard, Oakes presented the concept of “Migration with Dignity”. The idea behind this is that people should be enabled to decide how, when, and where they want to move. At the same time, migrants should be supported and protected from negative migration outcomes by:

1) Providing education to increase the level of qualification and thus the opportunities for migrants in the new labor market,

2) Creating opportunities to migrate for those who want to do so.

The last point also includes freeing the so-called “trapped population,” which represents those people who wish to move but are not able to, mostly due to a lack of money or visas.

The protection of migrants’ basic rights stays one of the most debated topics in the discourse. In this context, Meredith Byrne from ILO added that basic rights include fair labor standards which need to be secured. From the perspective of other institutions, different, additional policy implications come to mind. Marine Franck from UNHCR added a whole list of policy implications deriving from the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, which was decided on by the UN member states last year. She specifically emphasized the need for a legal reception and admission of forced migrants as climate refugees in order to entitle them to protection mechanisms.

Melde added that mobility needs to be naturally included in climate change negotiations. In such a comprehensive political recognition, she sees potential to do assessments, collect data, and eventually better prepare and adjust infrastructure and governments to the fact that migration is happening.

So, what are the next steps for integrating mobility in the climate change context?

One recent development, that many people put hope in, is the launch of the Task Force on Displacement (TFD) on 18th and 19th May in Bonn. A number of institutions are involved in the Task Force, including representatives of UN entities like UNDP, UNFCCC, and UNHCR as well as ILO, IOM, the Red Cross, and others. At the moment, there still is an ongoing discussion on what can and should be the outcomes of the TFD.

According to Michelle Yonetani from IDMC, one of the most important functions of the TFD is to operationalize migration by finding indicators for data assessment. Dina Ionesco from IOM particularly calls for the identification of migration drivers with a special focus on climate change-related processes that need to be recognized as one key factor of mobility. She also sees potential in the current discussion to “think migration policy differently.”

Maybe climate change is a chance for migration policy to evolve and modernize itself a bit,” said Ionesco.

According to her, the TFD might offer the opportunity to increase the coherence in language and action of different stakeholders in the migration policy process. She also says, in the future, a strong emphasize should be put on the connection between policy and practice. Lastly, a paradigm change towards the perception of migrants as powerful actors of adaptation and development can hold new solutions in the climate change response discourse. Altogether, as Atle Solberg of the Platform on Disaster Displacement summarized, there are three kinds of gaps that need to be addressed by the TFD:

- Knowledge gaps (How, where, when, and why does migration happen?),

- Policy gaps (What can/should we do?),

- Normative gaps (Migration legislation etc.).

Addressing all of these gaps in an integrated manner represents the next concrete step to create policy solutions for successful migration, giving consideration to both forced and voluntary mobility in light of climate change.


Melde, S.; Laczko,F. and Gemenne, F. [IOM ] (eds.) (2017): Making Mobility Work for Adaptation to Environmental Changes. Results from the MECLEP Global Research. Geneva.

Campbell, J.; Warrick, O. [UN ESCAP; ILO; EU; UNDP] (2014): Climate Change and Migration Issues in the Pacific. Suva.

UNFCCC (ed.)(2015): Report of the Conference of the Parties on its twenty-first session, held in Paris from 30 November to 13 December 2015. Addendum. Part two: Action taken by the Conference of the Parties at its twenty-first session. Decision 1/CP21.

United Nations General Assembly (ed.) (2016): Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 19 September 2016 [without reference to a Main Committee (A/71/L.1)]. 71/1. New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.

Image Credits

Sealevel Rise/Julie Grundy/flkr under CC BY-ND 2.0; UN Climate Change Conference 2017 Bonn/UNclimatechange/flkr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Drought/United Nations Photo/flckr under CC BY NC-ND 2.0.