Preparing for Environmental Migration



Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 2012

With accelerating climate change, sea level rise, resource degradation and water shortages, the projected scale of forced environmental migration in coming decades will exceed anything previously experienced, with estimates of 100-500 million people or more permanently displaced. This will be traumatic for those displaced, and represents an enormous challenge for the receiving countries and communities where immigration is presently a major source of political, economic and social tension and human rights violations.

It is essential to be proactive to prevent increasing humanitarian crises, widespread human suffering and additional environmental impacts. The international community should begin now to organize an appropriate international response to forced environmental migration, that includes the institutional, financial and humanitarian dimensions.

One priority is to undertake scientific assessments of the human carrying capacity of different regions of the world and anticipated changes in that capacity with climate change to determine which regions and countries will be unable to support their present or projected populations and which areas have the space and resources to receive environmental migrants.

The United Nations should initiate negotiations for an international legal framework for environmental migrants comparable to that already functioning for political refugees, to recognize their status as displaced persons with no possibility of return, and to protect their human rights. Provision could be included for migration in groups or as whole communities to assist in preserving social relationships, community structures and cultures.

Ultimately it will be necessary to establish a mechanism under the United Nations to facilitate the free movement of people, similar in function to the World Trade Organization encouraging the free movement of goods in trade. This intergovernmental mechanism would negotiate a lowering of barriers to immigration, and facilitate the settlement of environmental migrants among countries able to receive them. There should be a financial mechanism to ensure that the costs of resettlement are equitably shared by the international community.

To prepare the public for this growing challenge, governments and civil society organizations should initiate wide public discussion of environmental migration, the imperative of showing solidarity with victims of climate change and other environmental changes based on underlying ethical principles, the advantages of immigration for receiving communities, and the means to build unity among peoples of diverse origins and cultures. Faith-based groups should explore the implications of their teachings welcoming guests and strangers. The aim should be to replace the present rejection of immigrants by solidarity with the victims of climate change and other environmental disasters, and a welcoming of displaced persons as new protagonists in building diverse and sustainable communities.

* The International Environment Forum ( is a Bahá'í-inspired professional organization for environment and sustainability in the science and technology major group, with members in over 50 countries.

Last updated 9 June 2012