Who Counts as a Climate Migrant?

Read the article


The increasing devastation of climate disasters has led the global community to confront the long-term effects of climate change, especially through analyzing its effect on migration. As a result, some policy-oriented researchers have created the term “climate migrant” to define, quantify, and propagate the alarming effects of climate change on internationally displaced peoples.

However, for policymakers, researchers, and the migrants themselves, developing a new category of migrants creates more problems than it solves. These terms are nebulous—climate impacts almost always intersect with other drivers of migration and immobility—and, crucially, carry no legal meaning. Instead, policymakers must implement new legal pathways within existing immigration initiatives. Lumping the many, nuanced climate-related issues for migration into the term “climate migrant” can lead researchers and policymakers to overlook important distinctions between migrants and obscures the actual reasons people decide to leave. This includes migrants impacted by economic and political problems that are frequently induced by climate change (e.g., labor migration or family reunification). When researchers generalize this migration as caused by “climate change,” they ignore the more immediate problems that can be remedied—and thus perpetuate migratory flows.

Methods and Results

Through literature review, this article critiques the term “climate migrant” by reviewing its various definitions, examining how climate migrants can be indiscernible from other migrants, and exploring how climate change impacts immobility as much as it does migration. Paying too much attention to those who move neglects the detrimental effects of climate change on those who lack the capacity to migrate.

The article finds that the challenges created by climate change require a multifaceted approach that addresses the variety of issues affecting both migration and immobility. Attempting to predict the number of “climate migrants” is an insufficient solution. On a national level, governments must begin investing in climate adaptation to limit migration caused by climate change. On an international level, conventional migration solutions can be applied, and governments can expand humanitarian assistance and diversify their pathways for legal status, for example, facilitating international labor migration and broadening student migration. While the term “climate migrant” is well-intentioned, it can be detrimental to addressing and solving the real, separate problems of both climate change and migration; more nuanced solutions are required.



Kerilyn Schewel (Duke University)

Related Content

Related Links


Climate & Sustainability, Governance, Migration, Global Immigration, Global