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Policy Approaches to Climate Migration: Lessons From Latin America and the Caribbean

Pablo Escribano
Sunday, November 8, 2020, 10:01 AM

Displacement from climate change is an increasingly critical issue, but requires improved study and new policy responses.

A woman displaced by flooding in Grau Province, Peru, stands in a makeshift shelter in Nov. 2012. Photo credit: EC/ECHO/Vicente Raimundo via Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Editor’s Note: As climate change upends economies and societies around the world, it is sparking migration. However, the extent of the problem and the best ways to manage it are poorly understood. Pablo Escribano of the International Organization for Migration explains many of the current data limits related to climate migration but argues that the experiences of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean offer many useful lessons as we move forward on this complex issue.

Daniel Byman


As climate change has gained more attention and governments have developed policies to reduce carbon emissions and manage increasing environmental risks, climate migration—the movement of people primarily due to changes in the environment that result from climate change—has become a key issue for research and policy. Understanding climate migration presents complex challenges. While the displacement of people affected by the types of disasters that have been accelerated by climate change is readily observable, understanding long-term trends is more complicated and will require creative analysis. Nonetheless, countries are beginning to press ahead with policies to mitigate the factors that contribute to climate migration and address the displacement of people when it occurs.

The Challenge of Studying Climate Migration

Attributing human mobility to actual or perceived changes in the environment is difficult, as migration responds to many dynamics, not just climatic drivers. Taking the example of Central America, much has been written about the effects of climate change on the livelihoods of local communities, but these drivers also interact with structural problems of poverty, unemployment, inequality and violence, which play a crucial role in migration decisions. Similarly, some populations are severely affected by climate change but are not able or do not want to migrate.

The need for better information on climate migration is a key priority for policymakers. Recent global frameworks on this area specifically reflect this need, including the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (Objectives 1 and 2h) and the recommendations of the Task Force on Displacement under the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1c).

The primary sources and global estimates that are most cited on climate migration derive from disaster displacement situations that involve sudden-onset hazards. In these cases, it is less complicated to isolate the environmental drivers of mobility than in slower onset processes. It is generally more challenging to capture migration due to droughts and land degradation due to the intersection of many different vulnerabilities, including, for instance, food insecurity, decreased income, unemployment and conflict. Specific primary data collection in vulnerable areas as well as relevant datasets on migration or climate can be used to map the relation between climate processes and human mobility. Recent advances have also been made through the application of complementary qualitative and quantitative research methods to triangulate a more accurate understanding of movements and the use of agent-based models that can help depict individual behavior in complex environments. Different sources, such as qualitative statistics of migration movements, personal narratives, and contextual analysis, are now being used to identify mobility triggered by droughts. These qualitative approaches can help better define the extent to which processes such as drought or sea level rise produce population movements.

The World Bank’s Groundswell Report is widely used in policy forums to project potential climate movements within countries in three regions of the world, and more recent efforts also aim at projecting what climate migration will look like in the future. But projections like these describe a wide range of path-dependent outcomes that are subject to change, rely on often-partial data, and can be difficult to interpret, presenting room for improvement.

Efforts are still required to overcome existing limitations in climate migration data. For instance, longitudinal studies enable the observation of changes over time and would provide meaningful insights about how the relationship between the climate and migration shifts over time. Data collection processes should also improve the disaggregation of variables to better clarify how climate migration affects populations differently on the basis of gender, age, and social and cultural factors.

Policy Interventions on Climate Migration in Latin America and the Caribbean

Latin America and the Caribbean are extremely exposed to the adverse impacts of climate change, in terms of both sudden-onset events and long-term processes. However, while climate policy is quite advanced in the region, the overall integration of migration in climate frameworks remains quite weak.

A range of solutions has been developed to allow the admission of persons displaced by disasters across borders, including the use of regular migration categories, immigration discretionary powers, disaster risk management provisions and even refugee law. The Bolivian migration law passed in 2013 goes as far as to provide a definition of “climate migrants” and asks the National Migration Council to develop international agreements aimed at protecting Bolivian nationals abroad and enabling the entry of displaced persons. The use of free movement protocols to facilitate international movements has also received attention from the research community and international organizations since the 2017 hurricane season in the Caribbean, as lifting migration requirements facilitates planned or unplanned evacuation processes. However, new efforts are necessary to ensure that these free movement protocols can positively improve the situation of persons displaced by disasters.

Policymaking on internal climate migration is more difficult to assess because it involves different areas of government engagement, including disaster risk reduction, urban and population planning, service provision, and climate and environmental action. Latin American and Caribbean countries have generally taken two different approaches to domestic policy on climate migration. Most policy approaches rely on provisions included in disaster risk, planning and climate frameworks. This includes references to migration as the result of poor adaptive capacities in national adaptation plans (Colombia), provisions to avoid building in hazardous areas or to relocate at-risk communities and infrastructure (Mexico and Guyana), and even mentions of migration as a positive adaptation strategy to climate change (Brazil and Haiti). In Cuba, the Tarea Vida climate plan prioritizes the reduction of population density in exposed coastal areas and will guide the implementation of land planning and disaster risk reduction initiatives across the country. Further efforts are required in other countries to ensure that commitments taken in climate documents are reflected in other sectors.

While most countries have used broader disaster and climate legislation to attempt to mitigate the factors that cause climate migration, a limited number of countries are developing policy approaches to address climate migration specifically. Guatemala has included a specific chapter on human mobility in its climate strategy and Belize is following the same path. Honduras makes clear reference to climate migration in its national climate change strategy, which includes the “establishment and strengthening of a legal and institutional framework to address the specific conditions of climate induced migration.” Similarly, the Peruvian climate change framework law of 2018 and its regulation in 2019 requested the authority to design a dedicated “plan of action to prevent and address forced migration due to the effects of climate change,” a process that is now ongoing under the leadership of the country’s Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations.

Coordinating New Approaches

Despite conceptual and definitional challenges, research and policymaking on climate migration have greatly advanced in recent years. Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are implementing different approaches to address climate migration, including provisions in climate, migration, and disaster risk frameworks, as well as the current development of specific processes. Data gaps remain a key concern as they may hamper the development of accurate interventions, and addressing this shortcoming will require additional investments in evidence collection and analysis. Policy coherence remains a structural need in this area: As climate migration is approached from multiple policy angles, ensuring synergies and avoiding duplications is crucial.

The inclusion of climate migration in international frameworks like the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration provides an opportunity for countries to report on the progress of their interventions during regular review exercises. Initial evidence shows opportunities for quick action, notably the use of available data sources to better understand and map climate migration patterns to enhance protection measures for displaced persons and climate migrants, and the development of national task forces to approach the complexities of climate migration from different points of view and harness the positive outcomes of migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change.

This publication is based on a piece drafted for Perry World House and made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The views expressed are solely the author’s and do not reflect the position of Perry World House, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, or the International Organization for Migration.

Pablo Escribano is the regional thematic specialist on migration, environment and climate change covering the countries of the Americas and the Caribbean for the International Organization for Migration. The views expressed are solely the author’s and do not reflect the position of the International Organization for Migration.

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