Environmental Migrants

Environmental migrants are people who are forced to migrate from or flee their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment which adversely affects their well being or livelihood. Such changes can include slow-onset environmental change or degradation such as increasingly frequent droughts, a rise in sea levels and desertification; or they can be related to sudden environmental changes resulting from earthquakes, cyclones or floods.
A family gathers sticks and branches for firewood and making a shelter on the outskirts of Dadaab, where many animals which have perished in the drought.
A family gathers sticks and branches for firewood and making a shelter on the outskirts of Dadaab, where many animals which have perished in the drought.


Andy Hall/Oxfam

It is often impossible to separate environmental factors from other drivers of migration, and it is difficult to determine whether environmental migration can be considered forced or voluntary migration. Where the environmental factor is a sudden-onset environmental change, such as a volcanic eruption, an earthquake or cyclone, it has been commonly categorised as forced migration. However, even in this case, other underlying factors can make such migration permanent rather than temporary. Where the environmental change is slow, such as environmental degradation, frequent occurrences of floods or droughts which results in economic insecurity, poverty and loss of livelihoods, the consequent migration is seldom recognised as forced. People affected by such environmental changes may in fact be environmental refugees, but because there is no international recognition of environmental refugees, they end up being classified as economic migrants.

Environmental change is only one of the factors determining whether or not people migrate; and migration is just one of the possible responses to environmental change.  Natural and environmental factors are closely linked to economic, social and political contexts and this needs to be considered in any explanation of migration.



Case studies


Allison lives in a village, Shishmaref in Alaska, which is in the Arctic. Climate change is having a huge impact on her community. The people from her village are being forced to relocate because of the erosion of their land by the sea.

Whenever a big storm hits our town, it erodes the land from the ocean side and the lagoon side. Whenever there are really big waves it washes the land away. Sometimes people lose their boats and sometimes they sink to the bottom of the water. It also washes away the racks where we dry our seal meat, fish, and more.

About five years ago the sea ice used to take longer to melt. It lasted about 10 months but now it’s only 8 months. This harms our way of life, our way of hunting, our way of fishing, and our way of traveling from one place to another.

We are using big rocks on the ocean side to keep our land from eroding. The village can be saved if the sea wall will keep the waves from getting to the land. Our community voted for our village to move to a place called Tin Creek. We will need a lot of money because of all the houses that will need to be moved.

The thought of moving our village is very sad because Shishmaref is the place where I grew up. Shishmaref is a great place to live because everyone knows each other. If we move, it would probably bring our community closer together. If we had to choose to move or to stay, I would choose to stay. I love this village and I would do anything to help save it.

Allison “Anisaaluk” Nayokpuk

Source: Many Strong Voices, Portraits of Resilience. Available through GRID-Arendal Polar Centre at: https://gridarendal.exposure.co/climate-change-through-the-eyes-of-alaskan-youth?embed=true

A house in Eagle, Alaska, which was pushed 300 feet off of its foundation by ice and flood waters in spring 2008
A house in Eagle, Alaska, which was pushed 300 feet off of its foundation by ice and flood waters in spring 2008


Ben Brennan/FEMA

Background note on the Arctic

The Arctic is experiencing some of the most rapid and extreme climate changes on Earth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in 2007 that  the Arctic average temperatures have already risen at almost twice the rate of the rest of the world over the past century. Over the last few years, climate change has become an important and emerging force that is shaping the lives of the indigenous people who live in the Arctic.

Climate change has affected indigenous people’s traditional ways of life and their livelihoods. The ways in which people forage and hunt has changed because of changing climate. As herd animals are now moving to new locations, people are having to move with them in order continue hunting or having to abandon traditional hunting patterns. Sea ice is declining, and the pack ice is further from shore and often too thin to allow safe travel for marine hunters. Traditional routes of movement for mobile hunters are therefore changing or disappearing.

Climate change may also result in new industry in Arctic regions, which will have implications for the movement of people. As ice thins and melts, new opportunities for fossil fuel extraction and mining emerge. This could mean that Arctic people move in order to find work in these new operations, and that people from other areas will increasingly move into the Arctic.

Arctic Voice (undated) Climate Change. Available at:  https://voiceofthearcticinupiat.org/


Haran Mondols, 53, lives in Bangladesh. He has been forced to move his extended family of 17 to the capital city Dhaka to look for work after cyclone Aila destroyed his village in May 2009.

Haran used to be a wealthy man and his extended family owned five houses, which they lost to the cyclone. He remembers the first few days in Dhaka: “We don't have cars in our village, so when I saw a car I had to jump this way and that. And my head was full of a terrible buzzing sound."

Now the family  live in a group of huts near the international airport, and scrape a living shining shoes on the streets of Dhaka. Life has been particularly harsh for the children, who have had to give up their school and work to support their family. Ruhi said sadly, "I have to work all day in the sun so I don't feel good. My father said I should do this work and when everything is okay back in the village I can go back and study. I would like to go back, to school. I want to be a teacher and have my own school."

Their family is desperate to return to their village, but this looks unlikely. Many people have left their village over recent years due to the erosion of their land from the cyclone and the rising sea levels.

Grant, Harriet (2009) Bangladesh's climate migration trail: 'Our village is still underwater'. The Guardian, 4 December http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/dec/04/bangladesh-climate-migration-trail

Climate change refugees, Bangladesh
Climate change refugees, Bangladesh



Background note on internal migration in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has high levels of internal migration from rural to urban centres. One of the main reasons for this has been the lack economic opportunity in rural areas because of climate change. Over the last two decades, climate change has contributed significantly to the loss of livelihoods as increasing sea levels have rendered large parts of the country unfit for farming, and frequent cyclones have destroyed villages. Every year, more than one million people lose their homesteads or arable land due to river erosion.

In these circumstances, migration is a strategy that enables people from rural areas to earn a livelihood. Many young women from poor rural backgrounds who have migrated to cities like Dhaka and Chittagong have found work in garment factories and food processing industries. While this enables their families to survive, such work is low paid, involves long hours and the workers have few rights.

WFP (2018) Migration. World Food Programme https://www.wfp.org/publications/2018-bangladesh-rohingya-crisis


Sharmen grew up in Fairfield, in the shadows of Chances Peak, which is a volcanic mountain in Montserrat, in the Caribbean.  She spent her childhood climbing mango trees and trekking up the Chances Peak during the school vacations. She enjoyed playing cricket and was a fast bowler. When she grew up, she worked in a clinic and her husband was a police officer. When the volcano first started to rumble, their house was 25 minutes walk from the Soufriere. The rumblings kept Sharmen up at night. Fearful that the volcano would erupt, her family moved back to her childhood home in Fairfield and eventually moved to another town further away.

When the volcano finally erupted in 1995, Sharmen’s family had to leave their home with few possessions and spent some time living with relatives and then had to move from place to place seeking safety. The volcano continued to erupt over the next two years and there were several small earthquakes too. Sharmen sent her daughter to nearby Vincent to continue her secondary education, but she and her husband decided to stay on the island. In 1997, when the biggest eruption thus far claimed 19 lives, Sharmen was part of a casualty team trained to treat people for burns sustained by the ash. She saw first hand the devastation wreaked by the volcano on people’s lives.

She decided that it was time for her family to migrate to England. The process of migration and resettlement was not easy, as she found it very difficult to leave behind the natural beauty and the culture of Montserrat, in the knowledge that things would never be the same. The thought that her children and grandchildren would never experience the childhood she had still haunts her. Sharmen has written a book about the experience of migrants from Montserrat who settled in England.

Greenaway, Sharmen (2011) Montserrat in England: Dynamics of Culture. iUniverse: Bloomington, IN.

View across ash-covered Plymouth, the former capital city and major port of Montserrat, after the erusption of the volcano
View across ash-covered Plymouth, the former capital city and major port of Montserrat, after the erusption of the volcano


R.P. Hoblitt

Background note on migration from Montserrat to the UK

Volcanic eruption began in Soufriere hills in Montserrat in 1995 and covered the southern part of the island with several metres of mud and ash which rendered large parts of the island uninhabitable. Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory, which means that it is a self governing territory with the British monarch as its Head of State. In 1998, UK accepted responsibility for supporting people forced to leave the island because of the volcano and gave Montserrat residents full residency rights in the UK. Between 1995 and 1998 more than two-thirds of the inhabitants of this island (about 7500 people) had to leave. A few hundred islanders chose to move to neighbouring Caribbean islands in the hope of moving back to Montserrat one day, and a similar number migrated to the US. The  majority (about 5000 people) came to the UK. During the years of the eruptions, the population of Montserrat dropped from about 11,000 to 3,000.

BBC News (undated) Montserrat volcanic eruption. http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/learning/teachers/media/pages/geography_volcanoes_montserrat.shtml