Environmental Mobility

Environmental change is one of the many reasons that prompt people to migrate or flee, but its importance in both internal and cross-border flows is rising as more climate impacts intensify.  Environmental events can also inhibit movement or lead governments to relocate households away from exposed areas.

The scientific understanding of different types of environmental mobility has advanced over the past decades. In parallel, numerous states and non-state actors at global, regional, and national levels have paid increasing attention to the issue. Five key international perspectives are applied to environmental mobility: (a) forced migration/refugees; (b) migration; (c) planned relocation; (d) disaster risk reduction, development and resilience; and (e) climate action. These frameworks for analysis are grounded in diverse international norms and processes, and are variously adopted by multilateral organizations.

Although the scope of evidence and policy attention have improved, the translation of scientific insights into coherent policy and planning is still in its infancy, especially at the global level. As climate impacts and environmental degradation are magnifying worldwide, the need to develop and implement nuanced and coherent governance approaches grows in importance. Two principles should inform those efforts: First, states have a responsibility to prevent, reduce and remedy harm caused by their greenhouse gas emissions and other actions resulting in environmental damage; and so long as effective liability systems are missing, the international community as a whole, as well as regional organizations, need to affirm and take action consistent with this duty. Second, existing state commitments support a responsibility to prevent (through prediction, risk reduction, prevention, and adaptation), respond to (by respecting the rights and providing for the needs of persons on the move), and provide solutions to protracted situations of displacement due to environmental events. Thus, global governance of environmental mobility must be centered on the responsibilities of the international community and the rights of those affected by environmental events. This understanding would represent a significant shift away from the current focus of calls for global governance, which is how migrant flows can be “managed” in pursuit of state interests. Regional norms, institutions and processes can provide an important avenue to advance governance of environmental mobility and can also help to inform a global approach.

Project context and goals

Against this background, the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility has initiated a project on global and regional norms and processes relating to environmental mobility. The project is supported by KNOMAD’s Thematic Working Group on Migration and Environmental Change.The project will seek to foster the development of a coherent, coordinated and comprehensive approach by providing recommendations for filling normative and structural gaps as well as by reducing overlaps and redundancies in analyses, actions and recommendations of international actors. Specific goals are:

  1. Identify normative gaps at the international and regional levels pertaining to disaster displacement and migration due to slow-onset climate change.
  2. Examine work plans of leading international organizations and international processes relating to climate-induced migration.
  3. Divide the challenges that need to be addressed into “buckets,” for analysis and the development of recommendations and to provide a coherent schema.
  4. Make recommendations on norms and institutional arrangements for meeting the identified gaps and challenges.

The project considers the following as essential requisites for effective and just national, regional and global governance:

  1. Adopt and support strategies to reduce the risk of forced displacement due to environmental events and to provide for the orderly movement of persons facing such displacement;
  2. Protect and assist persons displaced by environmental events when they cannot return in safety and when they cannot be adequately protected and assisted in place to where they have moved, including recognition of rights and the principle of non-refoulement;
  3. Empower existing institutions, or create new institutions, to help the international community meet these responsibilities.


This project has received financial support from KNOMAD, the Robert Bosch Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations.

Regional Papers

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