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Environmental Displacement and Migration

People can experience environmental displacement in many ways. They may be forced to leave their homes and communities due to sudden-onset events (such as tsunamis, landslides, and flood events), or slow-onset processes (such as desertification and sea level rise). Environmental migration can occur in response to floods, desertification, and other environmental events, or it may occur in anticipation of those events. Because there are usually many reasons for migration, it can be challenging to unpack the precise role that the environment has in driving migration directly or indirectly.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 145 million people, roughly two percent of the world’s population, have been displaced over the past six years. Projections by the UNHCR suggest that environmentally induced displacement could take unprecedented dimensions, with an additional 250 million persons displaced due to environmental factors over the next 35 years.

Yet displacement is far from the end of the story. The ways in which environmentally displaced persons and migrants adjust to their new environs, make decisions about returning to their former homelands, and receive legal protections from host countries are all complex issues captured by the broader phenomenon of environmental migration, of which environmental displacement is one cause. As the effects of climate change intensify, the number of environmental migrants is expected to increase rapidly.

ELI seeks to improve local, national, and international capacity to manage environmental displacement and migration. This work builds on existing expertise in climate change adaptation, environmental emergencies, and environmental peacebuilding to strengthen policy, capacity, and practice. ELI seeks to strengthen legal protections for people displaced across national borders due to changes in their physical environment, using analysis, dialogue, technical assistance, and capacity building to catalyze and inform policy and practice.

ELI work in the area of environmental migration focuses on three specific themes:

  1. The factors influencing environmental displacement and migration, including return after disasters
  2. Legal tools protecting cross-border environmentally displaced persons
  3. Maintaining effective livelihoods for environmental migrants