Climate Change, Global Migration & Human Rights

Climate change, global migration and human rights are inextricably linked. As global warming advances around the world, increasing numbers of people are being displaced from their lands, livelihoods and homes, becoming “internally displaced peoples” within their own countries, for forced to migrate across international borders. And as they are displaced, access to human rights becomes an even more important challenge in the pursuit of safety, work and a new home.


For a comprehensive summary of these issues, read NNIRR’s Fact Sheet “Climate Change, Global Migration and Human Rights” (Sept. 2018)


Earth Day 2021:

A focus on the intersection of Climate & Migration 

NNIRR Co-Director, Alma Maquitico joins a conversation on climate and its impacts on forced migration and displacement with groups working on the frontlines, including: La Ruta del Clima, Our Climate & special opening remarks by Congressman Joaquin Castro. Organized by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and Climate Refugees. 

You can watch the full panel discussion: Frontlines: Climate Risks and Migration (Earth Day 2021) below.


Frontlines: Climate Risks and Migration (April 22, 2021)

Hosts: Climate Refugees and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, with opening remarks by Congressman Joaquin Castro, US House of Representatives, Texas.


  • Alma Maquitico, NNIRR
  • Erika Andiola, RAICES
  • Jasime Sanders, Our Climate
  • Adrián Martinez Blanco, La Ruta del Clima
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Recent Advocacy

Joint Letter to President Biden on Climate & Migration: 

Read NNIRR’s latest joint advocacy on climate and migration, as a partner in the global network Climate, Migration & Development Platform, which co-authored this letter to President Biden. We urge this administration to take bold actions for addressing the urgent issues concerning human mobility in the context of climate change in a way that is accountable to those who are affected and upholds human rights and dignity. 


Joint Climate & Migration Policy Recommendations

NNIRR has signed onto the 2021 Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Legal Justice Coalition Policy Recommendations to Address ClimateForced Displacement in the United States

The conclusion is clear: We need both Congressional and executive action to provide a more equitable and just response to the human costs of climate change, particularly for communities that have been disproportionately affected by climate change impacts, extreme weather and water events, and recovery responses. We propose the following actions, which would also support economic development and job creation in places that need it the most.

More Resources on the Intersection of Climate & Migration

It’s Not a Border Crisis. It’s a Climate Crisis. (July 19, 2021) Politico

Now, like the Cuc Cac sisters, thousands of rural Guatemalans — as well as Salvadorans and Hondurans in agrarian areas — increasingly are leaving their communities. These days, migration — including the record number of unaccompanied children — is on the rise in rural areas, as an increasing portion of the country’s land and population faces the fallout from climate change.

And it’s not just climate change acting alone. It’s food insecurity. Malnutrition. Poverty. It all ties together.

A Well-Founded Fear of Climate Change: Providing Relief for Climate-Displaced Persons (July 2021) U.S. Immigration Policy Center, University of California, San Diego

Excerpt from Executive Summary: 

This report provides a comprehensive overview of current and projected displacement of peoples as a result of climate change along with accompanying recommendations for policy makers. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Earth’s climate is drastically warming. 1 A 2018 report found that the Earth will warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next five years causing an increase in the number of environmental disasters such as floods, droughts, and wildfires. Consequently, forced migration will also increase in the context of these climate-induced environmental disasters. While the international community recognizes that climate change poses an existential threat, and that the adverse effects are felt most acutely by those already in vulnerable settings, the extent to which “climate-displaced persons” are protected under U.S. domestic or international law is a subject of ongoing legal conversation. Those displaced by climate change currently cannot access asylum or refugee protections that are available to those fleeing persecution—this creates legal dilemmas, but also creates space for policy innovations.

Legal Status: The Critical Difference Between Two Climate Migrant Stories (April 29, 2021) Climate Refugees

The Climate Crisis & Rights Denied (Dec. 10, 2019) A comprehensive report by the Othering and Belonging Institute. An excerpt from their intro:

Yet, across international humanitarian law, human rights law, refugee law, and other bodies of law, protections for climate-induced displaced persons forced to cross international borders are limited, piecemeal, and not legally binding. International migration following short-term disasters is only occasionally protected under humanitarian visas and state-specific measures as with the United States’ Temporary Protected Status designation, though such protections are often provisional and not legally binding. Likewise, international migration following long-term disasters is not covered unless the provision of support by the local government (or governments) is denied on the basis of race, religion, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

The Extremist Campaign to Blame Immigrants for Environmental Problems by Center for American Progress (Feb. 2021)

The extremist effort to blame immigrants for the nation’s environmental problems deserves scrutiny—and not merely for the purpose of disproving its xenophobic and outlandish claims. The contours, origins, funding sources, and goals of this right-wing effort must be understood in order to effectively combat it and ensure that the extremists pushing it have no place in the conservation movement. 
Jenny Rowland-Shea and Sahir Doshi 

The Great Climate Migration: NY Time interactive article: (July 2020)

While this piece is missing the antecedents to climate change in regions such as Central America, i.e. root causes of political unrest, corporate greed and control, poverty caused by gross inequities now exacerbated by climate conditions, the research and storytelling are good background when understood in context.

As the climate changes, drought and food insecurity drive rural residents in Mexico and Central America out of the countryside.

Running Dry A 2019 series in The Guardian on climate change and migration in Central America

Photo credits: 1) Cathi Tactaquin; 2) Jen Ferrigno 3) Cathi Tactaquin 4) Stephen Melkisethian

We may be more familiar with situations in which people may be displaced because of natural disasters, such as massive earthquakes or hurricanes or other examples of “rapid onset” climate change. People may become temporary, or long-term refugees. However, today, many more people, particularly among large movements of “forced migrants”, are also displaced due to “slow onset” climate change, in which rising temperatures and sea levels, drought-rain cycles and other phenomena have robbed people of access to arable land or fishing, their homes and livelihoods.

The crisis of displaced populations raises familiar concerns: on the one hand, how to adequately address immediate and emergent issues for these vulnerable populations, including humanitarian responses, while understanding and comprehensively addressing the underlying factors and long-term consequences. It is an increasingly urgent issue, and we have a lot of work to do!

While there isn’t an easily countable number of climate migrants displaced due to slow-onset changes, a 2017 Greenpeace study concludes that approximately 25.4 million people are displaced every year; this is an estimated 60% higher than the rate of climate displacement four decades ago. Most of this population displacement is taking place in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America—three “hot spots” that represent over half of the developing world’s populations. These “climate migrants” are often rural or coastal residents who migrate to safer urban areas. Skills such as fishing and farming are not useful in urban areas, leaving many jobless. This means that a displaced climate migrant may have difficulty finding work which matches their skill set and experience, adding to the economic adversities faced by those displaced. Assimilation into a different lifestyle while living without a home, many belongings or employment can be extremely traumatic and challenging for unaided families and individuals. In addition, accessing even basic necessities, such as decent housing, health care, and education, can be out of reach.

As international climate migration issues rise to the forefront of these discussions, they exist very much in the domestic U.S. sphere as well. Indigenous reservations and communities of color are often situated near environmentally hazardous areas like coal plants and mines. As of 2017, African Americans are exposed to 38 % more polluted air than whites, and are 75 % more likely to live in chemical-factory “fence-line zones” than the US average (Latino communities are 60 percent more likely). As extreme weather events increase in frequency, already vulnerable communities will become even more so.

These issues have been addressed to some degree at an international level in documents like the Paris Climate Accords and the Global Compact for Migration. The most recently negotiated Global Compact has established a general non-binding agreement of participating countries to “integrate displacement considerations into disaster preparedness strategies and promote cooperation with neighbouring and other relevant countries,” as well as to “address the vulnerabilities of persons affected by sudden-onset and slow-onset natural disasters, by ensuring they have access to humanitarian assistance that meets their essential needs.” While this is a start, it does leave a lot to desire in terms of concrete commitments to the populations most severely in need.

The theme of Climate and Migration was addressed at the Global Climate Action Summit in September, 2018, held in San Francisco. It was the focus of a workshop moderated by NNIRR in a parallel forum on global climate change and health. Bay Area-based It Takes Roots also held a week of activities offering a more grassroots-centered week of activities.

Check out these historical documents on the intersection of Climate and Migration for your orientation.