Forced displacement and (im)mobility: what’s climate change got to do with it?

In recent years, the notion of imminent mass migration and forced displacement due to climate change has been widely peddled, particularly in the media and political rhetoric. The oftentimes accompanying narrative is that countries in the Global North must prepare themselves for millions of expected ‘climate migrants’ and ‘climate refugees’ moving from the Global South.

Alongside a disproportionate framing of the climate–migration nexus in terms of numbers and predictions, the issue seems to be increasingly instrumentalized both by those seeking to amplify the urgency of fighting climate change and those further aiming to securitize migration policies. The framing of climate change as a direct driver of cross-border mobility risks obscuring the complex reality of climate-forced displacement and migration and lead to inadequate policy responses.

A complex relationship

Previous research into climate-related drivers of mobility indicates that climate-induced mobility serves as an adaptation strategy and occurs mostly in the form of short-distance and internal movements within countries, and from rural to urban areas. Establishing a link between longer-distance cross-border movement due to climate-related stressors is difficult. Movement in response to environmental and climate-related impacts often occurs at first internally and might be followed eventually by international migration after the accumulation of sufficient resources, for example through work in urban centers. In this context, the role of climate-related drivers of mobility are difficult to distinguish from the many other factors that impact migration decision-making.

Indeed, MMC’s 4Mi data shows that generally a low proportion (for example, 2% in West Africa) of refugees and migrants on the move spontaneously mention “natural disaster or environmental factors” when asked specifically for what reasons they left. However, when asked in a separate and direct question whether environmental issues were a factor in their decision to leave, substantially greater percentages of respondents (for example 47% in West Africa) indicated that these had played a role. Unless in the case of immediate, sudden-onset disasters and changes forcing people to move, environmental and climate-related reasons are usually further back in people’s mind when they give reasons for migration. Environmental and climate-related factors often manifest as a stress multiplier, or something that exacerbates other challenges: they affect other drivers of migration, such as livelihood opportunities (economic reasons) or conflict, which subsequently is what respondents indicate when asked without prompting.

A variety of migration outcomes

There is a variety of potential mobility outcomes following climate-related events, from the disruption of regular mobility patterns (for example in the case of pastoralist movements), displacement for survival, to immobility, either voluntary or involuntary. While the cause-and-effect relationship between a sudden-onset natural disaster and forced displacement is readily observable, the relationship between repeated experiences of sudden-onset disasters, or of slow-onset disasters, and an individual’s decision to move or not to move is more complex. In this context, the concepts of voluntary migration and forced displacement also become blurred: if people choose to migrate because they feel they have exhausted the alternatives, then to what extent is the migration voluntary? What is the link between different types of mobility and an individual’s capability and aspiration? As the effects of climate change increase and intensify, better understanding the role of climate change and climate-related events as a driver of (im)mobility – and the interaction with other migration drivers – must remain a priority. Only with this knowledge can we anticipate and respond effectively.









Conceptual model developed by the Mixed Migration Centre for the Africa Climate Mobility Initiative, a new, large-scale research project on climate-forced mobility in Africa. The model focuses on understanding the role of environmental and climate-related factors in mobility, acknowledging the role of a wide range of other factors in determining migration outcomes and migration and displacement within the full range of potential outcomes, including the risk of involuntary immobility as well as mobility as a voluntary coping or adaptation strategy.

Mobility and climate change in Africa

Undeniably, some regions will be more severely impacted by climate change than others, and in Africa extreme and unpredictable weather has already led to natural disasters and negatively impacted on crop yields and fisheries; these impacts are likely to intensify. Research indicates that climate change-induced migration and displacement is also already underway, and is likely to increase in the future. Mobility patterns across Africa are changing for numerous reasons, making it even more difficult to tease out the relationship between climate-related events and changes in mobility. But it is essential to do so, in order to support and facilitate successful climate change adaptation strategies, including safe migration.

Seven case studies on climate and mobility

The Mixed Migration Centre, in support of the Africa Climate and Mobility Initiative, is launching a new study to find out more about individual and household aspirations and decision-making around mobility in areas impacted by climate-related events. MMC will be conducting data collection among populations in seven locations in Africa where various kinds of climate extremes are observed and where displacement, migration, or immobility is occurring. Applying mixed methods and reaching across the continent, we will conduct household surveys, focus group discussions, and in-depth interviews in Angola, Egypt, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, western Sahel, and Uganda. The objective is to capture the human face of climate-forced mobility and to unpack the multitude of experiences, perspectives and drivers of (im)mobilities in response to climate-related events. What are people’s aspirations to move? And their capacities? Where do climate-related events lie in driving those aspirations? And for those who move, how does that play out?

The findings, which will be published before the end of 2021, will provide insights from each specific case study, as well as look at cross-cutting thematics, with the aim to inform the design of inclusive recommendations and policies in support of populations who are affected by climate-related events, and which will assist adaption and resilience in places of origin, and facilitate safe mobility and successful integration.

The MMC research takes place under the umbrella of the Africa Climate Mobility Initiative (ACMI) – Shaping the Future of Mobility in Africa, Addressing Climate-Forced Displacement and Migration -, led by the African Union, UNDP, the World Bank Group, IOM and UNFCCC. The MMC field research takes place in parallel to a companion quantitative modelling exercise by Columbia University. MMC’s study is funded by the Ford Foundation, Porticus Foundation and the Mayors Migration Council. For more information, contact the project lead Jane Linekar,