• Opinion
  • November 12, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 2

A new migration crisis is about to hit — driven by climate change

Opinion: From New Zealand to South Africa, here's how countries are starting to prepare

This piece was written by Rosalind KennyBirch, Contributor to the Energy & Climate Program, Agora Think Tank. For more like this, see our refugees and migration newsfeed.

When civil society opines on refugee influxes, the discussion is usually framed in terms of violence: refugees escaping an area of Mexico riddled with gang wars, in Syria fleeing destabilising conflict and in North Korea, absconding a totalitarian regime.

Climate change is little discussed as a catalyst for displacement, but this is likely to change as weather conditions become increasingly extreme and water levels continue to rise. The World Bank has estimated that over 140 million people in three regions alone (South Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa) will become internally displaced due to climate change.

Here are a few approaches which countries are implementing to prepare for, and limit the possibility of, a sudden crisis.


Kiribati has adopted a “Migration with Dignity” policy to prepare citizens to relocate in the event of a climate crisis. The program aims to enable citizens to find a job and legally relocate to countries which are less threatened, specifically Australia and New Zealand.

The strategy has two key components. One, that opportunities “must be created to enable the migration of those who wish to do so now and in the coming years,” which will “assist in establishing expatriate communities, who will be able to absorb and support greater numbers of migrants in the longer term”.

The other key component is to raise the quality of qualifications in Kiribati to be comparable to standards in Australia and New Zealand. This is so that citizens will be “more attractive as migrants” whilst “improve the standards of services available locally”. Kiribati’s program gives citizens control over their decision making, whilst simultaneously boosting the quality of education and skills training within the country.


Ethiopia has responded by introducing measures to limit the risk of food insecurity and reduce the vulnerability of rural areas, through the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) originally launched in 2005.

The program aims to enable the rural poor to “resist shocks, create assets and become food self-sufficient” by providing multi-annual predictable transfers like food and money to help people subsist during a period of food deficit.

In exchange, able-bodied members of PSNP households are required to participate in productive activities that will build community resilience, specifically rehabilitating land and water resources and developing infrastructure. Examples include rural road improvement and building schools and clinics.

The World Bank has reported that the program’s effects are largely “positive,” albeit currently on a “modest” scale. Several studies have shown that the program can decrease food insecurity by 1.3 months. Other studies found that participation in the PSNP had positive effects on children’s health and nutrition and that PSNP beneficiaries were better off than non-beneficiaries.

South Africa

The Land and Agricultural Development Bank of South Africa has launched a new funding facility worth US$56 million (secured through a European Investment Bank loan) to support climate change adaption, so that agricultural workers can become more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Analysis from the Climate Migration Coalition has shown that adverse climatic conditions tend to reduce agricultural employment, which in turn tends to boost out-migration. By improving natural resource management, strengthening business continuity, contributing to a reduction in energy and water usage in food processing, improving existing carbon pools and forming capital intended for climate adaption and mitigation, climate action projects undertaken by the Land Bank will work to mitigate the risk of increasing out-migration.

A study by Displacement Solutions and Ecodev recommended that Myanmar adopt a similar approach, stating that “Myanmar needs to fully recognise its national and international obligations regarding how best to protect the rights of climate displaced persons and communities in the country… the government should give serious consideration to the development of practical measures to mitigate community vulnerability through the design and establishment of a Myanmar National Climate Land Bank (MNCLB)”.

New Zealand

New Zealand was initially proactive in responding to the threat climate change presents to people’s lives, proposing a refugee visa specifically for Pacific islanders affected by climate change. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has said that “surrounding us are a number of nations, not least ourselves, who will be dramatically impacted by the effects of climate change. I see it as a personal and national responsibility to do our part”. The government is in ongoing conversations with Pacific nations about the program, ensuring it meets the needs of these countries. It would start with 100 places annually.

Cooperation between nations will be critical to establishing successful refugee programs

Despite the initiative taken in late 2017 and early 2018, New Zealand has said that it will not adopt plans without approval from Pacific island nations which the policy is aimed at. Therefore, introduction of this policy has stalled and there is evidence which suggests that initial plans made in May have recently been redacted.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said that citizens from these nations had stressed that gaining refugee status is a “last resort” and that they “want to stay in their homes and their homelands”. “The islands themselves made it clear that it’s not something that they want us to unilaterally do. This is something that needs a multilateral dialogue between New Zealand and the islands.”

New Zealand’s experience demonstrates that cooperation between nations will be critical to establishing successful refugee programs. It also shows that launching a program which relies on multilateral collaboration too quickly could have the opposite effect, and instead stall progress. Affected parties must be consulted thoroughly before energy is exerted to put together a proposed program.

Everywhere, preparation will be key

These case studies show that advance preparation is key to stopping a climate migration crisis. Climate change affects every single country. Accordingly, governments should undertake a thorough analysis of the potential for climate change to displace citizens.

Wealthier countries with “climate-proof” infrastructure must demonstrate a willingness to welcome migrants

This will spur countries to adapt to changes in internal migration patterns and prepare for the possibility of an exodus of citizens to other countries. Not all countries will be affected by climate change equally, however. Wealthier countries with “climate-proof” infrastructure must demonstrate a willingness to welcome migrants who have been displaced from their home country due to environmental changes.

Depending on an individual country’s own analysis of the potential for climate to displace citizens, different measures may be needed, yet one thing is certain: countries must begin preparations, before it is too late to prevent an unfolding crisis. — Rosalind KennyBirch

(Picture credit: Flickr/United Nations Photo)


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