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Will climate change really lead to more immigration? Here's what the experts think

A man stands by the remains of his family's home in Iranawila, Sri Lanka that was destroyed by coastal erosion.
A man stands by the remains of his family's home in Iranawila, Sri Lanka that was destroyed by coastal erosion. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Ian SmithLottie Limb
Published on Updated
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All of the experts Euronews Green spoke to said the same thing: there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that climate change will lead to more international migration into Europe.

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“What the hell is a climate migrant? I don't know,” Dominic Kniveton, a professor of climate change and society at the UK’s University of Sussex, says with a hint of a smile. 

“That all depends on who is asking and who is determining the rules.”

Immigration and climate change are two hot-topic political issues - with concerns about the former fuelling far-right gains in the EU’s recent election, as some voters back tougher rules. 

The climate crisis is slowly making more and more places uninhabitable due to extreme weather and a lack of ways to make an income, and it’s often assumed this will lead to a wave of new migration to Europe’s shores. 

But is the relationship between the two really so simple? Here’s what we found from speaking to the experts.

What are climate migrants?

There is currently no universally accepted or legal definition of a climate migrant.

“Part of that is because when we define it really narrowly, then we leave out so many people,” says Dr Caroline Zickgraf, deputy director of the Hugo Observatory, a research centre on climate migration. 

She uses the example of someone who is displaced by a storm. To take a narrow definition of climate migration, that storm would have to be attributed to climate change, something which is notoriously difficult to do. 

“It also doesn't capture all these people who have that pressure to leave for economic reasons because there's not enough fish or crops,” she adds.

On the other hand, if the definition of a climate migrant is opened up it becomes very broad and encompasses so many things that it’s difficult to create targeted policies and programmes.

“Climate change is coming on top of other factors that are already triggering migration, like economic factors, political factors and social factors, and it becomes a risk multiplier,” says Alice Baillat, a policy advisor at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Human-caused climate change is making rainfall more unpredictable and erratic, which makes it difficult for farmers to plant, grow and harvest crops on their rain-fed fields.
Human-caused climate change is making rainfall more unpredictable and erratic, which makes it difficult for farmers to plant, grow and harvest crops on their rain-fed fields.AP Photo

Will climate change cause more immigration to Europe?

The idea of climate change as a risk multiplier can lead to imagery of a surge of migration. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said there could be a ‘mass exodus of biblical proportions’ in the future due to sea level rise. 

Rising temperatures are already destroying livelihoods and uprooting lives through more intense droughts in Africa and elsewhere, while wildfires fanned by record heat tear through communities in summer.

A narrative that then sometimes forms in the media and online is that we should tackle the climate crisis to stem immigration into Europe.

“It’s the idea that you can get the populists behind climate action by saying, gee, aren't you scared of migrants? Well, if so, we can mitigate your greenhouse gas emissions and you won't have to worry about these scary migrants,” says Zickgraf. 

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“This is one of the great myths around climate and migration.”

All of the experts Euronews Green spoke to said the same thing: there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that climate change will lead to more international migration into Europe.

“The one probably definite prediction for the future, and you can't have definite predictions, is that more people will be trapped and unable to move when they want to,” says Kniveton.

Baillat agrees: “What we observe is that climate change tends to deprive people of their income. So they actually have less ability to move most of the time.”

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Even if more people in areas particularly vulnerable to climate change had more money, experts are not convinced that there would be a surge in migration from other continents into Europe.

About 90 per cent of people moving stay within their home country, according to the UN's Global Centre for Climate Mobility (GCCM).

“It's an exception when a person who has been impacted by flooding several times or heatwaves or a specific climate impact moves to Europe,” GCCM managing director Kamal Amakrane points out.

“Not everybody, despite this narcissism of Europe, is going to Europe, wants to go to Europe or can go to Europe,” Zickgraf adds.

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Moving legally or illegally to another country is expensive and most people from the global south don’t have the funds to do it. The ones that do usually also have a social network or family connections in their new country. 

Climate migration is happening everywhere - including Europe

“Many people tend to believe that climate change and disasters are going to displace people in developing countries and that it's an issue for others,” says Baillat. 

“But actually what we observe, by monitoring displacement due to disasters in every region of the world, is that it's very much a global phenomenon. It's affecting everyone.”

Floods, storms, earthquakes, wildfires and other disasters triggered 26.4 million displacements in 2023, the third highest annual total in the past ten years. 

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Two-thirds of the displacements from wildfires were recorded in Canada and Greece, two high income countries. While not every disaster is a direct result of climate change, the science is clear that they will increase in number and intensity as the world heats up.

Firefighters try to extinguish a blaze in Greece earlier this month.
Firefighters try to extinguish a blaze in Greece earlier this month.AP Photo

People have always moved for climate reasons. Amakrane points to the example of Iceland, where two major volcanic eruptions at the end of the nineteenth century triggered a large wave of immigration to Canada.

As climate disasters increase as a result of rising emissions, those who can afford to will continue to move. Away from sea level rise in the US state of Louisiana, for example, or repeated fires in California. 

But this migration in the global north goes under the radar, Amakrane says, “because everything was done in order to empower them.” It’s a similar story within the EU too, where people are free to move between countries - and already are for climate reasons.

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What are the solutions to climate migration challenges?

Given that the largest movement of people is going to be within countries, without the need for visas, the GCCM frames it as an issue of climate mobility rather than migration. It focuses on how to empower everyone to have “positive adaptation journeys”.

Supporting people’s right to stay should come first, Amakrane says. By investing in early warning systems, climate education and data collection, communities become more resilient in their home environments.

In Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, the GCCM is working with groups of young ‘champions’ to get climate mobility solutions into national policies. These solutions can look very different across the three regions - underscoring the point that adaptation has to be locally informed. 

A new loss and damage fund was one of the major wins from 2022’s COP27 - intended to compensate, among other climate impacts, “forced displacement and impacts on cultural heritage, human mobility and the lives and livelihoods of local communities.”

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But the now-operationalised fund is not the “open tap” some assume, Amakrane cautions. 

Preparing before disaster strikes is crucial. Studies show that every euro spent on anticipation and prevention saves around €15 in response and emergency money.

Most importantly, it enables people to take dignified, pre-planned journeys. Experts have suggested investing in education and skills training for people in climate-vulnerable regions, so they are able to secure better jobs if they decide to move. 

Europe should support these forms of adaptation, says Zickgraf; as “one of the regions that started the fire, we have a responsibility to at least try to put it out.”

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But it should also look at preparing its own citizens - rather than catastrophising about mass climate immigration into the continent. “If you're so concerned about building a wall, but you're not looking at what's happening in your own backyard because you're not seeing the disaster displacement of Europeans every year, you're not putting into your adaptation plans how are we going to deal with it,” she adds.

Should there be new routes for climate migration?

In the most vulnerable areas - and under the more severe climate change scenarios - conditions will become too extreme for humans to adapt to.

The world needs to prepare for what the GCCM calls “unprecedented adaptation journeys” - when nations become existentially-challenged by sea level rise or lethal heat.

A positive example emerged from the Pacific last year, with the signing of the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union which opens up a ‘mobility pathway’ for Tuvaluans, without mentioning migration or relocation: a bold new construct, in Amakrane’s eyes.

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“I think it's important to build the new construct. So it's not anchored in the current malaise, disconnect, contradictions that have been nourishing the migration and asylum conversation in Europe,” he says.

Is there scope for a climate-specific pathway to the EU? Policymakers have proposed different options - including ‘climate visas’ from the Greens before the EU elections.

The GCCM managing director believes so, as a new pathway could be disentangled from “the baggage” of other processes. This commitment to human dignity should come before the economic argument for climate migrants - which is nonetheless a strong one. 

“Europe is ageing and that means you're going to need a lot of younger people to do jobs that the local population can’t do because there’s either not enough of them or they’re ageing,” says Kniveton.

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Amakrane is, as ever, staying optimistic in the face of anti-immigrant far-right gains in Europe. 

“There is a sense of humanity in all of us, regardless of our ideological or political anchorage,” he says. “And I hope that sense of humanity will prevail. 

“I hope that sense of a right to dignity will prevail, particularly as people realise that they are in the same boat. At the end we are all on the same planet. Some may have more comfort than the others, but if that comfort zone shrinks, everyone will be impacted.” 

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