How Can the UK Better Facilitate Environmental Migration?

Amelia Dal Pra
Mariam Traore Chazalnoël
December 14, 2021

We know that one of the main impacts of climate change will be an increase in all forms of mobility around the world. People will move in the wake of both sudden- and slow-onset disasters, responding to the negative impacts of climate change on their daily lives by seeking new lives and livelihoods internally, regionally, and internationally. With appropriate legal and policy frameworks, such migration can help people adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Are these people “refugees,” “migrants,” or something in between?

Recent years have seen an increase in scholarship exploring the links between climate change and migration. But legal and policy discussions seem to be stuck at an impasse: are these people “refugees,” “migrants,” or something in between? Should the 1951 Refugee Convention be expanded to facilitate their movement, or do we need new legal and policy frameworks entirely? Beyond such debates, there is clearly now an urgent need to act.

CGD and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are exploring potential ways the UK could implement their commitments under the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM). One of these commitments is to strengthen regional and national frameworks to respond to human mobility linked to environmental and climate impacts, or “environmental migration.” In two new papers, released today, we outline possible options that the UK could take to meet this commitment.

Supporting regional migration adaptation efforts

Some regions are more climate-vulnerable than others, disproportionately impacted by the irreversible changes caused by slow-onset climate events. This is especially true for climate “hotspots” including the Bay of Bengal, the Sahel, and Small Island Developing States.

In these regions, desertification will cause food security issues (especially in agricultural communities), sea level rise will lead to land loss and coastal erosion, and increased heat and evaporation will lead to increasing water scarcity. All will also impact economic livelihoods.

Our first paper explores what has been done in these “hotspots” to build capacity and resilience through the development of regional migration protocols, including free movement agreements (FMAs). FMAs have the potential to boost resilience for vulnerable populations and to offer safe, orderly, and regular migration options to those fleeing extreme climate impacts. For example:

The UK can provide technical assistance and financing to support the effective implementation of these regional frameworks and support the expansion of these frameworks to other “hotspots.” In so doing, they can help bolster the regional coping capacity of sending and receiving communities that will be impacted by an increase in “environmental migration” in the years to come.

Adapting the UK’s own legal and policy frameworks

We know that the vast majority of “environmental migrants” will seek to move internally and regionally, rather than internationally. That being said, there are good reasons why high-income countries like the UK may want to facilitate “environmental migration” by adapting their own humanitarian and labor migration legal and policy frameworks. In our second paper, we outline four reasons:

  1. To champion innovative policies in both the climate change and migration realms, and rally other high-income countries behind a similar position

  2. To support more climate adaptation in countries of origin and reduce drivers of distress migration for vulnerable people experiencing extreme climate impacts, by facilitating remittances and skill transfers
  3. To offset the impacts of an aging society and skill shortages, exacerbated by COVID-19 and (in the UK) by Brexit
  4. To uphold its global commitments under the GCM and other agreements

So what have other high-income countries done, and how can the UK build on their lessons learned? One effective and immediate measure could be to extend temporary protections measures to people from countries affected by disasters, like the US’ Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and similar provisions throughout Europe. They could also target new labor migration pathways, such as the pilots being developed by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), to climate-vulnerable countries.

In the long-term, the UK could investigate expanding grounds for asylum claims at the national level. This would not imply a revision of the international 1951 Refugee Convention but would offer national courts more leeway to consider climate and environmental factors in asylum decisions. Another policy measure could be the establishment of a visa lottery similar to New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category (PAC).

To be successful, such policies must be developed using a whole of government approach, be based on new and robust evidence, be tailored to the needs of climate-vulnerable people, communities, and countries, and be objective, easy to understand, and flexible.

An opportunity for the UK to shift the conversation

The UK has positioned itself as a leader on climate change—adopting the Paris Agreement, promoting decarbonization efforts, and spearheading COP26. Supporting legal and policy frameworks that respond to “environmental migration” would align well with the UK’s climate vision.

That vision should include equal support to both mitigation measures—moving to net-zero and transitioning to green energy—and adaptation measures. These include focusing support on climate-vulnerable areas which are likely to see an increase in “environmental migration” in the future, and opening safe, orderly, and regular migration pathways—internally, regionally, and to the UK. With such efforts, the UK's leadership could result in transformational changes that benefit countries and communities alike.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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