Climate Change Migration Often Short-Distance and Circular

Lori Hunter | Nov 13, 2012

Recent reports suggest that climate change, and in particular sea level rise, may be occurring faster than earlier anticipated.1 This has increased policy and public discussions as to climate change’s likely impacts on population movements, both internal and international. Traditional understandings of migration fall increasingly short of integrating the panoply of reasons why people now decide to move.

The 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, as amended by a 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as a person who left his or her country “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”2 Climate change is a factor more recently shaping migration streams, although its impact was not evident when the convention was drafted or amended.

The question of climate change migration needs to be seen against the backdrop of existing voluntary and involuntary population movements, which may be as high as 1 billion, according to U.N. Development Programme estimates.3 Long-term international migrants (people who leave their home-country for at least a year) are estimated at over 200 million.4 And although numbers fluctuate with every new political crisis, refugees number nearly 10 million in the latest U.N. estimates.5 Internally displaced people (who, unlike refugees, did not cross an international border) are estimated at 27 million.6

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