Climate-Related Migration and Displacement

Let’s face it, moving can be difficult for anybody. Loading up furniture, clothes, and personal items, driving or flying to a new home, and re-establishing roots takes time and energy. This can be especially tough for people with disabilities, who need to locate a home that meets their needs (i.e. with a ramp or elevator, if they use a wheelchair), secure transportation, and often rebuild personal support networks and sign up for government services in a new county, state, or even country. Unfortunately, many more people will need to move in the future because of the effects of climate change, which will impact people with disabilities in dramatic ways.

Climate Change and Migration

The effects of climate change – such as storms, rising sea levels, and drought – can often push people to find new homes in safer, more stable climates. This “climate migration” can happen for several reasons. Some include:

  • Being displaced by natural disasters (i.e. evacuating ahead of a hurricane or leaving a town after it is destroyed by forest fires) and never returning home.
  • Leaving areas with few resources needed for survival, such as limited food or water in regions affected by drought.
  • Abandoning areas experiencing chronic flooding due to rising oceans. This is especially relevant in low-lying coastal areas such as southern Florida and Bangladesh, or on islands close to sea level. In some cases, these areas may be permanently covered by the ocean – in others, occasional “nuisance flooding” from high tides or severe flooding from storm surges becomes so problematic that people leave.
  • Climate-related factors can sometimes lead to violence – for example, through conflict over limited water resources or arable land during drought. If individuals try to escape this conflict and become refugees, they could be considered “climate refugees” to some extent.

Climate-related migration can either be “internal” (within a country) or “external” (between countries). An example of internal migration is farmers leaving rural areas for cities when crops are affected by climate change; in fact, this was often the case in Syria, which some experts consider a factor that contributed to violent conflict and the Syrian civil war. External migration is expected to be a coming problem in Bangladesh, a country in South Asia almost entirely within a few meters of sea-level. Its 163 million residents may be displaced as the oceans rise, and as the country is surrounded by other nations (India and Myanmar/Burma), Bangladeshis will likely face legal or other barriers as they try to migrate to escape flooded land.

According to the International Organization on Migration, there will likely be upwards of 100 million “climate migrants” in the coming decades – and that number may reach nearly 1 billion by 2050 under the worst circumstances. This number can be hard to calculate, as people may have many reasons for moving and it can be hard to attribute specific environmental impacts (and related social or economic changes) solely to climate change. Either way, the migration numbers will be significant. These mass population shifts are likely to stoke social and political tensions, stress economies and resources, and in the worst cases lead to conflict. Areas of in-migration may find it difficult to support new residents with food, water, jobs and other necessities; areas of out-migration will see their economies shrink with related consequences. It is important to address this proactively.

Luckily, there can be some adaptive responses. Increasing resilience to climate impacts can help residents remain in-place and not have to migrate under climate stresses; reinforcing economies and infrastructure for immigrants can support population growth; and building international agreements for the human rights of migrants can support their safety and well-being. These efforts and more will stabilize economies, environments, and political relationships worldwide.

A crowd in Cambridge, UK, protests in favor of accepting refugees from Syria and other countries. There are already political struggles around managing refugee crises, and a growing number of migrants from climate-related factors may create similar tensions. | The Cambridge Student/John Sutton

Climate Migration and Disability

People with disabilities already face difficulties when they move, whether it is through finding accessible shelter and transportation, getting new jobs, or signing up for medical care and social services. The disability community may encounter even more barriers when moving is unplanned or happens on short notice, as often is the case with climate-related migration. Some of the many issues people with disabilities may experience during climate migration include:

  • Having little or no access to accessible transportation that can support them, their mobility equipment, and necessary supplies as they migrate. This can be difficult enough with time to plan – it is especially hard when people must escape extreme weather events on short notice.
  • Being unable to find appropriate housing that meets disability-related needs, including physical accessibility and proximity to public transportation and medical/social services. In many cases, people may be forced to live in emergency shelters for extended periods of time, without appropriate physical access and disability services.
  • Losing contact with personal support networks including family, friends, and caregivers. This may also be the case if members of the support network choose to relocate, but the person with a disability does not move. Losing support networks can jeopardize people’s independence, health, psycho-social balance and economic well-being.
  • Being unable to maintain healthcare or other social services as somebody moves across cities, counties, states, or to a new country. This is often difficult considering the patchwork, location-based nature of healthcare and social services (in the US, many government benefits are managed at the county level and there can be wait-times of weeks or months when people reapply in new locations). Non-citizens and new immigrants face extra barriers to enroll in government services, further jeopardizing health and independence.
  • Facing unemployment or under-employment after moving to a new location. Unfortunately, the job market can be difficult to navigate for people with disabilities: there may be limited job opportunities that fit an individual’s personal abilities, or in some cases there may be subtle or explicit discrimination in hiring and management. Securing a new job that “works” and provides a reasonable income can take time or be nearly impossible, depending on the situation.
  • Having immigration requests rejected or delayed based on an individual’s disability. This is often the case with job- and education-related immigration restrictions (i.e. H1B visas), combined with the nature of available jobs and the view that people with disabilities are “unfit” for employment. If a person with a disability is turned away at the border but their family or caregivers are admitted, it can jeopardize their well-being and survival.
An elderly Filipina woman sitting in a manual wheelchair is pushed up ramp in the back of a transport airplane by American troops. Her hair is blowing in the wind.
United States troops help a woman with a disability evacuate the Philippines during Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Extreme weather can displace people temporarily or permanently, and finding accessible transportation to evacuate may be difficult. | U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel M. Young

Best Practices and Next Steps

Often-times, the systems that people with disabilities build around themselves to maintain quality of life (including housing, government benefits, personal support, employment and more) can take years to assemble and are very tied to their place of living. Having to relocate may endanger these systems, and ultimately independence and well-being. On the flip-side, if people with disabilities choose to remain in the face of climate stressors, they may see support systems slowly break apart or simply experience dangers given extra vulnerability to climate effects (such as heat waves). Considering this, individuals and governments can take actions to support people with disabilities faced with the prospect of climate-related displacement. Some actions may include:

  • Guarantee access to appropriate, accessible transportation that can support individuals, mobility equipment, and other necessary supplies through evacuation and planned migration. Provide emergency transportation in a timely manner, especially in the face of climate-related natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires.
  • Assist people with disabilities, their families and support networks to stay connected through migration wherever possible. If support networks will break up as people with disabilities move, provide access to social services, caregivers, communication and other resources to help maintain independence and well-being.
  • Ensure that there is accessible temporary and permanent housing along migration pathways and at destinations. A large part of this is expanding the accessible housing stock in general, as building homes is time- and resource-intensive and it may not be possible to predict all areas of in-migration. Temporary housing including shelters, room-shares (i.e. airbnb), and motels are also important and provide some flexibility. These must be accessible and provide appropriate disability supports as well.
  • Address human rights issues in law and policy, specifically aimed at the connection between climate migration and people with disabilities. Currently, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) addresses “situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies” and “liberty of movement and nationality.” The United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees also references equality for people with disabilities in refugee situations. However, the Convention and Protocol only cover refugees from conflicts, but not environmental or climate migrants. International conventions and human rights laws can be built around the UNCRPD and Convention and Protocol on Refugees, but should specifically address climate migrants with disabilities (and climate migrants in general).
  • Simply reinforcing existing human rights and disability rights laws and policies can benefit climate migrants, even if there are not yet international agreements specifically on climate migration and disability. Guaranteeing access to healthcare and social services, protecting against discrimination, supporting employment, etc. will benefit internal migrants who otherwise may face barriers; these actions will also support the needs of international migrants if they are implemented correctly.
  • Support economic vitality and independence for people with disabilities in general. Personal independence and financial stability are large factors in one’s ability to manage climate stresses and avoid the need to migrate, and also manage the individual requirements that come with relocating if necessary.
Health insurance is often tied to residency in a country, state or even county. Access to insurance for new residents – through quick applications, transferable benefits or universal coverage – will protect health outcomes for climate migrants. | Nick Youngson/Creative Commons 3

Large-scale migration is one of the most daunting consequences of climate change: it can lead to resource stress, social unrest, economic disruptions, and difficulties upholding human rights. This all is especially dangerous for people with disabilities, who may face discrimination, barriers to movement, and lack of access to necessary housing, employment, services and healthcare. It is important to guarantee those necessary supports and uphold the human rights of climate migrants with disabilities before, during, and after they move.

To find out more about this connection, please read Alex Ghenis’s white paper in the International Organization on Migration’s environmental migration series. We also have available the archive of the three-part series from the original “New Earth Disability” disability & climate change blog.

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