People with disabilities displaced by climate change face unique barriers to movement and relocation. What is their experience – and what’s the future hold?
This is the first of two blogs covering climate migration and disability. It will address existing knowledge and give an overview of the problem. Next week, we’ll release a blog with some recommendations for research, activism, and policy.
Hundreds of millions of people are likely to be displaced by climate change in the coming decades – some within their own country, and some across international borders – from a mix of natural disasters, long-term changes like sea level rise or recurrent drought, and secondary consequences like economic fallout or conflict. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 20 million people per year globally are displaced by natural disasters already; many of these disasters have been made worse by climate change and some lead to incredible amounts of displacement, like a series of climate-fueled floods in Pakistan in 2022 that displaced at least 7.9 million people.
Climate migrants with disabilities face exceptional barriers regarding the cost of migration, access to appropriate transportation and shelter, need for healthcare and disability-related services, finding legal pathways to migration and residency, and more. We can improve the safety and well-being of climate migrants with disabilities through improving international humanitarian laws, immigration policies, accessible transportation and shelter, and social services, among other actions (more on that next week).
Ultimately, climate migration is like many parts of the climate-disability puzzle: multifaceted, concerning, and under-addressed. We do understand the basics of climate migration and disability and have some frameworks to improve the safety and well-being of migrants with disabilities – but we need much more research, journalism, education, and concrete action to effectively tackle this complex problem.
Existing resources on climate migration and disability
Let’s first look at what’s been written so far – which, unfortunately, isn’t much. A Google Scholar search of “climate migration disability” only yields 3 publications specifically addressing the subject, and a handful more that address climate and disability in general and allude to climate migration. (The three publications are a June 2023 chapter on Climate Migration and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a 2022 brief covering case studies on displaced women and people with disabilities in Fiji, and a 2019 commentary “Seeking a disability lens within climate change migration discourses, policies and practices”). Additionally, a regular Google search of “climate migration disability” brings up a two-page info sheet published by the UN Refugee Agency and, like Google Scholar, several pages on climate and disability that allude to migration without many specifics. And as Kristine Perry notes in the June chapter on the rights of climate migrants with disabilities, “the overwhelming study of migration due to climate change and other environmental factors tends to silo or outright ignore disability-related topics.”
Of course, climate migrants face many of the same problems faced by refugees from conflict, so resources like this UN page on Refugees and migrants with disabilities (and the 21 additional resources it provides) offer valuable insights and context. There are also other resources you may find interesting – some about climate and migration, some about disability and migration – in the Migration section of our Climate Consequences Resources page.
Still, this isn’t a lot of material – at least not to the level we need to educate the public and inform policy. But they bring up important points and are worth a read.
The basics of climate migration
Before getting to the experience of climate migrants with disabilities, it’s important to understand the basics of climate migration. As you’re reading through these bullet points, consider how they might be relevant to people with disabilities. In the next section, I’ll cover concerns for the disability community and barriers faced by climates migrants with disabilities
The International Organization on Migration defines climate migration as “the movement of a person or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment due to climate change, are obliged to leave their habitual place of residence, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, within a State or across an international border.”
Climate change leads to migration in several different ways. People may become displaced by disasters and never return home, or they may experience so much climate-related discomfort and inconvenience (e.g., discomfort during heat waves or repeated isolation during intermittent flooding) that they decide to move to somewhere more hospitable. They also may take part in “managed retreat” where government relocates entire communities in the face of slow-moving changes or after catastrophic damage.
Some migrants may move in response to threats or changes that are downstream of climate change. For example, if a decade-long drought leads to violent conflict over water, refugees from that conflict may or may not be considered climate migrants (instead of just refugees from conflict). Climate change may also transform economies in ways that push people to leave – whether to find jobs or a stable supply of goods and services.
The vast majority of climate migration is domestic (a.k.a. “internal migration”). Domestic migration is still incredibly difficult and requires finding and securing shelter, sources of income, community, and (for those who need it) government services.
International climate migration raises extra concerns around securing transportation, physically crossing borders, managing legal status (and, if one can’t secure legal status, evading immigration authorities), navigating language barriers, securing employment, getting government services, and so on. International migrants may face exploitation or abuse at the hands of traffickers and employers, as well.
Climate migration costs money, which disadvantages poorer individuals who may be unable to afford to migrate, may default to less safe migration strategies, and/or may end up with significant financial hardship and difficulty securing housing, food, etc.
There are no existing international legal frameworks for environmental or climate migrants, and climate migrants are not afforded many of the legal protections provided to refugees from conflict. This means that, even if someone’s country is nearly destroyed (e.g., a small island nation disappearing under rising oceans), they cannot apply for asylum or any equivalent status in another country. This absolutely must be addressed, and climate migrants must be given strong legal rights.
Strong action around sustainability and planning can significantly reduce the rate of climate displacement and number of climate migrants, which will alleviate human suffering and relieve the stress placed on humanitarian and other relevant services. The World Bank estimates that climate change “could force 216 million people across six world regions to move within their countries by 2050,” but “immediate and concerted action to reduce global emissions, and support green, inclusive, and resilient development, could reduce the scale of climate migration by as much as 80 percent.”
The disability experience
As I mentioned up top, there’s a dearth of literature specifically covering the intersection of climate change, migration, and disability. However, we do know some basics and can infer much more by drawing connections between climate migration, migration in general (whether climate -related or not), human rights, and the lived experience of the disability community. Here are some main points:
There is no existing data on what percent of climate migrants have disabilities, and our existing institutions have severe shortcomings when it comes to tracking that data (more on improving data next week). This tracks with data about migration in general: for example, when the International Organization on Migration (IOM) estimated the number of internationally displaced people who have disabilities – whether displaced from climate change or other reasons, like conflict – it simply multiplied the total number of internationally displaced people by the World Health Organization’s estimate that 15% of the world’s population have some form of disability.
Migrants with disabilities – including climate migrants – face more barriers and difficulties than migrants without disabilities do. This includes insufficient accessibility and accommodations in transportation and shelter (during migration and at their destinations); excess barriers to cross-border migration (e.g., Public Charge rules blocking migrants that authorities think would use too many public services); difficulty maintaining healthcare and personal supports and then having related health or independent living consequences; and excess risk of exploitation during migration. These are just a few of the problems faced by climate migrants with disabilities.
Because people with disabilities (PWDs) have lower income and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities, they are at greater risk of being outright unable to afford to migrate. They may also be pushed into less-safe migration pathways and have a harder time securing shelter they can afford, among other money-related issues.
As is the case with other climate-disability connections, no two experiences will be the same. First, people with different types of disabilities will face different problems during climate migration. For example, people with physical disabilities will have large concerns around transportation, shelter, and personal care, while people who are blind will be more concerned with wayfinding; both groups will care about securing social services and employment with accommodations. (That’s a small chunk of their concerns, of course).
On the same vein, people with identical disabilities and life situations will face different migration-related challenges depending on why and how they are dislocated, their chosen migration pathway, their destination, and so on. People will face entirely different challenges during international migration than if they are displaced within their own country.
Domestic migrants who use government services may need to re-secure benefits in their new city, county, state, province, or other jurisdiction. For example, Medicaid and related personal care supports in the US are provided by the state, so a Medicaid recipient displaced across state lines will need to reapply for Medicaid and, if they use caregivers, secure those benefits too. This may entail temporary disruptions in healthcare and other benefits, jeopardizing their health and well-being. On that note, a climate migrant may choose where to move based on the quality of benefits.
Unfortunately, existing human rights laws and frameworks do not sufficiently address nor protect climate migrants with disabilities. As Kristine Perry notes, “[v]arious international instruments mention climate migration and/or the rights of persons with disabilities; however, few mention both.” Some portions of existing frameworks can be leveraged to protect and support climate migrants with disabilities, such as Article 18 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which holds that persons with disabilities have the same freedom of movement and freedom to choose their residence and nationality on an equal basis with others (more on leveraging those human rights frameworks next week).
Suffice to say, there are many concerns around climate migration and disability. Those concerns are ever present and, because climate change is only set to get worse, will only grow. We have opportunities to learn more about this important topic and develop strategies to safeguard lives and well-being.
In next week’s blog, I’ll cover some important ways to expand our knowledge of climate migration and disability, and yet more actions to improve safety, health, quality-of-life, and human rights for climate migrants with disabilities.