The United Nations and its refugee agency, UNHCR, should define the legal status of environmental migrants, according to a study published today (Monday 19 October) by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The authors of the study, Dr Maria Waldinger and Professor Sam Fankhauser, call for people who migrate due to environmental reasons to receive more clarity about their legal situation, including whether they should receive protection for international migration.

The study is released as countries gather in Bonn, Germany, for the latest round of negotiations about a new international agreement on climate change.

The study states: “The legal status of environmental migrants therefore needs to be defined, for example, through a process led by the UN or UNHCR, in order to give people certainty about their legal situation.”

However, the authors caution that it is difficult to work out to what extent climate change might already be contributing to migration.

The study reports some evidence to suggest a link between climate, economic shocks and conflict. For example, the conflict in Syria has coincided with a record drought in the Fertile Crescent – a drought made up to three times more likely by climate change.

Professor Sam Fankhauser said: “Some researchers have suggested that there may be a link between climate change, the record drought that took place in Syria, the conflict and hence the refugee crisis in Europe. But it is very difficult to quantify what the contribution of climate change has been. What is clear is the potential for climate change to affect factors, such as the supply of food and water, which can drive migration.”

The PRISE project studied six semi-arid countries – Burkina Faso, Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania, Pakistan and Tajikistan – and found that people are most likely to respond to the current impacts of climate change by migrating within their country of origin, rather than migrating internationally.

The study states: “The empirical evidence shows that people in developing countries are likely to respond to climatic change by migrating internally. There is less evidence on the relationship between climate change and international migration.”

Professor Fankhauser said: “We should be careful to recognise the limitations of extrapolating from the empirical evidence of the impact of climate change on migration so far, after global warming of about 0.85 centigrade degrees, to provide a guide to what might happen if warming exceeds 2 centigrade degrees.”

The study concludes that policies are needed to safeguard against the unnecessary hardship and economic loss associated with unplanned migration in response to climate change.

It states: “Policy intervention is required to reduce potential negative impacts in both the sending and receiving region. Badly managed migration is associated with high economic, social and psychological costs.”

“Public policy can help to encourage positive migration choices and reduce risks associated with migration.”

For more information about this media release, and to obtain copies of ‘Climate change and migration in developing countries: evidence and implications for PRISE countries, please contact Ben Parfitt on +44 (0) 207 955 6425 or, or Bob Ward on +44 (0) 7811 320346 or


  1. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment ( was launched at the London School of Economics and Political Science in October 2008. It is funded by The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment (
  1. PRISE is a five-year, multi-country research project that generates new knowledge about how economic development in semi-arid regions can be made more equitable and resilient to climate change. To find out more about the PRISE project, visit
  1. This work was carried out under the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), with financial support from the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DfID) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada. The views expressed in this work are those of the creators and do not necessarily represent those of DfID and IDRC or its Board of Governors.





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