The Pandemic Impact on Climate-Related Migration

Spotlight Migration and COVID-19: Why impacts of climate change cannot be neglected in pandemic response.

Image: of picture alliance / Zoonar | Uwe Bauch

In 2020, the world witnessed a record-breaking number of climate-related disasters. In the most active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history, two large-scale hurricanes hit Central American coasts within two weeks. Fiji suffered two Category 5 tropical cyclones in one year, including Cyclone Yasa, thesecond-strongest cyclone on record to make landfall in the country. In East Africa, locusts damaged hundreds of thousands of hectares of land, and flooding displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The list of unprecedented natural disasters appears unending, and while the scale of climate-related displacement grows, COVID-19 has complicated the ability of the international community to meet these challenges. 

At the start of the pandemic, we made a prediction: COVID-19 would disrupt humanitarian aid, decrease commitments to climate finance, curtail human mobility and freedom of movement, underscore the need for climate change adaptation, and sidetrack or even derail some multilateral processes. We take a look back at how many of these predictions came true--and at the lessons learned for climate-related migration policy in the future.

Humanitarian aid

COVID-19 has challenged humanitarian aid delivery in avariety of contexts, including in response to the many sudden-onset natural hazards that occurred in 2020. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, strained supply chains, and low funding made aid delivery difficult, including in response toCyclone Harold in the Pacific, Cyclone Amphan and monsoon flooding inIndia and Bangladesh, and flooding and locust infestations inEast Africa. Amid the pandemic humanitarian need around the world is only  increasing, and according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the 2020 Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan is still only 39 percent funded.  

Humanitarian assistance will continue to be particularly important for communities dependent on remittances for food, healthcare, and other necessities. COVID-19 lockdowns led the World Bank to predict in April that global remittances would fall by as much as 20 percent in 2020--and while the prediction did not prove true in all regions of the world, remittance flows could still suffer significantly as the pandemic continues. Additionally, as illustrated during the aftermath of Cyclones Amphan and Harold, inability to access remittances leaves people at greater risk of disaster during natural hazards and thwarts community efforts to build back in their aftermath. The difficulties in responding to natural hazards during the pandemic further illustrate the urgent need to address the effects of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemicsimultaneously

Climate finance 

Dedicated climatefinance is needed to ensure that at-risk communities have access to funds to adapt to climate change. However, climate finance commitments made by high-income countries have never fully risen to the scale of the needed funding, and COVID-19 has only made this worse. Prior to COVID-19, high-income countriesresisted attempts to commit proper funding, including previous $100 billion commitments, at climate summits. Recent reporting shows that past donor accountings of climate-specific funding may not be “new and additional,” but rather the result of “raiding” development aid budgets.  

Now these funds may be further in jeopardy, with the economic fallout of COVID-19 impacting overall development assistance budgets and donor governments refocusing existing budgets to finance COVID-19 responses. This is worrying because communities and individuals need climate change adaptation-specific funding to help them adapt and to stay in place if desired. Without adequate climate finance, future migration related to climate change will likely occur at a larger scale and be under duress rather than voluntary. 

Climate change adaptation

We argued in 2020 that action on risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and resilience building would help the world prepare against any future pandemic impacts. That argument remains, but how can and should the lessons from the pandemic be interwoven with climate change adaptation frameworks and policies? 

Thepandemic has amplified structural inequalities and necessitated investments in large-scale and “green” recovery. TheNational Adaptation Plan (NAP) process helps countries identify, create, and conduct medium- and long-term adaptation strategies that integrate climate change into decision making and that may prove viable entry points for pandemic response in multiple ways. These strategies can recognizevulnerable communities and tackle issues of gender, identify mechanisms to support those disproportionately impacted, and engage with risk management actors. They should also include and prioritize migrant communities as much as possible. For one, migration can function as a climate adaptation strategy--as a way to diversify incomes, spread risk, and minimize the negative impacts of environmental changes. For another, centering migrant communities and migrants themselves in adaptation considerations means prioritizing issues that have become more important than ever during the pandemic, including urban planning, disaster risk reduction, and water and sanitation services.

However, the jury is still out on whether these sorts of lessons learned will be a part of a renewed climate change adaptation and risk reduction conversation, especially at the international level. 

Human mobility and freedom of movement

Policies aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 have continued torestrict human mobility, disproportionately impacting migrant communities and peopleaffected by climate change. As of January 28, 2021, about 18% of entry points within 182 countries, territories, and areas investigated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) were fully closed, and only 48% were fully operational. Since April 2020, many countries have  shifted from issuing more generic entry restrictions to more specific “conditions for authorized entry.” Travel bans and border closures have left migrantsstranded in precarious conditions and exposed to exploitation and violence. Border closures and forced returns of asylum-seekers have ledinternational organizations,public health experts, andrefugee advocates to urge governments to halt violent treatment of migrants and people seeking asylum. 

These sorts of measures have also impacted the ability to negotiate groundbreaking policy solutions that are centered on freedom of movement. Progress on the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Free Movement Protocol, which includes protections for people displaced by natural disasters and climate change, for example, has continued at a slow pace. The roadmap for the implementation of the Protocol was validated in November but still needs to be adopted by the IGAD Assembly and Council of Ministers. Meanwhile, mobility restrictions in the IGAD region have eased since April, but according to the IOM, “a majority of land border points still have some sort of restrictions” in place. South Sudan, for example, has reopened its land borders, but because of restrictions put in place by neighboring countries, mobility in and out of the country is still restricted. Major questions exist about the ways in which human mobility willcontinue to be restricted even after the pandemic—in both the short- and long-term.

Multilateral processes

COVID-19 has delayed important global processes on climate change, migration, and disaster risk reduction (DRR). The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the UNFCCC that was originally scheduled for November 2020 has beenpostponed until November 2021. TheSeventh Regional Platform for DRR and theAsia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on DRR have also been postponed, with new dates not yet announced. While the first regional review of theGlobal Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM) in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) region took place in December 2020, all other reviews have been postponed until this year. 

Despite our original pessimistic outlook on the regional review process, various UNECE region member states mentioned climate change in their regional reviewsubmissions. Of the 26country submissions, five (Azerbaijan, Finland, Germany, Ireland, UK) mentioned “climate change” explicitly, and one (Denmark) mentioned “climate related migration challenges in the Sahel.” Germany was by far the most involved in its discussion of the connections between climate change and migration and—unlike all other statements—mentioned specific actions the country is already taking to address these connections. Germany described its involvement with the Platform for Disaster Displacement, a State-led initiative that promotes protections for people displaced by natural disasters and climate change, and highlighted various programs it is implementing to develop research-based policy solutions for climate-related displacement and to provide livelihood assistance to people displaced by climate change. Germany also mentioned its support for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Disaster Law Program and for initiatives that help countries develop DRR strategies in alignment with the Sendai Framework. In highlighting these efforts, Germany has set an example for other countries in prioritizing climate change and migration within GCM implementation. It is difficult to know whether this link between migration and climate change, and the GCM review process more generally, will be further affected by COVID-19 proverbially sucking oxygen out of the room for these critical processes.


The impact of COVID-19 on climate change and migration has been complex: the restrictions on human mobility were immediate and in framed as a direct effort fight the pandemic, whereas climate action has become a silent victim, being deprioritized. It is key to link climate change and migration to avoid efforts to address the impact of COVID-19 on migration to further draw attention away from climate change. To link climate change with migration and pandemic preparedness/response more strongly we recommend: 

  • Ensuring all efforts are made to continue multilateral processes on climate change, migration and disaster risk reduction, emphasising causal relationships between climate change, natural hazards, pandemic response and migration; 
  • Advocating for inequalities that are exacerbated by COVID-19 to be understood as core impacts of the pandemic that need to be addressed as part of COVID-19 response funding, including inequalities relating to climate change impacts and migrant rights; 
  • Honouring financial commitments in the areas of climate change and development/humanitarian aid by ringfencing their funding from national COVID-19 responses, especially in high-income countries; 
  • Exploring the linkages between climate change action and pandemic prevention and preparedness, ensuring that climate change prevention targets areas also relevant to COVID-19 and potential future pandemics; 
  • Ensuring the rights of people displaced or forced to move by climate change during the pandemic by highlighting the impact on often fragile livelihoods by the COVID-19 outbreak and response. 



Kayly Ober is senior advocate and program manager of the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International Miriam Ernest is an intern with the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International
Jacqueline Kessler is an intern with the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International 

This article is part of a series of articles by the Global Coalition on Migration and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on international migration during the COVID-19 pandemic. they analyse the impact of the pandemic on international migrants protection highlighting the various human rights instruments, international law, the global compact and treaties that protect the rights of migrants. The articles focus on various topics such as; gender, labor, regularization,race, xenophobia, security, borders, access to services and detention.