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Making Mobility Work for Adaptation to Environmental Challenges

This comparative report of six countries empirically tests how migration can benefit or undermine adaptation to environmental and climate change, based on MECLEP research.


This Migration, environment and climate change: Evidence for policy” (MECLEP) project research report is one of the first comparative and quantitative studies on migration as an adaptation strategy to environmental and climate change. It is hoped that the report will further foster understanding of how human mobility can be an adaptation strategy, and increase knowledge of which vulnerabilities need to be addressed to reduce the risk of displacement and other challenges associated with environmental degradation and disasters.

This compartive report* of six countries (Dominican Republic, Haiti, Kenya, Republic of Mauritius, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam) empirically tests how migration can benefit or undermine adaptation to environmental and climate change. It builds on desk reviews, household surveys and qualitative interviews in the six countries. The surveys are representative for the respective survey sites.

The pilot countries selected face many environmental events and account for diverse migration scenarios, representing different contexts and levels of human development. Most policy frameworks in the countries recognize the challenges of displacement and planned relocation, but hardly any recognize the benefits of migration as an adaptation strategy, with the exception of Haiti and Kenya.

*Download the full report from the right-hand column. The key findings and policy recommendation are summarised below – see the full text for much more detail.


The report discusses adaptation effects by looking at three forms of human mobility: migration, displacement and planned relocation.

  • Migrationconsiders people who may move for a range of purposes, for example in search of employment or education, or to reunite with family members.
  • Displacementis understood as forced movement due to a disaster.
  • Plannedrelocationconcerns communities that had to be moved to a safer place in light of irreversible changes to their environment or hazards such as volcanic eruptions.

The study analyses the impact of migration on adaptation, by comparing migrant and non-migrant households on sites in both origin and destination areas of migrants.

Key messages

  • The report finds that migration can be a positive adaptation strategy.E.g. in Haiti, seasonal migration has been associated with less vulnerability, which could be due to both migrant households generally being more resilient, or the positive implications of the move for reducing vulnerability.

  • However, displacement can also be challenge for adaptation. For example in Haiti the most vulnerable groups are more prone to displacement and displacement increases vulnerability further. However, evacuation, or affected populations having to leave their homes, is in itself an important protection mechanism.

  • Planned relocation can both reduce harm and entail benefits, but also lead to new vulnerabilities. Reducing the threat to life by moving populations out of harm’s way is an obvious benefit of relocation. However, a lack of available sustainable livelihoods may lead to an increased level of vulnerability to future hazards and potentially undermine human development more generally.

  • Whether people can move or not is context-dependent, not just based on income levels. In Haiti and Viet Nam, those who responded that they had to stay and could not migrate belonged to the most affluent households. In Haiti, households from the highest income quintiles were better able to adapt in situ.

  • In all five countries surveyed, households already used migration as a strategy to increase preparedness for future hazards, and thus resilience. Migration is further linked to a higher likelihood of adopting preventive measures, including other actions such as using better building materials.

  • In all countries surveyed, migrant households perceived a positive and, to a lesser degree, negligible impact of migration on income and employment, highlighting how mobility can represent an income diversification strategy, including in the context of environmental degradation and climate change.

  • Migration is important for poverty reduction as remittances are mostly being spent on basic necessities, in particular food. The potential impact of remittances on adaptive capacity to better resist hazards is less than on poverty reduction.

  • At least 40 per cent of migrant households in all five countries surveyed learned new skills through migration, and – to a lesser degree – applied them and taught them to others. Migrant households further considered the effects of mobility on health conditions and education as mostly positive or having no impact.

  • One area where migrant households fared less well compared with non-migrant households is housing materials (i.e. the robustness of a residence’s walls). In this instance, migration potentially undermines adaptation, despite the movement in itself potentially fostering adaptation by helping the migrant move out of harm’s way.

  • Migrant households are more often discriminated against and excluded from employment, health care and education and are more likely to face security incidents. This can hamper adaptation when migrants cannot access the social services needed for human development more generally and better preparedness and resilience to future hazards.

Policy recommendations (abridged)

Based on MECLEP’s research, the report recommends three main policy implementations, as summarised briefly below:

1) Time to act now: Maximizing migration as an adaptation strategy to environmental stress

  • Integrate migration as an adaptation option into environment and climate change policies.That internal migration can have a positive impact on national efforts to adapt to climate change is not fully recognized. Existing policies also tend to consider migration as a failure to adapt. Policymakers should factor the benefits of migration more systematically into their efforts to address environmental and climate change.
  • Share good practice policy examples: The MECLEP study discovered some examples of innovative practices which seek to maximize the benefits of migration, for example in the Draft Migration Policy of Haiti and Kenya’s National Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

2) Fostering policy coherence through data collection, research and capacity-building

  • Prepare national assessments on migration, environment and climate change.A useful way of fostering more coherent adaptation policies is to prepare a national assessment report on all existing data, research and policy relating to migration and the environment.
  • Collect data on internal migration: Surveys designed to answer developmental and environmental questions often do not include questions about migrants, inhibiting data collection and research on internal migration and people affected by disasters.
  • Build capacities to enhance understanding of the migration–environment nexus.In the framework of the MECLEP project, the first-ever training manual on migration, environment and climate change was developed and tested. The training addressed the need to increase the knowledge of government representatives to mainstream migration into adaptation plans and across all relevant policy areas.

3) Prioritizing vulnerable groups

  • Prevention: Reduce the risks of displacement and increase resilience.Displacement poses high risks. Financing disaster risk reduction and resilience measures should thus be considered a priority to prevent or minimize displacement.
  • Develop and manage early warning systems.In many countries, early warning systems seemed to be lacking and/or not reaching the populations included in the surveys. Therefore the capacities, both in terms of human and financial resources, of local authorities should be strengthened.
  • Integrating gender concerns. Policy responses should be developed through a gender lens and take into consideration how men, women, boys, girls and the elderly may be affected differently by both hazards and migration.
  • Protect ‘trapped’ populations. Governments should upscale and increase financing of programmes and policies that aim to reduce the risk of hazards and increase the resilience of vulnerable communities, both in areas of origin and destination.
  • Share good practices for locally driven and rights-based planned relocations. For example, measures that could increase the benefits of relocation include: early planning of the move; adequate funding and political support; and consulting the affected population to enable locally driven solutions.
  • Integrate migration into urban planning to reduce challenges for migrants and communities of destination.Migration in the context of environmental degradation and disasters is often linked to larger processes of urbanization, but local authorities lack information for adequate urban planning. Issues such as lower housing standards, discrimination against migrants in terms of access to employment and social services such as health care and education, and higher levels of insecurity need to be addressed by policies.

Suggested citation

Melde, S., Laczko, F., and Gemenne, F. (eds) (2017) Making mobility work for adaptation to environmental changes: results from the MECLEP global research. IOM: Geneva.

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