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A family and their camels walk down a dry road in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. Drought and conflict have forced them to move.
Nahom Tesfaye/UNICEF Ethiopia
A family is forced to relocate due to drought in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. Ongoing drought, continued economic stresses, and conflict in northern Ethiopia, Oromia, and elsewhere have put millions at risk of a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Climate change, conflict, and migration are three of the most urgent and critical challenges facing the world today. Rising temperatures and frequent climate disasters have led to unprecedented internal and international migration flows. Estimates suggest that more than 30 million migrants will travel across the U.S. border in the next 30 years due to climate displacement.

Climate-driven resource scarcity and increased displacement have exacerbated violence and regional tensions globally. The Institute of Economics and Peace’s 2022 Global Peace Index Report found that global peacefulness has deteriorated for 11 of the past 14 years, driven mainly by ongoing conflicts around the world. Communities living in conflict zones are often unequipped to adapt to climate shocks. This, in turn, forces yet more people to flee their homes.

These challenges impact and often worsen each other in obvious ways. The need for governments to address the nexus of climate, migration, and conflict is clear. Yet too often, these three issues are siloed from one another. Policies intended to mitigate climate change do not acknowledge the issue of climate-displaced persons or are not conflict-sensitive. To be effective, policymakers must instead lead with an intersectional approach.

A Siloed Approach Harms Our Most Vulnerable Neighbors

Lack of International Legal Protections

Current U.S. and international laws do not integrate solutions for climate change, migration, and conflict. For example, the most common international legal framework to protect refugees focuses on people who face or fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Displacement due to solely climate change is not considered a basis for refugee protection.

The need for governments to address the nexus of climate, migration, and conflict is clear. Yet too often, these three issues are siloed from one another.

Experts at multilateral organizations have discussed the difficulty of isolating climate change as a cause of migration from other political and social causes. The U.N. argues that climate change primarily drives internal displacement and that migrants should remain under the responsibility of their own state. However, an increasing number of small island states are currently in danger due to land loss. Consequentially, their inhabitants are forced to migrate to other countries. In nations like Kiribati, it is projected that by 2080 the risk of flooding will be roughly 200 times higher than at the beginning of the 21st century. The government of Kiribati is already seeking solutions to address the loss of land, including temporary and permanent international migration.  

Example: Haiti - Conflict, Extreme Weather, and Displacement

The U.S. government has also repeatedly failed to respond to the severity of complex crises where climate change, migration, and conflict intersect.

During the summer of 2021, we saw years of heightened migration from Haiti reach a peak. Many Haitians fled their country, escaping a series of interlocking crises: political turmoil followed by the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and the absence of democratic succession of power, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, and a devastating tropical storm. The Biden administration responded to migrants fleeing this instability with militarized approaches, such as detention and deportation. More than 20,000 people were expelled back to Haiti, and others were returned to Mexico under a pandemic-era migration policy called Title 42.

It is impossible to separate the impacts of these issues. In recognition, Congress should apply an intersectional perspective to its policy solutions.

This response ignored the root causes of forced migration and sent thousands of Haitians back to a violent and unstable situation without acknowledging the conflict and vulnerability within the country.

The continued unwillingness of the United States to provide sufficient assistance to Haitians has worsened the humanitarian and economic crisis on the island. The lack of resources for climate resilience has triggered ongoing disaster vulnerability magnified by deforestation and soil erosion.

All the while, discriminatory migration policies continue to target Haitian migrants in the U.S., these migrants continue to live in limbo and rely on the few narrow pathways available to them to achieve legal protection. While a new program has been created to respond to the migration of Haitian nationals to the U.S., its small in scale, complicated, and does not address the issue’s intersectional magnitude.

What’s Needed

U.S. foreign policy should protect all people who are forced to flee their homes due to conflict and climate change. These individuals and families, too, deserve the opportunity to pursue safe and fruitful lives. Congress must act boldly to create pathways to citizenship for migrants and invest in sufficient foreign assistance to developing countries struggling with the realities of climate change and conflict.

It is impossible to separate the impacts of these issues. In recognition, Congress should apply an intersectional perspective to its policy solutions. Internationally, the United States must work with global partners to update international laws and agreements to mitigate climate change, protect climate-displaced persons, and interrupt cycles of violence.

Staff: Marcia Orellana

Marcia Orellana

Program Assistant, Migration Policy (2022-2023)

Marcia Orellana served as the Program Assistant for Migration Policy for 2022-2023. Her responsibilities included lobbying and advocating for immigration reform and migrant assistance.

Staff: Jus Tavcar

Jus Tavcar

Interim Legislative Associate, Sustainable Energy and Environment (2022-2023)

Jus Tavcar is the interim legislative associate for sustainable energy and environment. In his work, Jus lobbies Congress to pass policies in favor of transitioning into a just green economy.

Nuria Raul

Nuria Raul

Program Assistant, Peacebuilding (2022-2023)

Nuria Raul assists the Peacebuilding team in their efforts to lobby for U.S. foreign policy that aims to prevent and abate violent conflict globally.