Definitional Issues

"Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to have to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their territory or abroad."

While no internationally accepted definition for persons moving for environmental reasons exists to date, IOM has put forward a working definition of “environmental migrant” in an attempt to capture the complexity of the issue. It was first presented to the IOM membership at 94th Council Session, it also appears in the World Migration Report 2008 and various other publications.

This working definition recognizes that

  • Environmental migrants are not only those displaced by extreme environmental events but also those whose migration is triggered by deteriorating environmental conditions;
  • environmentally-induced movement can take place within as well as across international borders;
  • it can be both short and long term; and
  • population movements triggered by environmental factors can be forced as well as a matter of choice.

People migrating for environmental reasons do not fall squarely within any one particular category provided by the existing international legal framework. Terms such as "environmental refugee" or "climate change refugee" have no legal basis in international refugee law. There is a growing consensus among concerned agencies, including UNHCR, that their use is to be avoided. These terms are misleading and could potentially undermine the international legal regime for the protection of refugees.

All persons moving for environmental reasons are protected by international human rights law. In addition, persons displaced within their country due to natural or human made disasters are covered by provisions laid out in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.