Why Immigration and Climate Change Policy Must Intersect

A refugee family carrying their belongings out of the water after their shelter was flooded. |UNHCR

Canada leads the world in refugee resettlement, surpassing the United States for the first time this year since the adoption of the Refugee Act in 1980. Canada is also signatory to international agreements that affirm a commitment to the protection of refugee rights.

But as climate change continues to affect growing regions of the world—threatening to create as many as 200 million environmental migrants by the year 2050—Canada’s immigration policy must address the issue of environmental displacement.

Climate Change and its Relation to Migration

Climate change is fundamentally redefining the map of where people can live. Food supplies are being disrupted in Central America; and water stress and scarcity are growing worse in North Africa and the Middle East. Unprecedented storms, hurricanes, and floods have battered the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. As the abnormal becomes the new normal, mass displacements are becoming more common.

Although environmental displacement is increasingly proving to be a pressing humanitarian crisis, the international community has so far failed to agree on establishing formal protections for environmental migrants. The latest figures from UNHCR state that more than 70 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2018. While the UNHCR keeps track of forced displacement, it doesn’t specifically monitor the number of people being uprooted due to climate change. In large part, that’s because its 1951 Refugee Convention doesn’t recognize climate threats as something from which a person may be fleeing.

However, it has become clear that environmental conditions do influence individual decisions to migrate. In fact, according to the Global Report on Internal Displacement, disasters displaced 18.8 million people in 135 countries in 2017. Of these, 8.6 million displacements were triggered by floods, and 7.5 million by storms, especially tropical cyclones. The worst affected countries were China with 4.5 million, the Philippines with 2.5 million, Cuba and the US each with 1.7 million, and India with 1.3 million displacements.

Canada’s Role

Any Canadian refugee policy that recognizes environmental migrants must acknowledge the direct link between climate change and migration. International obligations exist around the responsibility of the industrialized world to the developing world, which has done little to contribute to the problem yet suffers the most from its impacts. Even if warming is slowed down by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the most vulnerable will continue to be displaced or will have their daily access to sustenance threatened by a changing climate.

Ideally, the international community should first define and then operationalize the handling of climate refugees. However, the discussion around environmental displacement, its implications, and possible solutions cannot wait long. For instance, for climate migrants, repatriation could be an option because, unlike traditional refugees, climate migrants would technically still enjoy the protection of their own governments.

Luckily, there is a glimpse of hope. The international community built a framework to manage international migration by adopting the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM) in 2018. Additionally, Canada joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change along with other nations in 1992, and is a signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement came into force in 2016 and commits the global community to working together to limiting warming to less than 2 C over pre-Industrial levels (striving for 1.5 C).

It is essential for Canada to do everything possible to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That is the only way to limit the Earth’s warming to achieve the Paris temperature goals – the threshold at which drastic effects of climate change can best be contained.

Moving Forward

It’s unlikely Canada will see a sudden influx of climate refugees; however, environmental conditions will increasingly drive migration, directly or indirectly. It’s important that our government begins to plan for it.

Action is required, both in addressing climate change and in rethinking immigration policy. These two broad issues and their consequences cannot be separated. If we commit to respecting our planet’s limits by reducing emissions, we will have a better chance of upholding migrant and refugee’s dignity and rights. Fortunately, Canada has the capacity to limit our emissions and expand our welcome. What is needed now is commitment and action.


Photo by pixpoetry is licensed under CC0


  • Andrea is a senior student at Trinity Western University where she is completing a BA in International Development and a minor in Gender Studies. Born and raised in El Salvador, she is passionate about public justice, immigration issues, and women's rights. With a diverse background in public policy and human rights work, Andrea is excited to join CPJ as a summer intern.

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