As the climate crisis intensifies, more and more people are driven to leave their homes, both within their countries and across borders. Climate change is rendering certain regions physically uninhabitable – due to factors such as rising sea levels and extreme heat – and can contribute to other drivers of migration, ranging from livelihood collapse to state fragility. As the planet warms and climate events become more frequent and intense, the number of climate migrants may be in the low hundreds of millions (estimates range from 25 million to 1 billion climate-displaced people by 2050).
It is important to point out that it is usually impossible to isolate climate change as a direct driver of migration. Rather, migration in the context of climate change is mediated by a range of economic, social, political, cultural, and demographic determinants at the origin and destination. Climate change is thus one of many factors that dictate the need and ability to move. Critically, climate shocks can both inhibit migration (depleting household resources to move) and spur migration (by increasing the risk of falling further into poverty if one stays).
For decades, the link – albeit usually indirect – between climate change and displacement has been clear. In its First Assessment Report in 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the “gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration.”
More recently, the gender dimensions of climate-related migration have become apparent. Both the process (movement itself) and the outcomes (for the displaced and left-behind communities) of climate change-related migration are gendered. Women in developing countries are more likely to be stuck in place while male family members migrate, leaving them in a more vulnerable position. Additionally, when women and girls are displaced, their exposure to gender-based violence, human trafficking, and some forms of modern-day slavery increases. This underscores how climate-related displacement can perpetuate gender inequalities.
The first gender dimension of the climate-migration nexus emerges from male out-migration, which affects household distributions of labor and resources. In the face of climate shocks, particularly in developing countries, men are more mobile* and more likely to migrate to urban areas in search of employment. Conversely, women in developing countries typically face more challenges when it comes to relocating. They often have gendered social obligations to care for the family and household, coupled with fewer financial and property rights, which reduces their ability to respond to climate-related shocks by moving. (Intriguingly, there is some evidence that in developed countries, women may be more likely than men to be displaced following natural disasters. However, most climate migration will occur within or out of developing countries.)
This out-migration of male family members can negatively affect those who are left behind. As men migrate, women’s and girls’ domestic workload increases, putting additional burdens on female family members in already climate-stressed conditions. Women and girls are left more vulnerable to climate shocks and physical and sexual violence – such as survival sex and child marriage – because of the sporadic flow of income. They often face reduced agricultural productivity and/or unreliable remittances from male family members (or even reverse remittances, where migrants rely on financial support from their household). Temporary male migration can also increase women’s risk of HIV/AIDS when men engage in unprotected sex outside of the marriage while away and transmit the virus to their wives upon return.
The second way that climate migration disproportionately affects women is through the dangers that displaced women and girls face, both during movement and at the destination. These include gender-based violence, human trafficking, some forms of modern-day slavery, and intersectional discrimination.
There is a well-documented correlation between displacement and gender-based violence (GBV). Women and girls experience increased risks of violence in transit along insecure routes and in displacement camps, where insufficient food, sanitation, lighting, and privacy can leave them vulnerable to assault. At the same time, GBV reporting and recovery services are often scarce or inaccessible to female migrants.
On top of this, displaced women and girls are at a higher risk of human trafficking and some types of modern-day slavery (MDS). Trafficking is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons” through the threat or use of force, coercion, fraud, abduction, or abuse of power “for the purpose of exploitation.” Similarly, MDS is any situation of “exploitation in which a person cannot refuse or cannot leave because of threats, violence, deception, abuse of power or other forms of coercion,” including forced labor and forced marriage.
Migrants are more susceptible to trafficking and MDS, having been dislocated from support networks, having limited access to information and resources, and at times being without access to legal status and social protection. The risk is even higher when they move or work through irregular channels, as they can be vulnerable to opportunists who may take advantage of their desperate circumstances and lack of information.
In some ways, female migrants are more vulnerable to trafficking and MDS than their male counterparts. They account for 71% of human trafficking victims, 66% of those in forced marriages, and 80% of those in commercial sexual exploitation (meanwhile, nearly twice as many men than women are in situations of forced labor).
With the climate crisis contributing to higher rates of displacement, more female migrants are at risk of trafficking and forced marriages. Additionally, because climate change can contribute to a breakdown of political stability and social services, human rights violations of migrants proliferate. Where there are chaotic movements of people, particularly when those people are desperate, human trafficking and forced labor can go unchecked.
Furthermore, migrant women and girls are subject to intersectional forms of discrimination at destination regions. Gender discrimination compounds prejudices based on place of origin, religion, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc. This can limit women’s access to housing, employment, education, and health services.
The gendered dimensions of climate migration not only reflect pre-existing gender inequalities, but also reinforce them. For example, greater domestic burdens due to male out-migration decrease female income generation capabilities and opportunities to build human capital. Male out-migration (and fewer household members remaining as a result) can force families to take their daughters from school to assist with agricultural or household work, which has long-term effects on the economic empowerment of the girls. It also reinforces female reliance on male income, increases women’s opportunity costs of divorce, and perpetuates gender roles (as children are socialized into gendered household roles and divisions of resources).
Climate-related displacement of women and girls can have the same effect. Displaced women and girls can lose access to opportunities that would foster their economic and social empowerment, such as education, training, and income-generating activities. This deepens women’s and girls’ economic, social, and political marginalization.
However, this is not to say that migration is always negative. It can be a positive and empowering decision as well, leading to improved standards of education for children, better access to health resources, increased income and savings, better living conditions, and greater independence. For many migrant women, migration has enhanced their agency.
Nevertheless, women and girls are often more vulnerable when it comes to the negative impacts of migration. It is therefore critical to take both climate change and gender into account in international migration policies. The current refugee and humanitarian regimes are ill-equipped to handle migration in the context of climate change, as there are no legally binding international agreements obligating states to protect climate migrants.
A relatively strong regime exists to support internally displaced people (IDPs), who comprise the majority of people displaced by climate change. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement protect IDPs, including those displaced by natural disasters and those who suffer “gender-specific violence.” However, they are not legally binding. There are regional agreements with similar objectives, such as the legally binding Kampala Convention (ratified by the 55 member states of the African Union), which aims to protect those internally displaced by climate change and to protect IDPs from “sexual and gender based violence in all its forms.” These agreements make up the institutional framework that protects people displaced within borders, many of which reference the gender dimensions of climate change.
Importantly, internal flight is not always a viable alternative to cross-border migration, particularly if conflict or weak governance have been compounded by the effects of climate change. If a state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from the effects of climate change, it may not be able or willing to offer protections in other areas, including to IDPs. As the UNHCR has stated, “the fact that people may have been displaced internally is not in itself conclusive evidence that an internal flight is reasonable.”
Meanwhile, there are fewer international protections for people displaced across borders in the context of climate change. Climate migrants are not covered under the 1951 Convention, the main international treaty covering refugee protection (and a product of mass displacement after WWII that is ill-suited for current migration patterns). It defines a “refugee” as someone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” It omits protections for all migration related to environmental factors, let alone protections for female climate migrants, resulting in a legal protection gap.
At the same time as there is increasing global migration, including that related to climate change, there is a long-standing reluctance on the part of destination countries to accept and protect migrants. Governments (particularly in the Global North) “avoid the legal obligations of non-refoulement” through “extra-territorialisation,” effectively preventing refugees from being able to reach countries where they would be able to legally seek asylum. Consequently, even the 1951 Convention definition of refugees – which already excludes (female) climate migrants – is being undermined by the Global North’s reluctance to accept immigrants.
Increasing migration flows and greater media coverage of them has boosted international attention on the issue of climate migration, although protections for climate migrants – and those most vulnerable, such as women and girls – are still insufficient.
The Nansen Initiative provides a conceptual framework for protecting people displaced by disasters and calls for gender-disaggregated data on climate migration but does not define, operationalize, or enforce state responsibilities. Important language on displacement and gender is included in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 and the Paris Agreement as well, although neither obliges states to protect climate migrants.
In 2016, the UN General Assembly High-Level Plenary Summit on Refugees and Migrants adopted the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants. The Declaration was intended to increase global cooperation and responsibility sharing regarding refugees and migrants, and was followed by the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) in 2018. The GCM (a broad, foundational agreement intended to set the agenda for future commitments) mentions both climate and gender, while the GCR excludes protections for climate migrants altogether. Importantly, the GCR had the potential to create new norms surrounding refugees – because refugee norms are considered binding – and to be a soft law precursor to hard law imposing expanded obligations to refugees. Thus, states, particularly in the Global North, were reluctant to include mention of climate change in the Compact about refugees, whereas the Compact about migration was viewed as less of a threat. In effect, the Compacts merely reaffirm existing rights for migrants without expanding or operationalizing governments’ responsibilities to protect climate migrants, female or otherwise.
To close the protection gap, there should be a new legal category – outside of the traditional refugee status – that centers on fundamental human rights rather than drivers of displacement. Specific protections for women and children, along with protections for Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and people in vulnerable situations, should be prioritized. This would remedy the arbitrary preference of asylum for those fleeing political persecution over those fleeing other human rights deprivations, while avoiding potentially excluding future new types of migrants.
Importantly, climate change should be treated as a risk multiplier that amplifies pre-existing gender divides rather than an additional, isolated risk for women and girls. This may help us address the underlying causes of gender inequality, rather than its symptoms as they are currently manifested in the context of climate change.
Although the progress in recent years towards protections for climate migrants, particularly by the Nansen Initiative, should not be understated, climate migrants continue to face a legal protection gap. Female climate migrants are at increased risk of human rights deprivations and should be centered in policy solutions. This includes more disaggregated data on climate migration, safe passage and shelter, and long-term resilience-building through access to education, employment, and legal status.
*It’s worth noting that the commonly cited UN statistic that “80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women” does not appear to have any scientific basis. In fact, the peer-reviewed literature on climate migration shows that men tend to be more likely to migrate in response to environmental pressures than women. The statistic may have originated from a 1999 report by the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee that stated that “up to eighty percent of the internally displaced persons and refugees around the world are women and children,” although the more recent claim critically omits “and children” and adds “by climate change.” Meanwhile, other UN agencies – such as the UNHCR, the agency tasked with protecting displaced people – estimate that women constitute a much lower percentage of the world’s displaced population.
(c) 2023, She Changes Genocide