Migration has long been a way of coping with environmental change, and it has therefore also served as a useful adaptation strategy in the face of worsening climate change impacts. With the COVID-19 pandemic now disrupting movement and migration patterns around the world, how will climate change adaptation be affected and what options are available to link responses to climate risks and the COVID-19 pandemic as part of climate change adaptation governance? 


Migration as a response to climate change  

Migration has long served as a way of coping with environmental change, and it has therefore also been an important mechanism for adapting to the worsening impacts of our changing climate. Alongside the millions who are suddenly forced to flee increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, typhoons and other each year, there may be many more who are adopting a variety of migration strategies to cope with the more gradual impacts of slow-onset events, such as rising temperatures and sea-level rise.   

When people migrate in the context of slow-onset environmental changes, their decisions are shaped by a variety of factors. These may include family dynamics, social networks and demographic and socio-economic conditions, alongside a range of other factors at personal, community and structural level. These factors influence the degree of choice in people’s decision and destination, the opportunities available to them when they get there, and whether they move permanently, temporarily or seasonally. For example, in many low-income countries, the data shows that most people only have the resources to migrate within the same country or region while others do not have the means to migrate at all, leaving them trapped in increasingly adverse circumstances. However, international labour migration from these countries is also significant, accounting for 164 million of the world’s 258 million international migrants in 2017. 

For farming communities, slow climate change impacts, such as more unpredictable rainfall patterns and prolonged droughts, can reduce crop yields and interfere with water availability, placing greater strain on food and water supplies. This is particularly true in countries where smallholder agriculture is prevalent and farmers are reliant on rainfall, as irrigation systems are either unavailable or unaffordable. A common adaptation strategy in response to these environmental stressors has been for households to send some members away to find alternative livelihoods and income. This can improve the situation both by reducing the strain on food, water and jobs, particularly in rural areas, and by increasing the income of the families and households staying behind when migrants send part of their earnings back home. In addition to supporting households’ basic needs, these remittances may be used to strengthen their long-term adaptive capacity if they are invested in health services or education, or in increasing agricultural production, for example using irrigation systems. Moreover, migrants who leave in search of an education or training may bring back new knowledge to their home communities, with these social remittances also supporting adaptation strategies. In countries where international labour migration is prevalent, these dynamics also play out at national level, reducing the strain on resources and bolstering national economies. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic 

With lockdowns and travel restrictions in place, the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting these rural-urban and international migration patterns that play an important role in alleviating poverty and strengthening the resilience of rural communities to all kinds of disasters, including those related to the adverse impacts of climate change. As well as being more likely to contract the disease or to face difficulties in accessing appropriate health care, migrants are also more likely to face livelihood and income insecurity as a result of the pandemic. Migrants are more likely to be vulnerable to the job losses caused by lockdown measures and the slowing of economies, as they are more likely to work in some of the industries strongly affected by COVID-19, such as manufacturing and hospitality. Moreover, their employment status was already more likely to be precarious and their access to support or protection more limited before the pandemic. Although some countries have been given more rights to migrants in the context of their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, migrants in many countries are not yet sufficiently covered under government income or social protection schemes.  

There is increasing evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a major economic impact on internal and international migrants and their communities of origin, and with that their families’ resources to invest in climate change adaptation measures. The pandemic has diminished many migrants’ incomes, reducing the amount of money they can send home, and making it more difficult to make and collect payments, with cash transfer offices also shut down due to lockdowns. To give an idea of the scale of this support, in 2019 international migrants alone sent USD 551 billion in remittances home to low and middle-income countries (LMICs) – three times the total for overseas development aid that year and 18 times more than the USD 30 billion in funds that was provided for adapting to the impacts of climate change in 2018. Remittances are also crucial because they go directly to families and households, with financing at the local level shown to be a faster, more direct form of support for vulnerable communities. The World Bank has estimated the impacts of the pandemic may reduce international remittance flows to LMICs by as much as 20 percent in 2020, a total of USD 110 billion. There is lack of data related to internal remittances, but lockdown measures are also likely to result in significant reductions to these remittance flows, which studies suggest go to the poorest households

Interruptions to payments also have an impact at the national level, with remittances accounting for a significant proportion of GDP in many countries. According to the World Bank, international remittances account for over five percent of GDP in 66 countries, and in some of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries like Haiti, Honduras and Nepal they account for over 20 percent. As pointed out by IOM: “This is not only a cause for concern for smaller economies that receive large remittances relative to the size of their economies...” – to give two examples, remittance flows to El Salvador have dropped by 40 percent and to Sri Lanka by 35 percent – “(…) but also for larger economies that rely heavily on international remittances in US dollar terms, such as the Philippines and India—these countries are predicted to see a fall in remittances received”. 

Countries are also seeing migrants return home in huge numbers, increasing the strain on resources at local and national levels and unemployment rates. Nepal, a country of around 28 million people, is expecting 400,000 migrants to return from countries such as Malaysia and the Gulf States as a result of the pandemic, and India has conducted one of the largest peacetime repatriation missions ever seen, bringing 1.8 million citizens back to the country. For those travelling overland, the cancellation of public transportation services due to lockdown restrictions has also placed many migrants in highly dangerous situations. In India, lockdown-related job losses caused hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to leave the cities and in many cases travel hundreds of miles on foot or by bicycle to return to their villages. Venezuelans who had fled the country’s political crisis to work in the informal economy in Colombia have also been forced return home, also often on foot, leaving them at risk of human trafficking and attacks by armed groups.  

The COVID-19 pandemic will therefore disrupt the rural-urban and international migration patterns that have also served as a vital coping mechanism for climate-vulnerable communities and countries. In many places, this is likely to increase competition for resources and jobs, as well as to create financial difficulties for both migrants and their families who can no longer rely on the migrants’ income, also potentially undermining their ability to invest in climate change adaptation measures. This also applies to government budgets at national level, with potential consequences for spending on adaptation. The situation is also characterised by great uncertainty. No one can yet say how long these restrictions on movement will last and when migrants will be able to return to work.  

What role for climate change adaptation governance? 

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on various types of migration that have served as climate change adaptation strategies raise the question of what role adaptation governance can play in responding to this challenge and the potential for long-term reductions in the resources available for climate change adaptation. If the remittances so urgently needed by the families of migrants fall away, this will likely result in requests for additional financial support, including climate finance. Further, in sending and receiving areas where income opportunities were already scarce, the jobs losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the return of migrant workers will place additional strain on local communities and further weaken their coping and adaptive capacities.  

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, adaptation governance posed major challenges to countries – especially in lower-income regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Now, many of the most climate-vulnerable countries are facing significant pressures on their finances due to the pandemic. To illustrate the scale of the challenge some countries are facing, we can consider the example of Bangladesh, which is among the world’s 25 most vulnerable countries to climate change. In April alone, the Central Bank registered a 25 percent drop in international remittances, a fall of USD 353 million compared to April the year before – and a figure over three times the USD 94.7 million the country has received to date from the Green Climate Fund (GCF). As a result, countries in climate-vulnerable regions may become more dependent on climate finance (and other forms of financial assistance from the international community). It is therefore important that the projects and programmes funded in climate-vulnerable countries recognise the role that migration can and has played in strengthening climate change adaptation, in order to better address the emerging challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As part of a recent research project in collaboration with IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre on behalf of the German Environment Agency (UBA), we found that that much more can be done to more systematically adopt a “migration lens” during the planning, implementation and funding of adaptation measures. Our analysis of major international climate finance donors, notably of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Adaptation Fund, the Least Developed Countries Fund, and the International Climate Initiative (IKI), showed that they only fund a very small number of programmes and projects that explicitly address migration and human mobility issues, or highlight the relationship between environmental migration and climate change as an overall priority. More often, it has been the case that climate change adaptation projects have implicitly addressed migration drivers via their focus on creating economic, social and environmental co-benefits. By increasing food, water and livelihood security in response to for example more unpredictable rainfall patterns, climate change adaptation measures can improve conditions for migrants, and their communities of origin and destination. For example, all proposals submitted to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) are required to include a co-benefits analysis examining the additional environmental, economic and social benefits the measure will have, beyond its impact on reducing emissions or strengthening resilience to climate change impacts. A typical example of the economic co-benefits that a project might have is the creation of alternative income opportunities. These may now become particularly relevant in light of the challenges migrant workers are facing in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To assess how adaptation governance structures might best strengthen resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to consider the new challenges it presents to its different pillars, which typically include:  

  • Analyses of risks and vulnerabilities;  

  • The planning and implementation of adaptation programmes and projects; and  

  • The accountable use of climate finance.  

With regard to assessing risks and vulnerabilities, the COVID-19 pandemic is further increasing the vulnerability of marginalised and disadvantaged people exposed to the slow and sudden-onset impacts of climate change, resulting in them needing further support and protection to cope with this additional crisis. Taking into account how planned adaptation measures may combine with existing adaptation strategies, such as migration, can serve to increase their benefits for migrants and their communities, and the effectiveness and positive co-benefits for climate change adaptation measures overall. Further, climate change adaptation measures can better address the migration, environment and climate change nexus by taking into account the needs and vulnerabilities of different groups in society, such as women, men, children and older people, marginalised ethnic or religious groups, people living with disabilities, and people living in poverty. Albeit, even before the pandemic, the lack of data disaggregated by sex, age and other metrics in many countries hindered the development of targeted climate change adaptation policies that take into account these different groups’ needs and vulnerabilities. 

Secondly, without remittances, families face the risks and acute consequences of not being able to afford their basic needs, let alone invest in climate change adaptation measures. At the same time, migrant workers facing unemployment or significantly reduced income in their host countries require adequate social safety nets. An inclusive approach can inform and improve the planning and implementation of adaptation programmes and projects. Particularly in cases where data is lacking, consultations with representatives of vulnerable groups and communities can provide updates to support these processes at national and sub-national level. Consultations and flexible support structures, such as preliminary direct cash transfers, can offer assistance to, for example, migrants’ families in their home countries to meet the basic levels of household income required for purchasing food and paying for education and, of course, healthcare.  

With respect to climate finance, adjustments to funding terms and requirements may be required. Recognizing the great challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for the recipients of climate finance, two international climate donors, the GCF and the IKI, have announced that they will provide flexibility to partners, for example by offering no-cost extensions on some climate finance readiness programmes. Taking a step further, the GCF also stated in April 2020 that it would issue further grants for project preparation, and support developing countries in identifying new climate investments that have strong social and economic co-benefits. This kind of approach offers a great chance to further catalyse green investment in developing countries and thus the development of low-emission, climate-resilient sectors and industries. This could also play a role in creating new, durable sources of income and alternative livelihoods for migrant workers in future.  

New governance structures needed? 

The current pandemic and its negative impact on migration as a climate change adaptation strategy highlight the shortcomings of existing adaptation governance and climate finance structures in analysing and addressing the migration, environment and climate change nexus. In light of the current challenges, new structures may be required in the area of adaptation governance in the mid to long-term. However, in the short-term, immediate next steps could be taken in the following four areas: 

  1. More inclusive vulnerability assessments 

Risk and vulnerability assessments are an important step in the development of climate change adaptation measures in many countries. In view of the new and increased vulnerabilities emerging under the pandemic, these assessments need to evolve in order to provide a sound basis for the planning and development of integrated programmes. Updated assessments on the impact of COVID-19 should aim to take into account new developments, such as the changing needs of different vulnerable groups, potential losses of income from remittances at household level, changes in the overall economic situation, as well as whether significant groups of migrant workers are returning. This could be a minimum requirement for programmes and beneficiaries already involved in climate finance-related programmes. 

  1. Revisions to national adaptation planning  

National and local adaptation planning is an ongoing process, and needs to be revisited in view of current developments. The COVID-19 crisis risks reversing past gains and the positive contributions that migration has made to climate change adaptation. In regions where there is high pressure on jobs and resources, the situation may be aggravated by migrants returning to their home country in search of work. As a result, measures to improve water, food and livelihood security need to be intensified and, depending on the additional losses in remittances caused by COVID-19, existing social safety nets approaches will need to be expanded. This process should also allocate time and funding to support consultations with affected communities, as this can help to ensure that measures address their specific needs, avoid social conflict and protect human rights. 

  1. Expand criteria for climate finance 

There had already been calls to create dedicated funding streams to address the migration, environment and climate change nexus before the pandemic. The additional economic pressures caused by COVID-19 increase the urgency of these calls for such funding streams and for comprehensive integrated programmes to limit the risks. Based on newly established funding criteria, dedicated programmes or programme add-ons could be established and accompanied by concrete guidance on how to address migration in climate change adaptation projects during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in a submission to the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism, New Zealand committed to “utilising official development assistance to avert and delay climate change-related relocation and displacement” in Pacific island countries. 

  1. Take new challenges for climate change adaptation into account in broader COVID-19 responses at national and international level  

The pandemic has disrupted adaptation governance processes at international level, with the postponement of COP26 and the preparatory negotiating rounds. Given the limited potential for coordinated international responses under the UNFCCC, efforts to protect those groups highly vulnerable to both the impacts of COVID-19 and climate change will mainly lie with nation states and with other international actors. At the national level, the previous three recommendations to strengthen climate change adaptation measures and finance are important; however, it is also vital that the impact of reduced remittance flows and returning migrants on climate change adaptation be taken into account in the planning and implementation of broader COVID-19 recovery packages, particularly in countries vulnerable to climate change impacts. Governments can also draw on guidance prepared by international organisations to support these processes. For example, the Remittance Community Task Force (RCTF), comprised of relevant international organisations, diaspora organisations, companies and research institutes, is helping policymakers, regulators and remittance service providers to keep remittances flowing during the COVID-19 pandemic.  



About the authors

Emily Wright works as a Project Manager at Berlin-based think-tank adelphi in the field of climate and energy diplomacy. Focuses of her research include migration and displacement in the context of environmental and climate change, and broader analyses of how countries may be affected by both climate change impacts and low-carbon transition processes. She is a co-author of the report “Migration, environment and climate change: Responding via climate change adaptation policy”. 


Dennis Tänzler is the Director of International Climate Policy at adelphi. He has twenty years of experience in the fields of global environmental policy, climate change policy and foreign policy, and his research focuses on climate and energy policies as well as on peace and conflict studies.. He is one of the lead authors of the 2015 adelphi flagship report "A New Climate for Peace" dealing with climate change impacts on fragile states. In addition, he has published widely on climate change adaptation, climate finance as well as climate and migration. 


This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.

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