Environmental Migration and Indigenous Peoples: What Is at Stake?

By Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, Specialist on Migration, Environment and Climate Change, and Francesca Carini, Development Team at the IOM Office to the UN in New York.

Despite their minimal ecological footprint, indigenous peoples and communities are disproportionally vulnerable to climate change impacts. Many indigenous communities live in areas that are particularly exposed to climate change and environmental degradation, such as small islands barely above sea level, tropical forests threatened by deforestation or polar regions affected by global warming.

Indigenous people and communities traditionally have a strong material and spiritual reliance on their lands and ecosystems. Their livelihoods and daily activities are dependent on the environment and its resources, as well as their culture, rituals and medical practices which are anchored in a profound and ancestral connection with nature.

The adverse effects of climate change, such as persistent droughts, changing rain patterns, wildfires, coastal erosion and sea level rise, have a profoundly negative impact on the daily lives and psychological wellbeing of indigenous communities. These impacts range from disrupting hunting and agricultural practices to jeopardizing traditions and cultures, which in turn can directly or indirectly lead to migration out of the affected areas.

For example, in some small island states in the Pacific or in Alaska, indigenous peoples are facing such enormous challenges due to sea level rise and coastal erosion that they need to plan for the relocation of entire communities further inland. In the Amazon, habitat loss due to wildfires or deforestation might restrict access of indigenous communities to their ancestral land and make it impossible to continue traditional livelihood and hunting practices, encouraging migration towards urban areas.

Although migration can offer new livelihood or educational opportunities, unmanaged and distress migration can also increase the vulnerability of indigenous migrants, especially as they can experience double discrimination — being at once migrants and members of indigenous groups. For example, when indigenous people move to unfamiliar urban environments, they might face language and cultural barriers that can expose them to exploitation and discrimination and impede their access to the job market or adequate housing.

At a time where migration issues are high on the global policy agenda, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, celebrated on August 9th 2018 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, was dedicated to discussing migration dimensions. This offered a unique opportunity to shed light on the mobility challenges faced by indigenous migrants worldwide, including those linked to climate change.

In that respect, the UN Migration Agency (IOM) highlighted in a statement on the linkages between climate change impacts and migration of indigenous people that the irreversible impacts of climate change on the migration of indigenous people were already a tangible reality in many indigenous communities worldwide, and that there was a need to give more visibility to these issues at the global policy level. Despite the development of a number of international commitments with specific references to indigenous peoples and climate change, such as the Paris Agreements, the 2030 Agenda and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, there is still little knowledge on how climate change is affecting indigenous migration patterns worldwide.

More disaggregated data and focused research on indigenous peoples, climate change and migration is urgently needed, as this will help to better identify their needs and vulnerabilities, but also understand how their traditional knowledge can be leveraged in the fight against climate change.

This is crucial in order to ensure that their rights are protected, and both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) are offering a historic opportunity to do so.

The GCM represents a unique opportunity to address migration management issues at large, including the migration of indigenous communities. As highlighted by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, in his message:

“ [the GCM] will establish an international framework for regional and global cooperation” and “provide a platform to maximize the benefits of migration and support vulnerable migrant groups, including indigenous peoples.”

However, more needs to be done — notably during the implementation phase of the GCM-, to ensure the integration of the specific needs and concerns of indigenous communities. The SDGs also recognize the key role that indigenous people play in sustainable development and stress the importance of increasing the availability of high quality, timely, reliable and disaggregated data. Commitments in that respect could be instrumental in developing a body of knowledge on the linkages between migration, climate change and indigenous people that would in turn steer policy and operational developments.

Despite the many challenges faced by indigenous communities, it is crucial to emphasize that indigenous peoples are key actors in the fight against climate change and provide positive contributions. Indigenous communities worldwide protect nearly 22 percent of the earth’s surface and 80 percent of biodiversity on the planet [1], making them powerful stakeholders when responding to climate change challenges. Their traditional knowledge needs to be recognized and valued in order to develop meaningful policies and programmes seeking to tackle the adverse impacts of climate change. This in turn can help to mitigate instances of distress migration when indigenous people feel that they have no other choices than to leave their ancestral land.

The strong engagement of indigenous peoples in global climate policy through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been pivotal to highlighting their specific needs and concerns as well as theirs contributions to the fight against climate change.[2]

It is now time to support the systematic inclusion of indigenous people’s specific challenges in the discussions pertaining to migration governance, notably the implementation phase of the GCM. We also need to continue building the linkages between climate and migration communities of practice in order to address the migration, climate change and indigenous people nexus comprehensively and ensure that indigenous people and communities are not left behind.


[1] World Bank: Social dimensions of climate change: workshop report 2008 (Washington DC, 2008).

[1] https://unfccc.int/10475

For complementary information on the connection between migration climate change, and indigenous peoples:

Visit the IOM Environmental Migration Portal for comprehensive resources on the migration, environment and climate change nexus: www.environmentalmigration.iom.int

Watch this video on indigenous people, migration and water scarcity: https://www.environmentalmigration.iom.int/%E2%80%9Cwineh%E2%80%9D-years-drought

Indigenous Knowledge for Disaster Risk Reduction: Documenting Community Practices in Papua New Guinea: https://www.environmentalmigration.iom.int/indigenous-knowledge-disaster-risk-reduction

International Organization for Migration UN Office | Promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all | IOM Global: IOM - UN Migration

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