Migration with Dignity: A Framework to Manage Climate Change and Prevent Conflict

By Shanna N. McClain and Carl Bruch

While people migrate for myriad reasons, historically the primary reasons for migration have been related to work, family, education, and health.[i],[ii] Many also migrate for reasons relating to conflict, persecution, and disasters. Increasingly, people are migrating due to environmental change. Indeed, climate change is widely recognized as contributing to and exacerbating both migration and conflict.[iii]

Great uncertainty exists in identifying the number of people that will be displaced due to climate change and other environmental factors. While the World Bank reported in 2018 that internal climate migration could amount to 143 million people by 2050 in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia,[iv] the International Organization for Migration indicates that projections of climate migrations range between 25 million and 1 billion by 2050.[v]

There are challenges to addressing climate migrants. For example, given the mixed reasons for migration, it can be difficult to determine whether a person is being pushed to migrate because of climate change or pulled to migrate due to job opportunities.[vi] The scale and timing of migration is difficult to predict, in part because it can be driven by acute events (e.g., disaster, crisis or conflict) and long-term trends (e.g., climate and environmental change, economic development), and in part because migration depends on how governments and society respond to those events and trends.[vii] With an abundance of economic, environmental, and social factors shaping migration, the ability to unpack the precise relationship between climate change and migration has been difficult.

Though the reasons for migration may be increasingly diffuse and uncertain, the science of climate change is growing in confidence. From a meteorological perspective, there are two key dimensions—or drivers—of climate-related migration. The first is connected with climate processes including sea-level rise, salination or saltwater intrusion on agricultural land, drought and desertification; the second is related to climate events, such as hurricanes or cyclones, flooding, and heatwaves.[viii] These processes and events impact people at different rates of time and at different scales – from one individual to thousands, suddenly or over time. These climate-related processes and events contribute to vulnerability, and it is often the poorest countries that are disproportionately impacted by climate shocks and stresses. Furthermore, while early warning systems often exist to alert communities and countries of impending climate-related hazards, there are very few protocols that connect the necessary actions and financing needed to support populations to prepare for and mitigate the far-reaching impacts to lives and livelihoods.[ix]

Migration can be an adaptive response to climate stresses.  It can be either temporary (e.g., when there is a flood) or permanent (for sea level rise).   However, national adaptation strategies often fail to account for large-scale migration domestically or otherwise.[x] Mobility, or the ability to move, is a function of financial resources and social support mechanisms. Unfortunately, the people who are most vulnerable to impacts from climate change are also often the ones least equipped to migrate.[xi]

Large-scale migrations can generate tensions, which can escalate to conflict if not managed well. In Syria, for example, historic drought pushed many farmers into urban areas, fanning grievances and conflict; notably, though, Jordan and Lebanon experienced the same historic drought, but the government responded more appropriately and there was no serious conflict. At the same time, conflict has led directly to the total number of persons displaced internally doubling in number since 2000, with a significant rise in the last decade.[xii]

The number of challenges faced by migrants as they move can be staggering. Discrimination and violence, lack of adequate healthcare and legal services, forced labor and possible detention, limited access to information, resources, and assistance – all of these leave human rights and human dignity as an afterthought.

Migration with Dignity

In considering the need for more human-centered adaptive approaches that work across the migration process and drivers such as climate change and conflict, the concept of “Migration with Dignity” seeks to maintain cultural integrity and ensure access to education, employment, and healthcare without losing the skills and knowledge gained from the parent country. First advanced by then-President of Kiribati Anote Tong, Migration with Dignity was conceived as a way to give Kiribati people power and choice over whether, when, and how they migrated. It recognized the need for educational and vocational support to ensure that those who migrate did so with the necessary skills to transition to a life equal to or better than the one they left behind.[xiii] Migration with Dignity is increasingly used by international communities to promote migration through the pursuit of life with dignity.

In our research with the Environmental Law Institute, the Dignity Rights Initiative, Delaware Law School, the International Organization for Migration, and the Ocean Policy Research Institute, we have drawn upon the large body of international and national law on dignity rights, applying it in the context of migration, to give life and legal force to Migration with Dignity. As framed in international human rights law and national constitutions, dignity rights apply to all persons regardless of circumstances.  They include, among others, the right to be treated humanely and fairly, rights to education and housing, rights to employment, legal representation, welfare, and medical treatment, and the right to protect one’s rights. Recognizing dignity as a right held by people who migrate is critical for three fundamental reasons. First, dignity travels with the person across jurisdictional boundaries, independent of sovereign-based rules or restrictions. Second, it touches every important aspect of life; it reflects the human experience, as humans experience it. And, third, unlike other claims that may be barred by doctrinal and technical rules of interpretation, the inherent right to dignity extends protections beyond those offered by international migration law.

As yet, there is no comprehensive legal framework designed to protect this growing group of more than 272 million current international migrants. The Global Compact on Orderly and Safe Migration recognizes environmental and climate-related migration, while acknowledging myriad other reasons for moving.[xiv] Further, though the Global Compact sets out guiding principles that intend to be people-centered, they are not binding.

A Conceptual Framework for Migration with Dignity

Drawing upon a range of dignity rights, and identified needs across the cycle of migration, the conceptual framework for Migration with Dignity emphasizes six fundamental elements: 1) movement, that is, the right to choose when to leave and when to return; 2) security, namely, the right to be free from sexual violence including rape and sexual exploitation, human trafficking, slavery, forced labor, and arbitrary and abusive detention; 3) equality, that is, the right to be treated as a human being of equal worth, including access to benefits, services, and legal protections; 4) a standard of living, including to work and shelter; 5) access to services, including healthcare, education, and legal services; and 6) civil and political rights, including freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and political participation.[xv]

Freedom of movement represents an essential aspect of the migration process, and includes consideration of 1) freedom to leave one’s country of origin; 2) freedom to return to one’s country of origin; 3) admission to a foreign country, and 4) freedom of movement between country of origin or country of destination. Countries often limit these freedoms through restrictions such as passport or visa requirements, imposed quotas, or perceived threats to national security. However, in situations of forced displacement, statelessness, or internally displaced persons, the necessary paperwork to facilitate freedom of movement rarely exists.

The right to be secure can implicate migrants before, during, and after they migrate. Criminal networks are often involved in migrant smuggling. These networks often morph into human trafficking that entail substantial human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence, forced labor, arbitrary detention, extortion, and exploitation.[xvi] Certain migrants are at particular risk, including those fleeing violence and conflict; those dislocated from community and family support structures without access to legitimate forms of employment, legal status, or social protection; and those who move or work through irregular channels.[xvii]

Equality, intrinsic to the idea of human rights and human dignity, focuses on rights related to non-discrimination, oppression, humiliation, or the denial of equal protections under the law. Increasingly xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment globally has resulted in intolerance, discrimination, racism, and even acts of extreme violence against and toward migrants, particularly in countries where nationalism, patriotism, and populism have been on the rise.

The right to a basic standard of living includes adequate access to food, water, housing, health care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other livelihood limitations beyond a person’s control. In the case of internally displaced persons, access to these services can be tenuous.

Access to services includes education, healthcare, welfare, and other benefits, and legal service. Access is often approached through two pathways: first, through the shared information or knowledge pathways that must exist in order to ensure that migrants are aware of services that might be available to them; second, to ensure the ability to use the service as needed and in a sustained manner. Even when services are available, lack of knowledge as well as language barriers can make it difficult for migrants to access services.

Finally, civil and political rights ensure that migrants are given the opportunity to participate meaningfully in their communities. In part, it ensures freedom of speech and (to a lesser extent) political participation, but it also guarantees religious and cultural protections. Many migration policies reflect approaches of assimilation, and assimilation has often been suggested as a path to avoid ethnic or cultural differences by adaptation intended to blur ethnic distinctions. Conversely, the protection of civil rights can reflect policies of accommodation which enable livelihood strategies that include maintenance of cultural and societal practices that can strengthen the survival and reduce the vulnerability of migrant populations.[xviii]

In parallel with the development of this conceptual framework, the authors have developed an analytic tool to examine the extent to which the different dimensions of Migration with Dignity are addressed across the migration lifecycle. Use of the analytic tool—and the underlying conceptual framework—can assist countries, communities, and advocates to identify and develop better policies and practices that enable free movement, access to services, and promote circulation and socialization of migrants within and across societies.

Looking Ahead

Case studies are underway to apply the conceptual framework across several different migrant perspectives, including impacts from COVID-19, the recent anti-immigration rhetoric and policies stemming from the previous US administration, and perceptions of climate change impacts on general health and well-being. As the framework emerges and matures, it is important to continue testing its relevance to the range of migration realities faced.

The framework can offer opportunities to address migration, understand and consider a variety of migration contexts, and  better consider  what policies are working or where gaps exist in order to develop more accommodating solutions. For example, following consultations on the Migration with Dignity framework with Marshallese residents in Springdale, Arkansas, it was learned that the professional certificates and degrees of Marshallese were not being recognized once they migrated from the Marshall Islands to Arkansas.[xix] This left a number of skilled workers forced to find employment in low-skilled positions such as local chicken processing plants, and with no hope for upward mobility. Further research revealed that agreements existed between Utah’s Brigham Young University (home to a small population of Marshallese) and the College of Marshall Islands (CMI) to facilitate equitable transfer and acknowledgement of education and certificates. This has since been used as a template to inform the development of agreements between CMI and the University of Arkansas (home to a large population of Marshallese).

Moving forward, this conceptual framework would benefit from broader consultation on the dimensions and applications considered, and increased awareness and adoption of the opportunities offered through its use. Implementation of the Migration with Dignity framework across the migration cycle can also spur complementary development of multilevel governance instruments to improve cooperation between cities, states, and regional bodies. Moreover, the application of the framework can have the added benefit of further strengthening the legal and normative frameworks protecting human rights.

To learn more about the Migration with Dignity framework and the Environmental Law Institute’s work on environmental migration and displacement, please visit www.eli.org.


[i] International Organization for Migration, ‘World Migration Report’, (2020) IOM.

[ii] Ingrid Boas, et al. ‘Climate migration myths’, (2019) Nature Climate Change 901.

[iii] John Podesta, ‘The climate crisis, migration, and refugees’, (2019) Brookings, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-climate-crisis-migration-and-refugees.

[iv] Kumari Rigaud, Kanta, Alex de Sherbinin, Bryan Jones, Jonas Bergmann, Viviane Clement, Kayly Ober, Jacob Schewe, Susana Adamo, Brent McCusker, Silke Heuser, and Amelia Midgley. 2018. Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. The World Bank. Pg 2. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/29461

[v] International Organization for Migration. ” IOM Outlook on Migration, Environment, and Climate Change”, (2014). https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/mecc_outlook.pdf.

[vi] UN General Assembly, Addressing human rights protection gaps in the context of migration and displacement of persons across international borders resulting from the adverse effects of climate change and supporting the adaptation and mitigation plans of developing countries to bridge the protection gaps. UN Doc. A/HRC/38/21, available at https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/38/21.

[vii] See International Organization for Migration, n. 1.

[viii] M. Brzoska and C. Fröhlich, ‘Climate change, migration, and violent conflict: vulnerabilities, pathways, and adaptation strategies’, (2015) Migration and Development 190.

[ix] International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies. “Practical information on forecast-based action by the DREF,” (2020).

[x] Clare Church and Alec Crawford, ‘The NAP process and peacebuilding’ (2020), NAP Global Network https://www.weadapt.org/sites/weadapt.org/files/napgn-en-2020-the-nap-process-and-peacebuilding.pdf

[xi] See UN General Assembly, n. 3.

[xii] See International Organization for Migration, n. 1.

[xiii] See International Organization for Migration, n. 1.

[xiv] UN General Assembly, Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, UN Doc. A/RES/73/195, available at http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/73/195.

[xv] E. Daly, J. May, S.N. McClain, C. Bruch, Y. Hamada, G. Tsiokanou, M. Maekawa, N. Yoshioka. “Migration with Dignity: A Conceptual and Policy Framework” (2021).

[xvi] See International Organization for Migration, n. 1

[xvii] Fiona David, Katharine Bryant, and Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, Migrants and their Vulnerability to Human Trafficking, Modern Slavery and Forced Labour, International Organization for Migration (2019), available at https://reliefweb.int/report/world/migrants-and-their-vulnerability-human-trafficking-modern-slavery-and-forced-labour.

[xviii] McClain, et al. “Migration with Dignity: A Case Study of the Livelihood Transition of Marshallese to Springdale, Arkansas”, (2019).

[xix] See McClain, et al., note 15.


Dr. Shanna N. McClain is the NASA Earth Science Divisions Global Partnerships Manager and the Applied Sciences Lead for Risk Reduction and Resilience. Shanna also sits as a Visiting Scientist with the Environmental Law Institute, where she supports the program on environmental migration and displacement. She is co-chair to the Environmental Peacebuilding Association’s Interest Group on Water and to the IFRC Anticipation Hub’s Working Group on Earth Observations for Early Action. She holds a PhD in Environmental Resources & Policy from Southern Illinois University.

Carl Bruch is the Director of International Programs at the Environmental Law Institute and the founding President of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association. His work focuses on environmental peacebuilding, environmental governance, adaptation, and environmental emergencies. He has helped dozens of countries—including in many affected by conflict—strengthen their environmental laws, institutions, and practices. He holds a JD from the Northwestern School of Environmental Law of Lewis & Clark College.