Migration as adaptation? A comparative analysis of policy frameworks

Submitted by Julian Tangermann | published 27th Jan 2016 | last updated 4th Nov 2020
Policy brief first page


With recent climatic and environmental changes occurring all across the globe, adaptation has been in the front line of development policies. Although the term 'adaptation' has been used mainly in connection with climate change, it also refers to the whole spectrum of human responses to environmental changes that aim to “avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC, 2014a:1758).

Historically, migration has been viewed as a negative adaptation strategy and has not received the adequate attention in recent adaptation and development policy frameworks as a long-term solution. Nevertheless, for households and communities, migration can be a coping strategy that saves lives, diversifies incomes and enhances capacities to deal with environmental and climatic changes. The Fifth Assessment report recognizes that expanding opportunities for mobility can reduce risks of most vulnerable populations, and changes in migration patterns can be responses to both extreme weather events and longer term climate variability (IPCC, 2014b:20).

Building on the research of “migration as adaptation” (inter alia, Tacoli, 2009; McLeman and Hunter, 2010; Bardsley and Hugo, 2010; Bennett et al., 2011), this brief* aims to discuss possible adaptation policies, and current climate change and development policy structures on human mobility in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Kenya, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam (Vietnam). It presents available national policy channels for positive adaptation, as well as the ways in which proactively managed migration can be incorporated within these existing frameworks.

It presents available national policy channels for proactive adaptation, as well as the ways in which proactively managed migration can be incorporated within these existing frameworks. The brief is supported by key findings from the six assessment reports of the MECLEP project.

*Download via the links provided under Further Resources.  The contents of the brief, its key findings and recommendations are provided below - please download the brief for much more detail and supporting tables and graphics.

In the brief:

Following the research theme of the MECLEP project, this brief views adaptation as an anticipatory human response and policy measure (Smit et al., 2000), an opportunity and challenge to “moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated” with climate change (IPCC, 2001:887). 

Through this lens the brief authors examine the existing national and regional policy frameworks in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Kenya, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam (Vietnam).  These include climate change policy frameworks (NAPAs, NCs, NAPs, INDCs and other development policies), disaster risk reduction policies, national development policies and strategic plans, and regional policy frameworks.

Key Findings

  • The initial national assessments in these six MECLEP project countries indicated either lacking or deficient data on internal human mobility. 
  • Due to such constraints and gaps in available data, policymakers are not informed adequately on mobility trends and needs of vulnerable communities facing environmental and climate change related risks. 
  • Thus, as can be seen from previous discussion, the climate change adaptation, DRR and development policies do not emphasize nor give an appropriate attention to forced displacement or strategies and actions to facilitate such displacement. The policies are non-comprehensive, mostly viewing migration as a negative outcome rather than a positive coping strategy.
  • Rural‒urban migration is recognized as predominant in Dominican Republic, Haiti and Kenya, whereas in Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam (Vietnam), resettlement and relocation dominate the policy reference to migration. Rural‒urban migration is also emphasized in the National Sustainable Development Plans of Kenya and Papua New Guinea.
  • The six countries are yet to explore migration as a strategy for DRR. In regional policies and frameworks, rural‒urban migration has a weak presence or has not been considered at all.
  • This analysis indicates that even though the policies in pilot countries mention migration, in particular rural‒urban, they lack the indication of concrete strategies and actions to address such migration due to environmental changes.

Policy Implications

Based on the findings, the following general recommendations can be made:

  • Migration is a pivotal part of sustainable policy design. Public policies, inter alia development plans, DRR frameworks and climate change action plans are to be synchronized to incorporate human mobility and all its facets in the context of environmental and climate changes to reach long-term resilience.
  • As an adaptation strategy, migration helps to diversify livelihoods. Thus, researching on the economic and environmental aspects of human settlements in the context of climate and environmental change can help identify anticipatory measures to adjust to potential environmental stresses.
  • Appropriate and accurate data on internal migration patterns serves as guidance for policymakers to formulate and geographically focus national adaptation and development policies. Through research, governments can identify the impacts of migration and causes of migration within their national boundaries in the context of climate and environmental change and the context specific ways to address them.

An open, cross-sectoral dialogue between national and local authorities can maximize the benefits from migration. Policies, manifesting themselves through different local power structures, need to consider local realities on the ground and the changing necessities of environmental migrants.

Further resources