Scholars, refugee relief agencies, UN organizations and others forecast in coming decades that hundreds of millions of people will be involuntarily displaced for reasons linked to global environmental change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s most recent assessment identifies many emerging environmental risks that will undermine human security and potentially stimulate large-scale migration.

While this type of thinking dominates the headlines, large-scale movements of “environmental refugees” are, at least so far, not very common. There are many other ways by which the natural environment can influence migration, such as the amenity migrant, who voluntarily moves to places with better environmental conditions. As large cities in developing countries become heavily congested and polluted, middle class families are starting to move elsewhere. It is rare that a family’s decision to migrate is based on a single factor; more often, a variety of economic, social and other factors come into play. Environmental considerations may or not play a part in the decision-making process, and teasing out the role and importance of environmental considerations is not an easy thing to do.

Canada receives hundreds of thousands of temporary and permanent migrants each year. Many of the leading source countries of international migration to Canada are experiencing severe environmental degradation, are subject to frequent natural hazards, and have been identified by the IPCC as having large populations exposed to adverse climatic change. Yet, little empirical research and no official statistics exist on how environmental factors overseas may be influencing migration to Canada from particular cities, countries, or regions. We know anecdotally that some immigrants, especially those from crowded cities, cite Canada’s clean air and water and its relatively uncongested cities as being things that attracted them to move here. Others have come from drought-stricken, conflict-prone places like Somalia and Darfur, where violence and environmental crises are self-reinforcing. It is important for future Canadian immigration policymaking and planning to obtain more systematic and detailed knowledge about the role of environment in migrants’ decision-making, so as to ensure the best possible outcomes for migrants and for the communities receiving them.

At an international level, environmental migration is a growing policymaking challenge. International law does not recognize people who are obliged to migrate for environmental reasons, meaning that as ecological conditions deteriorate in many parts of the world, households must adapt as best they can, using their own resources. For many people, this may mean undertaking migration under difficult circumstances, increasing their vulnerability. Security experts worry about the potentially destabilizing effects of environmental migration in conflict-prone parts of the world, with discussions reaching even the UN Security Council. Given such concerns, there is a great need for systematic empirical research from all over, including Canada, to help guide policy discussions.