People with disabilities displaced
People with disabilities displaced by climate change face unique barriers to movement and relocation. What is their experience – and what’s the future hold?
Hundreds of millions of people are likely to be displaced by climate change in the coming decades – some within their own country, and some across international borders – from a mix of natural disasters, long-term changes like sea level rise or recurrent drought, and secondary consequences like economic fallout or conflict. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 20 million people per year globally are displaced by natural disasters already; many of these disasters have been made worse by climate change and some lead to incredible amounts of displacement, like a series of climate-fueled floods in Pakistan in 2022 that displaced at least 7.9 million people.
Climate migrants with disabilities face exceptional barriers regarding the cost of migration, access to appropriate transportation and shelter, need for healthcare and disability-related services, finding legal pathways to migration and residency, and more. We can improve the safety and well-being of climate migrants with disabilities through improving international humanitarian laws, immigration policies, accessible transportation and shelter, and social services, among other actions (more on that next week).
Ultimately, climate migration is like many parts of the climate-disability puzzle: multifaceted, concerning, and under-addressed. We do understand the basics of climate migration and disability and have some frameworks to improve the safety and well-being of migrants with disabilities – but we need much more research, journalism, education, and concrete action to effectively tackle this complex problem.
Existing resources on climate migration and disability
Let’s first look at what’s been written so far – which, unfortunately, isn’t much. A Google Scholar search of “climate migration disability” only yields 3 publications specifically addressing the subject, and a handful more that address climate and disability in general and allude to climate migration. (The three publications are a June 2023 chapter on Climate Migration and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a 2022 brief covering case studies on displaced women and people with disabilities in Fiji, and a 2019 commentary “Seeking a disability lens within climate change migration discourses, policies and practices”). Additionally, a regular Google search of “climate migration disability” brings up a two-page info sheet published by the UN Refugee Agency and, like Google Scholar, several pages on climate and disability that allude to migration without many specifics. And as Kristine Perry notes in the June chapter on the rights of climate migrants with disabilities, “the overwhelming study of migration due to climate change and other environmental factors tends to silo or outright ignore disability-related topics.”
(An article also appeared in the Harvard Law Bill of Health two days after this blog was published. It covers important topics and adds some sobering statistics: referencing a study from the International Displacement Monitoring Centre on disability-inclusive action on internal displacement, the article notes that "disabled people were over-represented among non-displaced people, as they were much less likely to be safely evacuated. 54 percent of disabled people faced challenges moving to another area after being displaced, 52 percent struggled to find a place to stay, 22 percent had difficulties accessing assistance, and 68 percent encountered challenges in accessing livelihoods." That study was on all types of internal displacement – but suggests that people with disabilities are less likely to migrate and more likely to be left behind when climate disasters occur.)
Of course, climate migrants face many of the same problems faced by refugees from conflict, so resources like this UN page on Refugees and migrants with disabilities (and the 21 additional resources it provides) offer valuable insights and context. There are also other resources you may find interesting – some about climate and migration, some about disability and migration – in the Migration section of our Climate Consequences Resources page.
Still, this isn’t a lot of material – at least not to the level we need to educate the public and inform policy. But they bring up important points and are worth a read.
The basics of climate migration
Before getting to the experience of climate migrants with disabilities, it’s important to understand the basics of climate migration. As you’re reading through these bullet points, consider how they might be relevant to people with disabilities. In the next section, I’ll cover concerns for the disability community and barriers faced by climates migrants with disabilities
The disability experience
As I mentioned up top, there’s a dearth of literature specifically covering the intersection of climate change, migration, and disability. However, we do know some basics and can infer much more by drawing connections between climate migration, migration in general (whether climate -related or not), human rights, and the lived experience of the disability community. Here are some main points:
Suffice to say, there are many concerns around climate migration and disability. Those concerns are ever present and, because climate change is only set to get worse, will only grow. We have opportunities to learn more about this important topic and develop strategies to safeguard lives and well-being.
In next week’s blog, I’ll cover some important ways to expand our knowledge of climate migration and disability, and yet more actions to improve safety, health, quality-of-life, and human rights for climate migrants with disabilities.
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