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Climate Migration and Disability Part 2: What to Do by Alex Ghenis

Updated: May 15

Recommendations on frameworks, concrete actions, and policies to safeguard migrants' well-being and respect their rights

Last week, I wrote about issues facing climate migrants with disabilities – people who are displaced from their home due to climate-fueled disasters, slow-onset climate changes, or secondary problems like violent conflict sparked by climate changes (for example, “water wars” during droughts). In today’s blog, I’ll cover some of the things we can do to respect human rights and safeguard health and well-being.

To recap last week, people with disabilities (PWDs) face myriad barriers and extra difficulties during migration, even beyond the considerable struggles of their able-bodied peers. For example, PWDs’ lower average income means fewer can afford migration and a greater share of migrants will use less costly but more dangerous pathways; the logistics of migration, such as being able to find accessible transportation or personal care en route, are complex, difficult and can be prohibitive; and legal barriers, such as a lack of international laws recognizing climate migrants and Public Charge rules that block immigration for people deemed too “costly” to government services, may leave PWDs locked out of their chosen destination or drive them to illegal and more dangerous migration pathways. Even people moving within their own country may have a hard time securing housing, employment, and government services (since those services are often administered at the state or county level and have lengthy application processes). These are just a few of the problems faced by climate migrants with disabilities – you can read last week’s blog for more context and examples.

So, what can we do? First off, we must learn more and educate the public. I mentioned last week that there’s a huge dearth of literature on climate migration and disability – just a handful of articles, academic pieces and webpages – which leaves advocates and policymakers shorthanded. We need research, databases, white papers, articles, legal briefs, and yes, even blogs. Second, we need to revise international law to recognize and support climate migrants in general, and to ensure that PWDs’ rights are respected during migration. Third, we need to reinforce physical and social infrastructure to accommodate climate migrants with disabilities; this should happen for both domestic and international migrants. And finally, we should always strive for as much economic and social equity as possible: if migrants are disadvantaged because they have less money to migrate than their able-bodied counterparts do, then greater economic equity will reduce that disadvantage.


Expand and coordinate research

This piece is pretty straightforward: we simply don’t know enough about the structural problems facing climate migrants with disabilities, and we need to know more to effectively address the problem. Research could come in many forms, such as:

  • Seeking quantitative data on numbers of climate migrants in general and in specific migration pathways (e.g., between US states or from Central/South America to North America), and identifying approximate numbers of migrants with disabilities. Data on numbers of migrants with disabilities could be broken down by type of disability, e.g. “mobility” or more specific categories.

  • Qualitative data on the experience of PWDs in specific migration pathways and/or migrants with certain types of disabilities. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, one of the only existing publications on climate migration and disability is a Pacific Resilience Partnership research brief on Women and Disability in the Context of Climate Mobility; researchers should pursue similar efforts in other migrant populations and contexts.

  • Qualitative data on proposed or enacted legislation, policy actions, or international agreements that address climate migrants with disabilities – including those that only address disability in part. This data should also address the effectiveness of policies and areas for improvement.

  • Initiatives to aggregate data from other research into centralized, searchable databases that can inform education, policy, and practice.

I hope that interested stakeholders pursue this research and that governments, foundations, and other funding entities financially support that research. A deeper knowledge base is sorely needed.

A note on data collection & management

Stakeholders researching climate migration and disability should standardize and coordinate their data collection and management as much as possible; this will make it easier to compare migration dynamics and policies, which can then inform other actions and future research. But this also will be easier said than done: there is no one set definition of disability or a universally-used set of questions to determine disability status. Researchers will also need to decide what exactly counts as climate migration, or to what extent someone’s decision to move was due to climate factors.

This page on Disability and Human Mobility from the Migration Data Portal is a good starting point to understand some problems with data collection and identify strategies for the future. Although it doesn’t address climate migration specifically, the main points about data collection are still useful for the disability-climate-migration nexus. Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) also addresses data collection, noting that “States Parties undertake to collect appropriate information, including statistical and research data, to enable them to formulate and implement policies to give effect to the present Convention.” (More on how the CRPD can address climate migrants later).


Safeguard human rights under international law

One of the most difficult parts of the climate-disability-migration nexus is a lack of support for human rights and legal frameworks to safeguard them. There is still no internationally recognized legal status and protections for climate migrants, which stands in contrast to the existing protections for refugees from violent conflict. This must change: stakeholders should develop international climate migration frameworks and protections, while implementing laws at the national level to respect climate migrants’ rights. Any climate migrant framework should address disability specifically; even if disability is listed as one of many populations that need their rights protected, the reference can serve as a foundation for concrete disability-focused policies.

Meanwhile, advocates can leverage certain parts of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) to push for more inclusive climate migration, either by using the CRPD on its own or in conjunction with any climate migrant frameworks. Article 18 of the CRPD, “Liberty of movement and nationality,” states that “States Parties shall recognize the rights of persons with disabilities to liberty of movement, to freedom to choose their residence and to a nationality, on an equal basis with others” and includes specific commitments to achieve that liberty of movement. Other parts of the CRPD that apply to climate migrants include Article 11 (Situations of Risk and Humanitarian Emergencies), which states that “States Parties shall take… All necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk” and could easily be applied to people displaced by disasters; and Article 19 (Living Independently and Being Included in the Community), which, like much of the rest of the CRPD, could be used to support the well-being and independence of PWDs as they resettle in a new home. Other existing frameworks can also be leveraged to protect disability rights, such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and its emphasis on the inclusion of people with disabilities in developing disaster response and recovery plans.

It’s always a good idea to center human rights and dignity in any policies affecting domestic climate migrants, as well – including those related to disaster response and recovery, housing and land use, transportation, and access to health care and services. So, for example, housing policy should consider the human right to shelter for domestic climate migrants.


Develop and institute concrete policies around immigration, transportation, shelter, and services.

While international agreements are important, concrete policies at the national and more local levels can go a long way toward improving the well-being of climate migrants with disabilities. Advocates should push for these policies and governments should institute and refine them. Because climate change and our knowledge base are fluid, advocates and governments should remain vigilant and innovative, and not be shy about improving those policies – or even repealing or replacing them if they do more harm than good and/or if a better alternative arises. The following are some high-level suggestions, but advocates and policymakers can go beyond this list and shape them to fit local needs.

Liberalize immigration and accept migrants with disabilities. Absent a broad definition of climate migrants and protections for them, governments should move from restrictive immigration policies to more open, liberalized ones – and ensure that people with disabilities have fair access to immigration and are not arbitrarily denied entry due to their disability. This is also important because climate change is affecting nearly everything around us and may simply be one of many factors that motivate somebody to move. This is sure to face resistance, especially in countries with milder climates that may become major destinations for climate migrants, but is an important goal regardless.

Improve transportation networks and cost. Robust, accessible transportation networks for intercity movement will greatly help people with disabilities who need to migrate and do not own personal vehicles. Speaking from the US perspective, we’d really benefit from an upgraded intercity rail network, including high-speed rail and more accessible sleeper rooms. Relying almost entirely on airplanes, which have significant accessibility issues, short-changes PWDs traveling between cities.

Expand accessible housing – and housing in general – especially in climate-resilient places. Migrants deserve to have a roof over their heads, and migrants with disabilities deserve accessible housing that meets their needs. Government should encourage the construction of housing, especially dense multifamily housing and accessible apartments, and also devote public monies to building homes. This should be done especially aggressively in places that are more shielded from climate extremes, such as the upper Midwest and coastal California, and should avoid floodplains and fire danger zones. For example, in my home of the Bay Area, temperatures can vary by 30°F on the hottest days simply by going 20 miles inland; so, I always say that more homes should be built in San Francisco and Oakland/Berkeley, where it’s cooler in the summer, than in Livermore and Stockton, where it regularly tops 100°F – and all new housing should be away from the wildland-urban interface with its fire risks. (To learn more about housing, climate change and disability, check out our blog on the topic from last year.)

Reinforce public benefits and improve ease-of-access. Migrants with disabilities will often need public benefits and services to maintain their health and well-being. This includes things like healthcare, publicly-funded caregivers, employment supports, cash benefits, food and housing supplements, and so on. Government should reinforce these benefits to be able to support any climate migrants who apply, and should revise application processes so migrants with disabilities are both eligible to receive services and can receive them in a timely manner (including temporary benefits as full applications are being reviewed). Benefits administered at the county and state levels should also support people who are displaced and temporarily living elsewhere; this is the gist of the Disaster Relief Medicaid Act (DRMA) that would allow Medicaid recipients displaced across state lines to receive their home state’s Medicaid until they either return home or apply for and receive Medicaid in their new state (the status quo is that Medicaid does not provide services when someone’s in another state, even if they are displaced by a disaster). Public agencies, and any nonprofits or businesses they partner with, can also train staff on the needs of climate migrants with disabilities and how to support them in their transition to a new home. This is one of the policy efforts that should be centered in human rights and dignity: appropriate services respect PWDs’ human rights and empower them to achieve stability and success in a new home.


These are just some of the policies necessary to support a growing number of climate migrants with disabilities. Although there’s no “solution” to the climate migration problem, every well-designed policy can help at least some individuals – and those policies, and the lives they help, add up. There’s also always more work for researchers, advocates, policymakers, government staff, and NGOs to do. So, let’s get to it.



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