A demographic perspective on the role of environmental and climate change on forced migration and population displacement

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Susana Adamo

May 11, 2021, 9:48:10 AM5/11/21
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Dear Colleagues,

The first summary paper is now posted:  Abbasi-Shavazi, M. J. and E. P. Kraly (2021). A demographic perspective on the role of environmental and climate change on forced migration and population displacement. https://www.populationenvironmentresearch.org/pern_files/statements/A%20demographic%20perspective%20on%20climate%20change%20refugees_Abbasi%20and%20Kraly.pdf

In the paper, the authors discuss the contribution that demography and demographers could make in areas such as conceptual specification, analysis and measurement, data collection, predictions and modelling, policy and program design, as well as training and research for the understanding of climate impacts and risks of refugees and IDPs.

A lot of food for thought in this brief, as these extracts illustrate:

- there is no specific theoretical framework to explain the settlement patterns, reactions and adaptation process and consequences of the environmental displaced population in the new places living either in camps or residing among the native population (page 2);

- there is a need for a life course perspective in addition to cross-sectional situation analysis for the displaced population (page 5);  

- voices of people should be heard in studies of forced migration (page 6).

Please have a look at the paper and let us know what you think.

Susana B. Adamo

Wrathall, David J

May 12, 2021, 5:56:56 PM5/12/21
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Dear PERN Community, 

Jalal and Ellen's paper yesterday poses a compelling question: after a population is displaced (but before they become refugees) what demographic rules apply? 

We know more about the demographic determinants of outcomes where displacement results from environmental hazards. But! In the past, we've avoided drawing comparisons between refugees and environmentally-displaced populations --naturally-- due to the unique, singular driver of refugees' displacement: persecution from people! Displacement is different when a malicious agent, seeking to do harm, is behind it! 

The wise have tread carefully into these debates, and rather than drawing comparisons, Jalal and Ellen ask: does demographic sorting also happen in a displaced population in ways that determine the eventual demographic composition of refugee camps? Gender, they claim, is clearly an intersection that determines outcomes. This stuff matters because it determines who winds up in refugee settlements, and thus what needs exist!

But what other demographic rules influence...  ...who flees early? ...who leaves late? ...who tries to stay close to home?  What (besides threat of violence) determines preferred migration destinations? What is the profile of a person who seeks asylum (versus other alternatives, i.e. remaining an IDP within the country)? At the border, what personal characteristics determine whether an asylum seeker is more likely to be granted refugee status? 

I'm interested in how far we can apply rules of migration (e.g. the New Economics of Labor Migration) to refugees. Are displaced people (who may yet become refugees) also factoring livelihood considerations into their decisions about when to leave, and where to go? Are refugees subject to selectivity rules that predict an individual's likelihood to make certain location decisions (e.g. urban) over others (e.g. rural)? For example, do wealthy, working-age, skilled refugees choose uniquely different destinations than the poor and elderly? What is the role of the environment in displaced peoples' decision-making at both sites of origin and destination? Are refugees moving into conditions that increase their climate vulnerability, for example? 

Setting the question of data aside, is it a fool's errand to apply these rules at all?! 

I suppose this is the right crowd to have this conversation! 

Thanks Jalal and Ellen, for getting this started!

David J Wrathall
Oregon State University | College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences

On Tue, May 11, 2021 at 6:48 AM Susana Adamo <sad...@ciesin.columbia.edu> wrote:

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Alex de Sherbinin

May 12, 2021, 6:17:16 PM5/12/21
to Wrathall, David J, PERNSeminars - List
HI David,

Great questions!  On the demographic composition question, I listened to a disturbing report from Tigray last night that described in horrifying detail what happened to one woman who was captured at night because she was looking for food for herself and her family. I suspect that women, children and the elderly are more likely to end up in refugee situations than men, either because men can better fend for themselves, or may actually be killed or part of an armed group. But this is conjecture. I'm sure someone has the data on the age/sex composition of refugee camps (apologies if in my quick reading I missed it in Mohammad and Ellen's great piece!).

We've exchanged notes in the past on whether there is a social science theory behind forced migration / displacement, or if theory is largely irrelevant when people are fleeing for their lives, since theory implies that people are making choices. The best treatment of this topic that I've found to date is the following: 

Erdal, M. B., & Oeppen, C. (2018). Forced to leave? The discursive and analytical significance of describing migration as forced and voluntary. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(6), 981-998.

It gets at the heart of what volition means for human mobility in really difficult circumstances. Even in seemingly impossible situations (e.g. the Syria conflict), some people choose to stay. One of the quotes that I like is "choices must be made not only freely, but also in the context of acceptable alternatives... the perception of acceptable alternatives is shaped by a person's beliefs and access to information. Acceptable alternatives are instrumental to whether a choice is voluntary or not." 

This partly gets at your question whether theories such as NELM (or aspirations and capabilities) have any bearing on choices that refugees / displaced people make.

Anyway, thanks for getting the conversation going!



Alex de Sherbinin, PhD   (he/him/his)
Associate Director, Science Applications Division and Sr. Research Scientist
CIESIN, The Earth Institute at Columbia University
Tel. +1-845-365-8936ORCID and web site


May 13, 2021, 3:10:16 AM5/13/21
to Alex de Sherbinin, Wrathall, David J, PERNSeminars - List, Ellen Percy Kraly, mab...@ut.ac.ir

Dear Ellen, Jalal, Alex and David,


Thanks so much Ellen and Jalal for a very comprehensive and insightful paper.


I appreciate the way you tie in the study of forced migration with existing migration theories.

Given that it is generally difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the demographic breakdown data, I think theories are helpful to help us, at least, predict how demographic differentials in displacement would be.

For instance, if we apply the rule of migration distance, we may expect to see that women, the elderly and children are displaced closer to their place of origin compared to men.


While we see lower number of men in displacement camps in one’s own country, the number of asylum seekers in European countries maybe higher for men since this involves longer distance move. Here the life course approach mentioned in Ellen and Jalal’s paper is also useful. The constraint is, of course, the data that would allow us to follow the same individuals over time.


This is a highly relevant and stimulating seminar. Let’s keep the conversation going!


Best wishes,



Ilan Kelman

May 13, 2021, 6:46:11 AM5/13/21
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Thank you for this stimulating and useful cyberseminar, for the contributions, and for the opportunities to add to the discussion. Some thoughts based on our work:

1. Regarding typologies of displacement, especially connecting environmental and non-environmental influences, we offer https://doi.org/10.1108/DPM-09-2013-0152 and https://doi.org/10.1108/IJCCSM-05-2014-0058 (notably Figure 1).

2. We ought to be appropriately cautious of assumptions about environmental, climate, or climate change refugees existing, because UNHCR's legal definition of "refugee" (irrespective of ongoing discussions and many proposals to change it) does not currently include environmental or climate factors as reasons for claiming or being accorded refugee status https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci8050131

3. When exploring vulnerability--namely the vulnerability process which forces certain groups to become vulnerable--climate change could be placed in appropriate context https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-016-2294-0 and https://doi.org/10.1007/s13753-015-0038-5

4. The term "managed retreat" might convey connotations of violent conflict and surrendering to survive. Possibly more suitable for risk communication while describing actions more accurately is "managed realignment" https://www.icevirtuallibrary.com/doi/abs/10.1680/cmiseam.28487.0006 so that we are working with people affected to manage to most appropriate processes and outcomes for them. Irrespective, we should never assume the impossibility of living with and in water https://doi.org/10.24043/isj.120

Thank you again and looking forward to learning from everyone,



May 13, 2021, 7:02:54 AM5/13/21
to Wrathall, David J, Alex de Sherbinin, PERNSeminars - List
Dear All,
Greetings form sudan ,the hub of east ,west&central africa.this meeting ground also is the sender of both forced migrants by 1st tear ,2nd tear conflicts as well as climate induced and the passage to the Hajj of Muslims accross the Red Sea.Unfortunately,both reseach &Data collection are lagging behind.The IOM team in the country is mostly on humaniterian issues and UNHCR is a model for the formula of creating jobs& services overseas. The government is broke   and those who arrive are  a fuel for traffickers.
Hajhamad (ph.D) social &Human  Development Consultati
ve Group(SAHDCG)
To view this discussion on the web visit https://groups.google.com/a/ciesin.columbia.edu/d/msgid/pernseminars/CAM942zmBSGXN5PNV-vUEn%2BuA-HU%2B14BAck3GefrVFoEkL%2Butog%40mail.gmail.com.


May 17, 2021, 9:30:58 AM5/17/21
to Alex de Sherbinin, Wrathall, David J, PERNSeminars - List

Dear Alex, David and others,



My apologies for joining late the discussion. I wanted to briefly comment on David’s question about applying existing theories of migration to refugee / IDP flows. In general, applying these theories has rarely been done in the refugee literature, both for a lack of appropriate household data (which is often missing in warzone, apart of census data sometimes dating many years / decades prior to the conflict) and general assumptions regarding the causes of flight (related to risks to physical / psychological integrity). In my view, these theories (e.g. NELM and others) can be shed light on displacement processes, but their usefulness is often limited to specific instances.


It is important to keep in mind that the primary drivers of displacement, and in particular mass displacement, is threat to physical (and psychological) integrity. Displacement, thus, tend to occur in relations with changing security circumstances, which put the lives of individuals at immediate risks (e.g, fighting, persecution, ethnic cleansing, or the spread of new information about civilian victimization in nearby locations). To the extent that these developments may occur very rapidly in spatial terms (conflict diffusion, changing behaviors of armed groups), it limits the ability of at-risk populations to plan in advance their departure.


Moreover, flight itself is generally perceived (and certainly is!) a high risk decision in conflict areas, as refugees and  IDPs are often victimized when attempting to leave conflict zones. Armed groups, which generally rely on civilian supports, may actively prevent flight, state actors may be suspicious of the loyalties of displaced persons, sexual and gender-based violence of refugees is frequent, and human trafficking by criminal groups is also a risk. Thus, individuals may often resist fleeing until facing immediate danger. Finally, displacement is often iterative, with few people being able to weight in advance the relative benefits/costs of a given destination. Under this perspective, the explanatory power of migration theories are probably limited.


That being said, existing migration theories may still be useful to understand displacement, by for instance shedding light on who may leave earlier (e.g. the role of wealth in enabling earlier flight). They can also be useful to examine the role of indirect/diffuse hardship due to war on displacement/migration (e.g. economic recession, random bombing/killing). Finally, while the majority of refugees generally find shelter in neighboring countries, living conditions in these countries is frequently challenging. Hence migration, theories may also be useful to understand secondary displacement (e.g. Syrian refugees leaving Turkey to Europe).


I hope this was useful.






Postdoctoral Researcher

Departement of Political Science

University of Geneva

Boulevard du Pont d’Arve 40

1205 Geneve








From: Alex de Sherbinin <adeshe...@ciesin.columbia.edu>

Sent: Wednesday, May 12, 2021 18:19
To: Wrathall, David J <wrat...@oregonstate.edu>
Cc: PERNSeminars - List <pernse...@ciesin.columbia.edu>

PIGUET Etienne

May 17, 2021, 11:59:16 AM5/17/21
to PERNSeminars - List, fabien....@gmail.com, Alex de Sherbinin, Wrathall, David J

Dear all ! I really enjoy this seminar ! For those of you interested in bringing together theories, I found this 2018 paper by Nicholas Van Hear, Oliver Bakewell and Katy Long quite interesting: the case study at the end on Somalis migrating to RSA due to a combination of violence, climate shocks, networks, entrepreneurial/work opportunities , etc… is especially interesting https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2017.1384135. Beside, I have attempted to list some “mainstream” theories that could be applied to “forced/environmental” migration in a chapter of the  Routledge handbook of environmental migration and displacement: https://libra.unine.ch/Publications/Etienne_Piguet/42378

Warmest regards and thanks to the organizers !






Prof. Etienne PIGUET
Institut de Géographie - UNINE

Vice-président CFM/EKM

CH-2000 Neuchâtel / Suisse
Tél. +41 32 7181919 – Bureau 2.S.38


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De : fabien....@gmail.com <fabien....@gmail.com>
Envoyé : lundi, 17 mai 2021 15:16
À : 'Alex de Sherbinin' <adeshe...@ciesin.columbia.edu>; 'Wrathall, David J' <wrat...@oregonstate.edu>

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Objet : RE: [PERN Cyberseminar] A demographic perspective on the role of environmental and climate change on forced migration and population displacement

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