Published on People Move

Shifting population structures and climate change as key drivers of future migration trends

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According to the UN World Population Prospects, the global population is expected to exceed 8.4 billion by 2030 (UN, 2013). This continued population growth will be coupled by shifts in population structures and evolving dynamics of the specific components of demographic change. The impacts of climate change, including sea level rise and evolving temperature and precipitation patterns, will also affect the future migration corridors and migrants stock (Nicholls, 2011). This article argues that the two above phenomena will become the key drivers of global migration trends. With regards to the shifts in population structures, existing evidence suggests that population aging is becoming a major socio-economic challenge, including in EU countries and East Asia. A recent study conducted by OECD (2008) shows that the proportion of people aged 65 or older is projected to double by 2050. Increasing life expectancy combined with below replacement fertility rates imply that within the next two decades a number of countries are likely to experience shortages in labour force. Thus, some traditionally labour sending countries, such as Poland, can expect increased numbers of immigrants, including from the former Soviet Union and Asia. These expected trends have been confirmed by a recent study conducted by EUROSTAT, which states that Europe will become older and more multicultural (Lanzieri, 2011).

As highlighted previously, climate change will increasingly become another key driver of  global migration trends. Climate change has already been proven to be an important pull factor when it comes to migration decisions. For example, in Bangladesh, particularly in the Ganges Brahmaputra delta region, the economic push and pull factors are exacerbated by the impact of natural disasters, salinity intrusion and arsenic contamination. In Bangladesh, between 1976 and 2001, 270 million people were affected by floods and 25 million people were affected by droughts (Reuveny, 2008). Out migration to neighbouring India intensified after the creation of the Farakka Barrage and resulted in clashes amongst ethnic, religious and socioeconomic lines (Reuveny, 2008; Swain, 1996). Similarly, in Vietnam, recent trends show that out migration is highest from the environmentally vulnerable Mekong River Delta region (Figure 1). A growing  body of literature investigates the issues pertaining to “environmental refugees”, despite the fact that UNHCR has thus far failed to include environmental distress into the official refugee definition (Pachauri, 2009). Some projections suggest that the global number of environmental refugees can be as high as 250 million by 2050 (Scheffran, 2012).


These drivers of global migration will be additional to the traditional push factors, including economic disparities and armed conflicts. The increasing complexities in migration dynamics represent important challenges for policy makers at regional, national and global levels. In aging societies, such as OECD countries, migration policies will have to increasingly account for the consequences of demographic change and create transparent migration management systems aimed at attracting the needed labour force. Remittance management schemes will need to be established in order to facilitate transfer of funds and eventually contribute to the human development of sending countries. In the case of environmental vulnerability and climate change, both developed and developing countries will have to adapt novel policy and regulatory approaches so as to mitigate the anticipated consequences of climate. Crucially, all policy initiatives should be founded on human rights based approaches aiming to ensure well-being of the migrant populations.

Lanzieri, G. (2011). Fewer, older and multicultural? Projections of the EU populations by foreign/national background. Luxembourg: European Commission.
Nicholls, R. J. (2011). Planning for the Impacts of Sea Level Rise. Oceanography, 24(2), 144-157.
OECD. (2008). Ageing OECD Societies. Paris: OECD.
Pachauri, R. K. (2009). Facing Global Environmental Change Environmental, Human, Energy, Food, Health and Water Security Concepts Foreword. Facing Global Environmental Change: Environmental, Human, Energy, Food, Health and Water Security Concepts, 4, V-+. doi: 10.1007/978-3-540-68488-6.
Reuveny, R. (2008). Ecomigration and violent conflict: Case studies and public policy implications. Human Ecology, 36(1), 1-13. doi: DOI 10.1007/s10745-007-9142-5
Scheffran, Jürgen. (2012). Climate change, human security and violent conflict : challenges for societal stability. Heidelberg; New York: Springer Verlag.
Swain, A. (1996). Displacing the conflict: Environmental destruction in Bangladesh and ethnic conflict in India. Journal of Peace Research, 33(2), 189-204. doi: 10.1177/0022343396033002005
UN. (2013). World Population Prospects, the 2012 Revision. In U. N. (Ed.).


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