Centre for Sustainable Development Studies (CSDS)

Drought in the Horn of Africa

Are we making progress with labeling climate migration?

13 April 2017

There is still much academic debate about the precise (legal) definition for climate migration. However, considering the fact that millions of people are expected to be affected by climate change induced migration, we need to consider the implications of labeling “climate migration”, “environmental displacement” and “climate refugees”, when these terms are still so vaguely defined.

Food insecurity is increasing rapidly in the Horn of Africa as a result of drought. In fact, in January 2017, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that close to 12 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are in need of food assistance.  In addition, millions of families across South Sudan, Northeast Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Uganda have faced the consequences of extreme drought. A pre-famine alert has been issued for Somalia only 6 years after the 2011 famine took the lives of 260,000 people. Unfortunately this is not new, and similar droughts that have been caused by El Niño, have been hitting the headlines on a yearly basis.

Needless to say, drought and food insecurity is a significant development challenge due to the risk of malnutrition, loss of livestock, and the immense increases in maize and bean prices. Extreme drought can also exacerbate disease outbreaks due to poor access to water and sanitation, which can further challenge people’s capacity to cope after repeated climate shocks.

Drought, food insecurity and conflict are also a risky recipe for climate migration. According to the UNHCR (2017), 438,000 people have migrated within Somalia since November. In March alone there were 187,000 newly recorded migrants as a result of the drought. In addition, 4,000 Somalis, from Middle Juba, Bay and Gedo regions crossed into Ethiopia. Women and children make up the largest group of migrants. In search for water and grazing land, 30,000 Kenyans have migrated to Uganda, were they are at risk of confrontations between armed pastoralists and Ugandans in Karamoja (OCHA, 2017).

“Climate migrant”, “environmentally displaced person” and “climate refugee” are terms that are frequently popping up in the media. Are we making progress? Are people recognizing that climate change really is and will continue to have a devastating impact on millions of people across the globe? Despite the fact that there is still much academic debate about the precise (legal) definition for climate migration, we really can no longer deny that climate change is leading to increased migration and displacement. 

However, what are the implications of labeling “climate migration”, “environmental displacement” and “climate refugees”, while the terms are still so vaguely defined?  Nicholson (2011) argues that “it is worth considering that, implicitly, the discourse on ‘environmental migration’ is an acknowledgement of a failure of adaptation.” According to Nicholson (2011), this discourse could ultimately lead to the abandonment of mitigation policies and increased investment in adaptation. This approach would exacerbate the impacts of climate change in the long run. Additionally, Black (2001) points out that in many northern states, anti-asylum lobbies have used the concept “environmental refugees” to argue that many of those claiming asylum are in fact “environmental refugees” or “bogus-asylum seekers”, as they do not officially have the right to claim asylum.

While thousands of people are crossing regional and national borders as a result of the drought in the Horn of Africa, there is still ongoing debate on the essence of the term “climate migration”. As the term is being used with increasing frequency, it is critical that we stay wary of the different political agendas that certain actors may have while using the term. 


Written by CSDS Intern Roos Groen

Published by  AISSR