Tackling COVID-19 and Climate Change in Unison Will Help Us Better Protect People on the Move

This article is part of a United Nations University Migration Network series that explores the interrelations and acute challenges of migration, climate change, and COVID-19. As a build-up to International Migrants Day on 18 December 2020, the series examines these connections at local and global levels, highlights impacts on migrants, and provides evidence-based insights for United Nations member states, governments, and policymakers.


The COVID-19 pandemic gives us a stark image of what a world looks like when health is threatened on a global scale. Life as we once knew it has come to a standstill. When we do overcome this pandemic, however, the health and well-being impacts of climate change, will continue. The 2020 Lancet Countdown report published earlier this month shows how climate change is leading to immediate, profound, and worsening health impacts across the world. Bringing together 120 scientists from various research fields, and covering 43 global indicators, the report reveals how no country is immune, but also how some populations (such as people on the move) will suffer more than others.

I have been part of the Lancet Countdown since its very beginning and I currently work with the sub-working group focusing on human migration in a warming world. We estimate that, based on current population data, 145 million people will be exposed to potential inundation with global mean sea-level rise of one metre. The amount of people exposed jumps to 565 million with a five-metre sea-level rise scenario.

Unless we act now, we will be able to observe how more and more vulnerable people face further disruptions to their livelihoods and lives. We do not have the luxury of tackling one crisis at a time. The health harms of climate change are compounding the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Extreme weather events and climatic changes are displacing people at the same time as the pandemic. Adding to this, both climate change and COVID-19 exacerbate existing social inequalities within and between countries. We cannot afford to focus attention only on the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of climate action.

A globally coordinated effort tackling COVID-19 and climate change will also mean a triple win: better public health, a more sustainable economy, and environmental protection. Unless the global COVID-19 recovery is aligned with the response to climate change, we will fail to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement and in the Sustainable Development Goals. Taking action to address climate change offers a way to protect the health and well-being of vulnerable people on the move now and in the future.

People on the move during the pandemic

It is still too early to get a good picture of how the pandemic has impacted people on the move, whether displaced in their own countries or seeking refuge elsewhere. That said, in our recently published article we give an overview of what we do know. We know that people seeking work in the cites, after being unable to sustain themselves through natural resource-based livelihoods (such as fishing and farming), often settle down in slums upon their arrival. In these informal settlements, migrants often reside in overcrowded spaces while struggling with fragile healthcare systems and lacking basic infrastructure such as access to water and sanitation.

About a billion people around the world, including approximately 30–50% of the urban population in the global South, live in slums. This is also where many internally displaced people end up. Imposing lockdowns in these areas can leave millions of people stranded without livelihood opportunities or food. We also know that migrants sometimes are not entitled to support services available to other citizens, and conflict-traumatised refugee populations often do not trust or seek help from the official authorities when feeling unwell.

Fear among refugees in regards to COVID-19 is also spreading due to misinformation. For example, one Rohingya refugee in the world’s largest refugee camp located in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh stated that ‘If anyone gets infected, the authority has to kill her/him. Because if (s)he stays alive, the virus will transfer to another person’s body.’ In this way, fear and stigma among the Rohingya refugees result in people avoiding to seek care as well as infected people being denied treatment.

Many informal workers, such as this vendor in Bangladesh, were left without social protection schemes as countries went into COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: © Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson / UNU.

Where do we go from here?

The year 2020 will forever be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important that we remember this brutal lesson, but also that the pandemic represents a new beginning. People on the move must be safeguarded throughout the pandemic as well as after. We must unite together in these efforts and refuse to let ultra-vulnerable people be pushed aside. We need to pay more attention to human rights violations, not simply those forcing people to flee, but also those that follow in the footsteps of people on the move — whether it is through the denial of basic health services, water, food, and sanitation, or the intensified justification of hostile treatment and removal of asylum seekers.

It is more important than ever that we ensure that people do not end up in situations where their health and safety are not guaranteed. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us it is that the risk to one person’s well-being can be a slippery slope towards putting us all at risk. The recommendations long made by human rights and sustainable living frameworks would have reduced the spread of this deadly virus. Ensuing that we ‘build back better’, and create a more sustainable future for people on the move, will benefit us all!