Global migration and the complex interplay between environmental and social factors

By Venla Niva, DSc researcher with the Water and Development Research Group, School of Engineering, Aalto University, Finland

Venla Niva shares insights from a recent article exploring the interplay of environmental and social factors behind human migration. The project was carried out in collaboration with Raya Muttarak from the IIASA Population and Just Societies Program.

© Irina Nazarova |

Environmental migration has gained increasing attention in the past years, with recent climate reports and policy documents highlighting an increase in environmental refugees and migrants as one of the potential effects of the warming globe. Policymaking is dominated by a narrative that portrays environmental migration as a security threat to the “Global North”. Meanwhile, researchers around the world have put enormous efforts into understanding environmental migration and what is driving it. Yet, the causes and effects of environmental migration remain under debate.

In our latest paper, we extend the understanding of environmental migration by looking into how environmental and societal factors interacted in places of excess out- or in-migration between 1990 and 2000. We found that understanding these interactions is key for understanding migration drivers. Ultimately, migration is based on human decision-making, and in our view “simply cannot and should not be studied without the inclusion of the societal dimension: human capacity and agency.” Our findings were both expected and, to a certain degree, surprising.

Our results show that the majority of global migration takes place in areas with rather similar profiles. It is known that migration mostly occurs over short distances, and that internal migration – in other words, people moving around in their own country – outplays international migration – people moving between countries – by significant numbers globally. This, however, shows that the characteristics of these areas are alike too. High environmental stress coupled with low-to-moderate human capacity characterized these areas at both ends of migration. Such characteristics portray a combination of variables with a high degree of drought and water risks, natural hazards, and food insecurity, but low levels of income, education, health, and governance.

We found that income was the best variable to explain the variation of net-negative and net-positive migration in around half of the countries, globally, confirming that income is a good predictor of migration. This is interesting in two ways. According to traditional migration theories, income disparity between regions is seen as the primary driver for migration. Yet, income only dominated the other variables in half of the countries we examined. Education and health were especially important in areas with more out-migration than in-migration. Drought and water risks were important explaining factors in many countries, but were outranked by societal factors such as income, health, education, and governance in the majority of countries.

In light of our research, we would like to point out that it is unlikely that environmental factors alone would be responsible for migration. Instead, the role of human agency is vital. Investments in building human capacity have two-fold benefits: First, higher human capacity facilitates not only local adaptation to changes in the environment, but also adaptation at the destination in case of migrating. Second, protecting ecosystems and the environment helps to mitigate and adapt to climate and environmental change in areas with high environmental stress, which is again crucial for maintaining livelihoods and a good life at both ends of migration.

Environmental migration is often portrayed by the media as a catastrophic phenomenon. Our study confirms that migration drivers are a result of the interactions between socioeconomic and environmental factors and that human capacity plays a central role in both enabling the migration process and adaptation at the place of destination.

Further info:

Niva, V., Kallio, M., Muttarak, R., Taka, M., Varis, O., & Kummu, M. (2021). Global migration is driven by the complex interplay between environmental and social factors. Environmental Research Letters DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ac2e86. []

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.


By Leena Ilmola-Sheppard, senior researcher in the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program.

Leena Ilmola-Sheppard discusses the value of employing novel research methods aimed at producing fast results to inform policies that address immediate problems like the current COVID-19 pandemic.

© Alberto Mihai |

As researchers, the majority of our work – even if it is applied research – requires deep insight and plenty of reading and writing, which sometimes takes years. When we initiate a new method development project, for example, we never know if it will eventually prove to be useful in real life, except on very rare occasions when we are willing to step out of our academic comfort zones and explore if we are able to address the challenges that decision makers are faced with right now.

I would like to encourage my colleagues and our network to try and answer the call when decision makers ask for our help. It however requires courage to produce fast results with no time for peer review, to explore the limits of our knowledge and capabilities of our tools, and to run the risk of failure.

I share two examples with you in this blog. The first one describes a situation that played out years ago, while the second one is happening today.

When the first signs of a potential refugee crisis became visible late in 2014, the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office contacted the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program (ASA) and asked whether we could produce an analysis for them. The ASA team had an idea to develop a new method for qualitative systems analysis based on an application of causal-loop-diagrams and we decided to test the approach with an expert team of 14 people from different Finnish ministries. I have to admit that the process was not exactly the best example of rigorous science, but it was able to produce results in only eight weeks.

“Experts that participated in the process from the government side accepted that the process was a pilot and exploratory in nature. In the end, the group was however able to develop a shared language for the different aspects of the refugee situation in Finland. The method produced comprised a shared understanding of the events and their interdependencies and we were able to assess the systemic impact of different policies, including unintended consequences. That was a lot in that situation,” said Sari Löytökorpi, Secretary General and Chief Specialist of the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office when reflecting on that experience recently.

The second case I want to describe here is the current coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 virus reached Finland at the end of January when a Chinese tourist was diagnosed. The first fatality in Finland was recorded on 20 March. This time, the challenge we are presented with is to look beyond the pandemic. The two research questions presented to us by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Economic Affairs are: ‘How can the resilience of the national economy be enhanced in this situation?’ and secondly ‘What will the world look like after the pandemic?’

Pekka Lindroos, Director of Foresight and Policy Planning in the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs is confident, “We know that the pandemic will have a huge impact on the economy. The global outcome of current national policy measures is a major unknown and traditional economic analysis is not able to cover the dynamics of the numerous dimensions of the rupture. That is why we are exploring a combination of novel qualitative analysis and foresight methods with researchers in the IIASA ASA Program.”

I have been working on the implementation of the systems perspective to the coronavirus situation with a few close colleagues around the world who are experts in resilience and risk. We were able to deliver the first report on Friday, 27 March. Among other things, it emphasized the role of social capital and society’s resilience. A more detailed report is currently in production.

A simple systems map (causal loop diagram) representing a preliminary understanding of the world after COVID-19 from a one country perspective.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.