Migrants as Agents of Peace: Harnessing Economic Migration for Conflict Mitigation in South Asia


As the world grapples with the devastating impacts of climate change, migration is emerging as a critical issue that is shaping the global landscape. Climate change induced migration, or climate migration, was responsible for 32.6 million internally displaced people in 2022. An estimated 281 million people, or 3.6 percent of the global population, lived in a foreign country in 2020. The issue is aggravated as climate induced displacement also acts as a conflict threat multiplier, which can lead to an increase in both conflict onset and duration. Migration effectively acts as the intermediate factor that links climate change and conflicts.

The situation is particularly dire in South Asia. Coastal states in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh face imminent flooding risks while landlocked areas of Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal tackle with sharp increases in temperatures, droughts, and glacial melting. Over 700 million people in the region have already been affected by extreme and slow-onset climate disasters. As a result, 40 percent of India's rural population is projected to migrate to urban centers in the next 13 years and 22 percent of households in Bangladesh affected by tidal surges are relocating to cities like Dhaka and Chittagong. If unchecked migration continues to grow without proper policy, it can lead to resource competitions and deepening of grievances, creating new opportunities for conflict. 

However, despite this bleak picture, it is important to remember that migration is not a simple forced whole-sale outpouring of people that always leads to increased unrest. It can also be an adaptation strategy that reduces vulnerability, thereby helping mitigate conflicts. In particular, economic migration can have a positive impact on dissent. 

Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict Pathways

Migration in response to climate impacts may range from forced displacement in the face of life-threatening risks to a proactive adaptation strategy. In societies marked by high vulnerability, individuals with limited adaptability often find themselves geographically trapped. In such cases, select family members move voluntarily to cities, with the aim of supporting those stuck back home. Others who are unable to move opt for in-situ adaptation and focus on bolstering resilience through ecosystem-based or community-based adaptations. Such strategies make groups better equipped to address grievances and vulnerabilities. Moreover, any remittances sent back home by migrants further help to compensate for income losses at home.

Another case is when people are forced to relocate due to habitat degradation. These climate disaster migrants are inherently vulnerable and lack organizational capacity, making them ill-suited for conflict instigation. As temporary refugees, they are also less likely to compete for local resources, thus reducing the likelihood of dissent. Additionally, climate disaster migrants often have access to external humanitarian aid, which raises the cost of participation in fighting, as people weigh the benefits and income forgone if a person were to join.

The last scenario, and the most often discussed one, is of large-scale climate-driven mass displacement. This typically only occurs in extreme cases of habitat loss and when people also have the capacity to resettle permanently. This is also the least common adaptation strategy. Such migration can heighten the risk of conflicts as permanent climate refugees face resource competition and economic challenges. In resource-scarce regions, competition over arable land, food, and water with locals can intensify conflict risks. 

Migrants as Agents of Development

The different kinds of migration show that there is no direct and linear connection between migration, climate change, and conflict, and that migration can also be used as tool to build resilience. Economic migrants, in particular, can act as powerful agents of peace and development. In 2020, remittances by diaspora were as high as $702 billion, a 460 percent increase from 2000. These offer crucial financial support, bolstering the sustainability of communities and reducing their susceptibility to conflicts. South Asia provides a case where both the adverse and advantageous impacts of migration are evident.

In 2020, the number of climate refugees people exceeded 18 million in the sub-continent, with projections suggesting a potential increase to over 37.4 million by 2030. Given the existing threat of terrorism in the region, this raises concerns about further radicalization. However, diaspora financial transfers to home countries have proven to be an effective means of combating new climate vulnerabilities. Remittances constituted over 27 percent of Nepal's GDP, nearly 8 percent in Pakistan, and 8 percent in Sri Lanka in 2019. South Asia accounted for nearly 20 percent of all global remittances.

Targeted policies supporting economic migrants can harness these positive aspects. To address the intricate challenges of climate-induced displacement, it is imperative to establish institutional frameworks that facilitate organized migration in affected communities. This requires a comprehensive approach at the national and international levels.

Supporting Economic Migration

At a national level, countries must integrate internal migration into the broader climate adaptation efforts. Many of the states in South Asia have some climate resilience policies but they are insufficient. India’s national climate action plan is lacking in clarity while Pakistan’s climate migration and agriculture policies have seen little to no implementation. Others like Bangladesh have no overarching national climate strategy. Addressing problematic public policies that exacerbate the climate stressors, such as the use of flood irrigation and water-intensive crops in India and Pakistan, is of utmost importance as well. National policies also need to actively assist people to gain work opportunities and social protection, as well as access to basic services like education and housing.

On the international level, there is a need for increased humanitarian assistance and legal strategies for income-diversification for those affected by natural disasters. This includes increasing legal pathways to facilitate movement in order to support labor migration. Despite developed countries relying heavily on immigrant labor, there is little harmonization in their policies on migration. Development aid, humanitarian relief, migration, and refugee protection policies all need to be made more consistent and coherent. Initiatives aimed at liberalizing labor mobility and facilitating the flow of remittances need to be actively pursued. Another option is to encourage circular migration, whereby people relocate seasonally for work and move back home in a cyclical manner. Relocation can be planned and supported by analyzing the demand for migrant skills in particular sectors and regions. Such movement can help plan for migration and ensure that environmentally vulnerable populations have access to diversified livelihoods. It also relieves the burden on host regions from permanent migrants and reduces resource pressures on regions of migration origin.

Additionally, as individuals flock to urban centers in search of alternative livelihood sources beyond pastoralism and agriculture, it is essential to reallocate resources toward smaller cities and secondary migration centers. Creating new employment opportunities can help avert overcrowding in major cities like Dhaka as well as promote infrastructure construction and development. This can also alleviate human rights issues of questionable working conditions for vulnerable migrants, such as women employed in garment factories in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Developing climate-resilient secondary cities offers a promising opportunity to diversify South Asian economies and bridge the rural-urban gap.

Lastly, aid organizations must focus on preparing for shifting patterns of human mobility and allocate resources to support areas that are already seeing influxes of migrants. Effective pre-migration planning should place a high priority on assisting migrants to gain housing, income, and essential services like WASH. Collaboration among regional entities and civil society organizations is essential to formulate unified policies and responses that adhere to international human rights standards.


The intricate relationship between climate change, migration, and conflict demands a multifaceted approach at both the national and international levels. The impact of climate-induced migration varies from forced displacement to voluntary economic migration and in-situ adaptation, with each presenting different dynamics in terms of conflict risk. It is crucial to recognize the potential positive aspects of migration, particularly economic migration, which can act as a catalyst for peace and development. The growing number of climate refugees, especially in South Asia, calls for comprehensive development policies that address climate stressors, support access to work opportunities and social protection, and ensure basic services for migrants.

Sarosh Sultan

Research Intern, CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development