Environmental Migration: Social Work at the Nexus of Climate Change and Global Migration


  • Meredith C. F. Powers University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA, Department of Social Work
  • Cathryne A. Schmitz Department of Social Work University of North Carolina Greensboro Greensboro, NC, USA
  • Christian Z. Nsonwu Department of Social Work University of North Carolina Greensboro Greensboro, NC, USA
  • Manju T. Mathew Women and Gender Studies Program University of North Carolina Greensboro Greensboro, NC, USA




Environmental migrants, climate crisis, indigenous biophilia framework


Environmental migrants are caught at the nexus of the climate crisis and the global migrant crisis. The problems of the migrant crisis are recognized globally as they are linked to the complex issues being addressed by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The complexity of the issues makes it difficult to grasp the breadth and depth of this crisis. As a result, it can be understood as one of the “wicked problems” requiring us to respond through a lens that recognizes the interconnections of humans and the broader ecosystems within the physical surroundings. When approaching the migrant crisis from this perspective, professionals are challenged to create transdisciplinary, community-based response systems which are holistic, multi-pronged, and inclusive of migrants’ voices and strengths. Storytelling provides a venue for highlighting migrants' voices, engaging in change, and creating the space for individual and collective healing. Social workers are increasingly being called upon to become trained in this practice and to engage in complex change systems alongside other disciplines and community members. As they provide prevention, mitigation, resettlement, and relief efforts, social workers become a part of a global community of leaders engaged in transformative change. By working to address these challenges, they are securing a better world not only for environmental migrants, but also for our planet as a whole.

Author Biographies

Meredith C. F. Powers, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA, Department of Social Work

Meredith C. F. Powers, PhD, MSW, is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA. She currently teaches Environmental Justice and serves as a Field Liaison for social work students working with immigrant and refugee populations. Throughout her practice career, she has worked in direct service primarily with immigrant and refugee clients; and in community settings with public education for sustainability, and congregation and community partnership development.

Cathryne A. Schmitz, Department of Social Work University of North Carolina Greensboro Greensboro, NC, USA

Cathryne L. Schmitz (Ph.D., MSW) is a Professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG) who has taught across disciplines, including Women and Gender Studies and Peace Studies. Her teaching and scholarship has focused on critical multiculturalism, identity and culture, analysis of the privilege/oppression nexus, global education, and transformative change. She has focused her teaching and her scholarship toward the centering of marginalized voices.

Christian Z. Nsonwu, Department of Social Work University of North Carolina Greensboro Greensboro, NC, USA

Christian Nsonwu (BSW student, Class of 2018) is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA.  He has worked with the refugee community for several years, as a community resident and now as an  intern at a refugee resettlement agency in Guilford County.

Manju T. Mathew, Women and Gender Studies Program University of North Carolina Greensboro Greensboro, NC, USA

Manju Mathews is Master’s student in Women and gender studies at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I am from India and I have a B.A in Economics and an M.A in International Relation, both of which I acquired from India. Prior to my admission at UNCG I was doing NGO jobs in the field of sexual abuse among women and children at Chandigarh, India.


Author A. (in press).

Author B. (In press).

Author B. (2012).

Author B. (2010).

Author B. (2003).

Alston, M. (2013a). Environmental social work: Accounting for gender in climate disasters. Australian Social Work (special ed.) 66: 218–33.

Atkin, E. (2017, September 20). Even Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was already in environmental despair. Retrieved October 07, 2017, from http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2017/09/climatedesk-now-hammered-by-hurricane-maria-puerto-rico-was-already-in-environmental-despair/

Black, R., Adger, W., Arnell, N. W., Dercon, S., Geddes, A., & Thomas, D. (2011). The effect of environmental change on human migration. Global Environmental Change, 21(1). Pages S3-S11.

Besthorn, F. H. & Meyer, E. (2010). Environmentally displaced persons: Broadening social work’s helping imperative. Critical Social Work, 11(3), Retrieved from http://www.uwindsor.ca/criticalsocialwork/

Bradshaw, T.K. (2006). Theories of poverty and anti-poverty programs in community development. Rural Poverty Research Center. Working Paper Series.

Brown, K., Turner, R. K., Hameed, H., & Bateman, I. (2002, May 10). Environmental carrying capacity and tourism development in the Maldives and Nepal. Environmental Conservation. Retrieved October 05, 2017, from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/environmental-conservation/article/environmental-carrying-capacity-and-tourism-development-in-the-maldives-and-nepal/DC50C550C6E6403C034B77F3292FAB9F

Brown, O. (2008). Climate change and forced migration: Observations, projections and implications. Human Development Report 2007/2008, Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world. Retrieved October 22, 2016 from https://www.iisd.org/pdf/2008/climate_forced_migration.pdf

Cajete, G. (1999) Reclaiming Biophilia: Lessons from Indigenous people. In G.A. Smith, and D.R. Williams (Eds.). Ecological education in action: On weaving education, culture, and the environment (pp. 189-206). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Canty, J. M.(Ed.) (2017). Ecological and social healing: Multicultural women's voices. New York: Routledge.

Carvalho, L.M.V., & Jones, C. (2016). Monsoons and climate change: Observations and modeling. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Deepak, A.C. (2018). Postcolonial feminist social work perspective: additional considerations for immigrant and refugee populations. In A. Hilado & M. Lundy (Eds.), Models for practice with immigrants and refugees: Collaboration, cultural awareness, and integrative theory. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Devore, W., & Schlesinger, E. G. (1998). Ethnic-sensitive social work practice (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Drolet, J. (2017). Forced Migration and the Lived Experiences of Refugees. In M. Rinkel & M. Powers (Eds.). Social work promoting community and environmental sustainability: A workbook for social work practitioners and educators (pp.192-201). Switzerland: International Federation of Social Work (IFSW). (http://ifsw.org/product/books/social-work-promoting-community-and-environmental-sustainability-free-pdf/)

Gamble, D.N. & Weil, M. (2010). Community practice skills: Local to global. New York: Columbia University Press.

Garner, R. (2015, August 25). Warming seas, melting ice sheets. Retrieved October 04, 2017, from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/warming-seas-and-melting-ice-sheets

hooks, b. (2008). Belonging: A Culture of Place. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.

International Organization for Migration (IOM). (2010). Assessing the evidence: Environment, climate change and-migration-in-Bangladesh. https://iom.org.bd/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Environment-ClimateChange-and-Migration-in-Bangladesh-1.pdf. page xiii.

International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW), and International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). (2012). The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development: Commitment to Action. Available at

http://cdn.ifsw.org/assets/globalagenda2012.pdf [accessed 17 November 2015].

International Federation of Social Work (IFSW). (2017). High Level Political Forum 2017, United Nations, New York Workshop to promote Social Workers Role for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Retrieved September 4, 2017 from http://ifsw.org/news/high-level-political-forum-2017-united-nations-new-york-workshop-to-promote-social-workers-role-for-reaching-the-sustainable-development-goals-sdgs/

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2015). Climate change 2014: Mitigation of climate change: Summary for policymakers. Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/WGIIIAR5_SPM_TS_Volume.pdf

International Organization for Migration (IOM). (2015, April 08). Definitional Issues. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from https://www.iom.int/definitional-issues

International Organization for Migration (IOM). (n.d.). Migration and climate change: What are the estimates? Retrieved from https://www.iom.int/migration-and-climate-change-0

International Organization for Migration (IOM). Terminology on migration, environment and climate change. (2015). IOM outlook on migration, environment and climate change, 21-24. doi:10.18356/14b2ac9d-en

Kawagley, A. & Barnhart, R. (1999). Education indigenous to place: Western science meets Native reality. In G.A. Smith & R.W. Dilafruz. Ecological education in action: On weaving education, culture, and the environment (pp. 117-140). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Kelley, C. P., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M. A., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,112(11), 3241-3246. doi:10.1073/pnas.1421533112

Kolko, J. (2012). Wicked problems: Problems worth solving. Austin, TX: Austin Center for Design.

Lederach, J.P, & Lederach, A.J. (2010). When blood and bones cry out: Journeys through the soundscape of healing and reconciliation. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.

Lie, G.-Y., & Lowery, C. T. (2003). Cultural competence with women of color. In D. Lum (Ed.), Culturally competent practice: A framework for understanding diverse groups and justice issues (2nd ed., pp. 282–309). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Lysack, M. (2010). Environmental decline, loss, and Biophilia:

Fostering commitment in environmental citizenship. Critical Social

Work, 11(3), 48-66.

Maathai, W. (2003, March). The Green belt movement: Sharing the approach and the experience. New York, NY: Lantern Books.

Maathai, W. (n.d). Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/117297.Wangari_Maathai

Orr, D. W. (2004). Earth in mind: On education, environment, and the human prospect. DC: Island Press.

Orr, D. W. (2011). Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Packer, R. K. (n.d.). How long can the average person survive without water? Retrieved October 04, 2017, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-can-the-average/

Parenti, C. (2011). Tropic of chaos: Climate change and the new geography of violence. New York: Nation Books.

Parry, M., Canziani, O., Palutikof, J., Linden, P. V., & Hanson, C. (2007). Climate change 2007 - impacts, adaptations and vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II. Edited by M. Parry and others. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rabb, H. (2017). Sustainable wellbeing and social work with children: Promoting our connectedness with nature through Nature- Assisted interventions. In M. Rinkel & M. Powers (Eds). Social work promoting community and environmental sustainability: A workbook for social work practitioners and educators (pp.133-145). Switzerland: International Federation of Social Work (IFSW). (http://ifsw.org/product/books/social-work-promoting-community-and-environmental-sustainability-free-pdf/)

Reuters and The Associated Press. (2017, April 16). Hundreds feared buried in Sri Lanka rubbish dump landslide. Retrieved October 06, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/16/hundreds-feared-buried-in-sri-lanka-rubbish-dump-landslide

Senehi, J. (2002). Constructive storytelling: A peace process. Peace and Conflict Studies, 9(2), 41-63.

Senehi, J., Flaherty, M., Kirupakaran, C.S., Kornelsen, L., Matenge, M., & Skarlato, O. (2009). Dreams of our grandmothers: Discovering the call for social justice through storytelling. Storytelling, Self, Society: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Storytelling Studies, 5(2).

Soylu, A. & Buchanon, T.A. (2013). Ethnic and racial discrimination against immigrants. Journal of Business and Economics. 4(9). 8548-858l.

Spurlin, W. J. (2010). Resisting heteronormativity/resisting recolonisation: Affective bonds between indigenous women in southern Africa and the difference(s) of postcolonial feminist history. Feminist Review, 95(95), 10-26.

Strides in Development. (2010, July 9). Wangari Maathai & the green belt movement. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=BQU7JOxkGvo

Sustainable Human . (2014, February 13). How Wolves Change Rivers. Retrieved October 07, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysa5OBhXz-Q

Tangata Whenua Social Workers Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (TWSWAANZ). (2016, November 25). Social workers stand in solidarity with indigenous communities and protesters protecting their environments from exploitation. Retrieved October 06, 2017, from http://ifsw.org/news/ifsw-stands-in-solidarity-with-indigenous-communities-and-protestors-protecting-their-environments-from-exploitation/

Truell, R. (2016, December 9). Towards a social work rights framework. Retrieved October 06, 2017, from http://ifsw.org/news/towards-a-social-work-rights-framework/

UN Environment. (2016, June 20). Climate change refugees: A catastrophe of our own creation. Retrieved October 04, 2017, from https://medium.com/@UNEP/climate-change-refugees-a-catastrophe-of-our-own-creation-8e45c5c96e68

UN Trust Fund for Human Security. (n.d.). Human security: Building resilience to climate threats. Retrieved October 4, 2017, from http://www.un.org/humansecurity/sites/www.un.org.humansecurity/files/human_security_and_climate_change.pdf

United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). (2009). Climate change, natural disasters and human displacement: a UNHCR perspective. Retrieved from www.unhcr.org/4901e81a4.html

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2010, December). Convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees. Retrieved September 30, 2017, from http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2016, November 6). Frequently asked questions on climate change and disaster displacement. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/latest/2016/11/581f52dc4/frequently-asked-questions-climate-change-disaster-displacement.html)

United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). (2017, June 19). Figures at a glance. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

United Nations Human Rights. (2017). Speak up, stop discrimination: Combatting discrimination against migrants. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Discrimination/Pages/discrimination_migrants.aspx

United Nations Women Watch. (2009). Women, gender equality and climate change. Retrieved October 4, 2017, from http://www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/climate_change/downloads/Women_and_Climate_Change_Factsheet.pdf

US Commission on Civil Rights. (2010). The impact of illegal immigration on the wages and employment opportunities of black workers: a briefing before the United States Commission on Civil Rights held in Washington, DC., August 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

US Environmental Protection Agency. (2016, August 02). Climate change indicators: Weather and climate. Retrieved October 04, 2017, from https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/weather-climate

Welch, C. (2015, March 02). Climate change helped spark Syrian War, study says. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/03/150302-syria-war-climate-change-drought/

Weng, S. S., & Lee, J. S. (2016). Why Do Immigrants and refugees give back to their communities and what can we learn from their civic engagement? VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27(2), 509–524.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our common future. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.