Perceptions of environmental change and migration decisions


While climate change is projected to increase displacement of people, knowledge on this issue remains limited and fragmented. In his paper we focus on the micro-level and study the effects of individual perceptions of different types of environmental events (i.e., sudden/short-term vs. slow-onset/long-term) on migration decisions. Our results based on newly collected micro-level survey data from Vietnam shows that while slow-onset environmental events, such as droughs, significantly decrease the likelihood of migration, short-term events, such as floods, are positively related to migration, although not in a statistically significant way. When contrasting individual level perceptions with actual climatic events we observe that migrants and non-migrants perceive both long-term as well as sudden-onset environmental events in different ways. While non-migrants are slightly better in judging the actual extremeness of events such as floods and hurricanes, it is the migrants who are slightly better in judging the actual extremeness in the case of droughts.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    We use the term “environmental migration” as relating to persons who are displaced primarily for environmental reasons; see Dun and Gemenne (2008) for a discussion on the definition of environmental migration.

  2. 2.

    While there exists research that shows that environmental change can lead to international migration (Nawrotzki et al. 2015a; Nawrotzki et al. 2013; Gray and Bilsborrow 2013), in this paper, we focus on internal migration because there is strong consensus in the literature that most migration flows associated with environmental factors are of an internal nature (Hunter et al. 2015: 3; Foresight 2011).

  3. 3.

    For a much larger review of the existing literature, see: Foresight Migration and Global Environmental Change (2011). For a literature review on the modeling of environmental migration, see McLeman (2012) and Piguet (2010).

  4. 4.

    Furthermore, the decision whether to migrate or to stay and adapt in the presence of environmental change should not depend on whether this decision is taken by an individual or as a household strategy. As we argue below certain environmental events, such as hurricanes, should be so severe that adaption is hardly possible. Other events, such as droughts, should allow for adaption and existing bonds to individuals’ original location should keep both individuals and their entire household at their current location. Having said that we acknowledge the possibility that in the context of these slow-onset events households might want to send individual members to other locations to increase/supplement their family income. In our data, however, this phenomenon does not seem to play a crucial role.

  5. 5.

    This corresponds to about one billion Euro.

  6. 6.

    This sampling method is frequently used in sociological studies of such hidden populations (Laczko and Aghazarm 2009).

  7. 7.

    The response rate for the non-migrants was 76.6 % (783 contacted, 600 interviewed) and for the migrants 65.43 % (917 contacted, 600 interviewed). It is important to note that we do not look at forced migration.

  8. 8.

    In the Appendix to this paper we provide further regression models including other variables, for example a respondents’ profession. Furthermore, we show that our results are robust to excluding those migrants who did not migrate within the last five years but before, which might induce the so-called recall bias. We also show that our results are robust to controlling for the time since an individual has left her former location.

  9. 9.

    Since two respondents did not answer the question whether a household member has already migrated our estimations are based on 1198 observations instead of 1200.

  10. 10.

    We used GPS coordinates to map interviewees’ present and former location.


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Correspondence to Vally Koubi.

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Koubi, V., Stoll, S. & Spilker, G. Perceptions of environmental change and migration decisions. Climatic Change 138, 439–451 (2016).

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  • Environmental Event
  • Standardize Precipitation Index
  • Migration Decision
  • Environmental Perception
  • Actual Extremeness