The most common popular narrative about climate change and migration suggests a scenario where migrants travel long distances, driven solely or primarily by climate impacts, and raise the risk of violent conflict in their destinations.
This simplistic and inaccurate portrayal of the issue has rightly been challenged. But even though it misses the mark, there are reasons to examine the relationship between these dynamics closely. Migration in the context of climate change, disasters and environmental degradation could add pressure to weak governance systems and increase the risk of fragility. In turn, this could hamper efforts for development and peacebuilding, which, going further down the causal chain, could complicate the security environment.
Most experts agree that migration can be an important adaptation mechanism, allowing communities to improve livelihoods and reduce the risk of being directly impacted by disasters, food insecurity and other climate impacts. But migration can also have maladaptive effects on both source communities and destination communities.
According to François Gemenne, Executive Director of the Politics of the Earth programme at Sciences Po in Paris and an expert in environment and migration, “we need to realize that any kind of migration will have an impact on the vulnerability of the communities of origin, of the communities at destination, and of the migrants themselves”.
These effects can be hard to untangle. For example, remittances – money that migrant communities send home – can reduce vulnerability and alleviate local pressure on natural resources. But out-migration can also drain a community of its younger, stronger and wealthier members, decreasing community resilience.
Similarly, migration can provide destination communities with additional workforce, knowledge and revenue. But an influx of migrants can also have a destabilizing effect on markets, or raise tensions over scarce housing, jobs and services. If migrants can access assistance that isn’t available to people in the places where they move to, that can also cause friction. If these tensions are not managed effectively they can create a sense of grievance and impact social cohesion. Such problems can be particularly acute in weak or fragile states.
Urban areas in developing countries are also of particular concern. They are the most likely destinations for migrants experiencing pressure on rural livelihoods, whether as a result of water stress, other climate impacts or for any other reason. Many urban areas already face considerable socio-economic, governance and infrastructure challenges, which can place new migrants in precarious living situations. Coastal megacities such as Lagos and Accra, for example, host marginal settlements located in floodplains. These communities face multiple hazards from sea level rise and extreme weather, on top of existing youth bulges and security challenges. Migrants may be more exposed to these hazards and have limited adaptive capacity, which increases their vulnerability.
It is worth looking at both the positive and negative aspects of climate migration when developing strategies to address the compound risks that can increase fragility. There are several noteworthy projects examining how to maximise the potential for migration to increase resilience, and minimise negative impacts.
The TransRe project examines climate change, migration and social resilience in rural villages in Thailand. It focuses on the potential benefits of climate-linked migration as a source of social resilience-building. It is gathering empirical data on knowledge and resource flows in networked and interconnected communities, which could result in migrants being better able to sustain their livelihoods and well-being.
A joint EU/IOM project – Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Evidence for Policy (MECLEP) – aims to formulate policy options on how migration can contribute to adaptation strategies for climate and environmental change. It seeks to create new datasets to address the lack of quantitative data in this field, which “Will really allow us to have a quantitative idea of the impacts of vulnerability and adaptation”, according to François Gemenne, the project’s Global Research Coordinator.
To situate migration studies in the context of current climate science, the High-End Climate Impacts and Extremes project (HELIX) creates climate impact scenarios for 4°C and 6°C of warming, given the unlikelihood of achieving the 2°C target. The migration and human security component of HELIX will project future migration scenarios in Africa and South Asia using socio-economic models.
On the policy side, the Nansen Initiative is working to address the gap in legal protection for people displaced across international borders in the context of disasters and climate impacts (the misnamed “climate refugees”). It aims to build consensus on how to approach the issue, and advocates integrating human mobility issues into national adaptation plans, alongside other initiatives to improve preparation for inevitable population movements related to slow- or rapid-onset disasters.
Although these studies are still underway, they point toward policies that facilitate migration as an adaptation mechanism and support the potential of migration flows to increase resilience, while also taking measures to minimize negative consequences. They make it clear that to achieve this goal, improving the capacity of destination communities to manage in-migration and reduce migrants’ vulnerability will be paramount.
These measures could include improving basic service provision, facilitating migrants’ access to these services, mitigating competition and tensions between host communities and recent arrivals, improving disaster response capabilities, improving mechanisms to address grievances and supporting participatory democracy and consultative planning with migrant populations. Further developing and implementing these tools will be an important part of the agenda for managing complex risks associated with the population movements that are inevitable in the context of climate change.