Climate change and migration are two issues that we hear a lot about in the media. But what is the relationship between them? How many people are affected? And what should we call those who migrate in the aftermath of climatic changes and disasters?
In The Big Climate Movement, three experts and eight young climate activists from seven countries dissect the complex interactions between migration and climate change. Across 12 bite-sized videos, Dr. Caroline Zickgraf, Dr. François Gemenne and Dr. Yvonne Su dive into the key issues and debates in both academic and public discourse. They address common misconceptions about the number of people on the move, the labels we use to describe them, who is responsible for their protection, and where most migration takes place. Climate activists weigh in to share their experiences of activism and the impact of climate change in their countries. This series is part of Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange and was funded by the European Commission.
The Big Climate Movement is aimed at anyone interested in climate change, migration or the relationship between the two. The series can be used in educational contexts ranging from secondary schools and universities to workshops, events, and even teacher and journalist trainings. All episodes are freely available for non-commercial use under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license. The full series can be found on YouTube but if you would like to request the native files, please write to Migration Matters at [email protected]. It is also available with German, French and Arabic subtitles.
The content in this series is based on extensive academic research and reports by organizations such as the United Nations, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the Nansen Initiative/Platform on Disaster Displacement. The experts interviewed also reference their own research in a vast array of countries. Dr. François Gemenne is the Director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège and Dr. Caroline Zickgraf is the Observatory’s Deputy Director. Dr. Yvonne Su is Assistant Professor of Refugee & Diaspora Studies at York University.
Understanding the Interactions Between Climate Change and Migration
This video introduces the theme and argues that climate change will change conditions of migration rather than the levels of migration.Further, many people still view climate change as a future crisis, whereas many communities are currently affected by climate change. There is also injustice in climate change, wherein the global north has contributed significantly to greenhouse gasemissions, and the Global South suffers from these emissions. It is also important to avoid sensationalism of migration (painting skewed versions, which overwhelm readers and dehumanize migrants). This sensationalism plays on fears to stimulate action, purporting the idea that “if you don’t want migrants, you must do something about climate change.” However, this thought process does not protect people nor spur action.
Migration and mobility are multicausal. While climate is a factor in people’s decision to migrate, it isn’t the only factor. Social, political, economic, environmental, and demographic (SPEED) factors are also drivers for migration; however, climate change is a threat multiplier and therefore impacts all of these drivers. It is also important to note that the image often illustrated, that migration primarily takes place from the Global South to the Global North, is incorrect, as internal displacement is much more significant than cross-border displacement.
South and Southeast Asia are the most impacted regions in the world and experience the most displacement as a result of climate change. This is because these regions are the most densely populated, hit most by disasters, and lack the infrastructure to protect against disasters. Further, livelihoods in the Global South are very dependent on the environment; therefore, a change in the environment will severely impact these groups, which may lead to migration for economic reasons. This illustrates the interlinkage of the drivers of migration.
There is an inherent obsession with quantifying migration. Quantifying is difficult to do because, (1) there is no accepted definition of an environmental migrant or climate migrant; (2) people won’t say climate change is why they move, as there is a multitude of reasons why people move, which makes it difficult to link; and (3) it’s difficult to predict human behavior and the choice to migrate. Predictable numbers are displacement numbers (e.g., floods, typhoons). In 2019, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center recorded 24.9 million new internal displacements from disasters; however, this doesn’t account for slow-onset impacts and climate change (sea-level rise, coastal erosion). Compared to the number of people displaced annually by conflict, three times as many are displaced by disasters. However, it’s important to move beyond numbers because people who migrate will migrate for other reasons which we are unable to control.
There are multiple terms used in the climate change and migration context: climate migrants, climate displacees, climate-induced displacement, people on the move because of climate change, climate-induced mobility, and so on. Most notably, there is the contention in the use of “climate refugees.”
Climate refugees as a taboo label: while this is the most common label for people who move because of climate change, academic circles reject its use because of the multicausality of migration, so using the term climate refugee implies that the person moving is moving only because of climate change. Further, there is no legal recognition of the term as “climate” is not included in the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Climate refugee as an important label:using this term to identify people on the move because of climate change is important because it emphasizes the political situations that are taking place. It puts the onus on states who aren’t taking action on climate change and applies pressure for states to take action to mitigate climate change and help those affected. Meanwhile, other labels such as climate change-induced displacement contribute to depoliticizing and neutralizing the situation. “The migrant is choosing to move, the refugee is being forced to move.”
Mobility captures a range of movement (displacement forced and migration voluntary) that the word migration doesn’t account for.Mobility also requires resources, such as money, networks, age, and ability. There are also gendered aspects of mobility, where men usually have the opportunity to migrate more so than women. There is also the choice of immobility, where many people don’t want to migrate. For some communities, such as small island states, their land is part of their identity. Lastly, there exists the issue of trapped populations, or people who can’t move even in disasters (e.g., Hurricane Katrina) due to social differences such as lacking financial resources or access to transportation.
This video uses a case study of Guet N’dar, Senegal to show the possibilities of mobility, particularly international migration, as a climate change adaptation strategy. The Guet N’dar community lives between a river and the ocean and 97% of the population is dependent on the fishing sector, leaving the community highly susceptible to slow onset events. To adapt, fishers are migrating north to Mauritania. In this way, fishers make their livelihood through mobility and return to their community with the money and expertise to help Guet N’dar adapt, such as building second homes away from the coastline. In this way, temporary international migration is used as a way to remain at home in the long term.
This video uses a case study of Typhoon Haiyan to illustrate the impact of climate change on displacement, as well as poor adaptation policies. Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest storm ever recorded. It hit the Philippines in 2013 and caused a death toll of 6,000, with local estimates closer to 10,000 to 20,000. Its 7-meter storm surge caused the displacement of 4 million people. While we aren’t at a point where we can say one specific disaster is caused by climate change, in the case of Typhoon Haiyan, it is clear that the intensity of it was increased as a result of climate change.Because of this, communities that had high resilience to disasters in the past, such as the Philippines, fear a decline in their resilience as storm intensity increases. The government does not have sustainable solutions to protect against this. The people who were displaced faced poor, crowded, and unsafe living arrangements. When moved to permanent housing, they were placed far from the city center and faced infrequent transportation, which created high rates of job loss and unemployment. There are also barriers to receiving government assistance, as the state often shifts responsibility from the state to the victims.
Migration is part of the solution to climate change and a part of the problem of climate change. The typical belief is that migration results because of a failure to adapt, but for many migration is a strategy to adapt to climate change, diversify their livelihoods, and add additional income to their households. It is important to anticipate and organize migration; however, a lot of governments are reluctant to do so, as they see it as something they can resist or avoid. If they do organize, migration can then become an effective adaptive strategy. Home communities and families may then benefit from financial and social remittances, and destination communities may also benefit from new sources of labor, skills, and ideas. However, maladaptation, too, exists. As the youngest and most educated are most likely to migrate, home communities often lose these essential sources of labor.
Environmental law, humanitarian law, and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement can apply to displacement related to climate change. These guiding principles were adopted by UN General Assembly in 1998. There is also the Nansen Initiative, launched in 2012, which aims to protect the rights of cross-border displaced peoples. Regional laws, such as the Kampala Convention in Africa which recognizes that people displaced internationally should be protected, also exist.
Industrialized countries and the Global North have a responsibility to climate migrants. They must fulfill their legal and economic responsibility by contributing funds to programs that aid climate migrants. Climate activists argue that our focus should be on how we fundamentally change our system, as there is no climate justice without social, environmental, energy, and historical justice. Current responsibility and obligations frameworks will not yield results, so there needs to be a shift to another framework based on the cooperation and capacities of states. This may in turn produce results.
Cities are most impacted by climate migration, but immigrant policies are usually decided federally rather than locally.People who migrate to cities without resources are often vulnerable. They settle in slums which are usually built in hazardous zones. They also lack local knowledge and may construct their home in a way that leaves them more vulnerable to disaster and therefore more likely to face further displacement, health risks, and life-threatening situations. After disasters, they are less able to access help or aid. They also might not be able to access services because of language barriers. If they have an irregular migrant status, they may avoid getting aid or medical services because of the risk of deportation. To address these issues, cities can focus on how climate and integration policies can go hand in hand. Climate action can be a great integration tool for international and internal migrants. Further, urban planning must plan for people to come and focus on building sustainable infrastructure targeted at the most vulnerable. Cities must also receive the proper tools from their government to respond to migration and climate impacts.
Young people can be advocates for climate migrants because they also feel their futures are at risk. Ways to take action include large scale, collective actions (e.g., climate change school strikes), as well as smaller actions such as getting in direct contact with local politicians, gaining knowledge, contributing directly, raising awareness, and engaging in intergenerational dialogue.
People now recognize how essential and inherent mobility is in our everyday lives. Restrictions on mobility have reshaped how we look at the world. This may contribute to the understanding of climate change and migration and may generate empathy. Many people see COVID-19 as a warning of the future catastrophe of climate change, but it is important to remember that the climate change catastrophe is already a reality in many places.
About Migration Matters
Starting with big questions,Migration Matterslocate the most credible sources of information and new perspectives on these questions and package them in a fun, accessible way to encourage more evidence-based debate and nuanced reflection on complex issues. For the past three years, they have been part of theErasmus+ Virtual Exchange consortium, producing video series that are viewed and debated by thousands of higher education students in the Southern Mediterranean and Europe in online classrooms.