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FEATURE: Climate migration – Governments urged to see the big national picture

There’s much governments can do to anticipate climate-related migration within their borders – and help both sending and receiving communities to mitigate climate risks — say Katherine Shaw and Sarah Opitz-Stapleton, ODI.

Last month, the World Bank came out with a report looking at future flows of people due to the effects of climate change. Refreshingly, instead of another headline warning of a forthcoming mass exodus across borders, the World Bank research focused on the people who would be moving within their native countries. Looking at three regions – sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America – the World Bank estimated that 140 million people would be leaving their homes due to the impacts of climate change.

Internal migration is increasing, particularly from rural to urban areas. The causes driving such internal migration are complex – ranging from people seeking different economic opportunities to lack of financial resources to protect their climate-sensitive livelihoods from climate-related hazards like drought or sea level rise. Most important to the debate about the role of climate in influencing migration is acknowledging the inequalities in development that lead to overexploitation of ecosystems on which so many of the poorest depend for livelihoods and exacerbate socioeconomic and political inequality. Climate risks are increasing not only because of climate change, but because of these inequalities in development, which also drive migration.

Last year, UNDP and ODI published a paper aimed at countering the hysteria about climate refugees and climate-induced migration sometimes seen in the media. So it was encouraging to see the World Bank discussing internal, and not cross-border, migration. But most importantly, the World Bank report highlights the need to strengthen social policies, access to services, and infrastructure to avoid the creation of ‘hotspots’ and strained resources in arrival communities, and to allow people to adapt locally if they don’t want to move – in agreement with the UNDP and ODI report.

Internal migration as an adaptation strategy

Although the idea of 140 million people moving, partially in response to the effects of climate change may seem a bit dramatic, it’s crucial to remember that they are not the only ones who will be affected. The community and family members left behind and those in destination communities may become either more vulnerable or more resilient, depending on the policies governments choose to adopt.

Migration – whether internal or external – can be a positive choice, but only when governments are able to ensure that citizens have access to infrastructure and services which can support increased and changing numbers of people, no matter where they are, and that vulnerable community members are protected. Laws and policies also need to ensure and protect the legal rights of migrants so that they can access services where they move; without access to services, they will be more vulnerable to suffering harm when shocks and stresses occur.

Migration can function as one option within a range of adaptation strategies, allowing a family to diversify their income from activities that are natural resource intensive to include other livelihoods not as sensitive to climate variability. As well as being a positive adaptation strategy for families, migration can reduce pressure on fragile ecosystems, like semi-arid lands.

However, in other contexts, migration can increase the vulnerability of all involved, from the family members left behind, the migrants themselves, who arrive with uncertain legal status and lacking social safety nets, and the arrival community as they see their services stressed and land pressures increased. The recent election in Antigua and Barbuda highlights the challenges to governments of maintaining services and ensuring rights in the face of large scale displacement post-Hurricane Irma last autumn. How people’s rights and citizenship are affected when they are temporarily (or even permanently) displaced by climate-related disasters is something that hasn’t been discussed much in the literature, and is an area requiring further research.

Although the World Bank research and much of the other literature focuses on the numbers of people likely to move in part due to climate risks, it is also important to recognise that climate change may exacerbate vulnerabilities and leave families unable to move. Research has already shown that in Malawi, deteriorating environmental conditions have slowly eroded the financial resources of many farmers, so that the cost of migration is now prohibitive and no longer a possible adaptation strategy. Repeated climate-related losses can erode the ability of individuals, families, and communities to move, and this must also be addressed by government adaptation and development strategies.

Embracing migration in development planning

The World Bank report says that their 140 million internal climate migrant figure could be reduced to 65-105 million if economic development is made more inclusive, or further to 31-72 million if emissions are significantly reduced but strategies still need to be put in place to support migration that is likely to continue irrespective of climate change.

The real takeaway from the World Bank report is the importance of integrating migration into national and sub-national development planning, not only as a long-term adaptation strategy, but one that recognises that migration will occur. Socioeconomic development planning that considers migration can help countries determine flows, the conditions under which people choose to move, build resilience at the sending and receiving locations and moderate the impacts of human mobility in a changing climate. Failure to account for migration can place migrants, the communities to which they are migrating and those that they left behind at greater risk.

Governments’ development objectives must offer families and individuals a range of strategies for better coping with climate variability and change. They should have the choice of adapting and remaining in their communities, and provisions should also be made for them to migrate if they want to or are forced to because their lands are no longer habitable. Migration must also be incorporated into development planning in order to reduce risks not only in the areas people are leaving but the areas to which they are moving.

Mobility should be a choice, and families should neither be trapped where they are through lack of funds nor forced to move by depleted ecosystems. It is critical that risk-informed development objectives incorporate migration as a possible adaptation strategy and recognise the positive role migration can play for families to diversify and reduce their dependence on climate-sensitive livelihoods.


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