Migration and climate change


Migration and climate change

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Date: 6th September 2013
Type: Feature
Countries: Asia, Bangladesh

Sam Bickersteth, CDKN’s Chief Executive, recently spoke at the RGS/IBG Annual Conference on the issue of migration and climate change.

It is two years since the UK Government Office for Science published the findings of the Foresight project on Migration and Global Environmental Change.   This report and others have pointed out the complex interaction of social, economic, demographic, environmental and political factors that cause people to migrate.    The International Organization for Migration estimates that 200 million people will be displaced if we are living in a 4°C warmer world in 2050.  But the definitions and numbers around “environmental migrants” or “climate change refugees” need to be treated with caution, and better analysis is required to understand and plan for climate change related migration.

We know that migration is an important livelihood strategy for many, especially in the developing world, and that it contributes to develop goals as evidenced by the $372bn of global remittances in 2011 (three times global official development assistance).  There is growing recognition and understanding that migration can be an adaptation strategy to offset impacts of environmental shocks and stresses.  Through moving out of areas of exposure to hazards people can better survive hazardous or lean seasons, earn income for recovery/preparedness and diversify their livelihoods. However, the poorest are often the least mobile and may be trapped as they lack the financial or social assets to migrate.   In addition, the Foresight report emphasised, that people are as likely to migrate into places of environmental vulnerability as away from them.   The growth of megacities in vulnerable coastal areas of Asia and Africa and the presence of poor, new migrants in urban locations vulnerable to flooding illustrate this.

CDKN has been supporting research in Bangladesh in partnership with the University of Sussex and Bangladesh’s Refugee and Migrator Movements Research Unit to improve understanding of climate related migration.  The results indicate that 9.7m long term migrants are expected from regions within Bangladesh exposed to river bank erosion, inland flooding and coastal storm surge over next 40 years.  Most of this attributable to current climate related stresses and population growth but about 1 million of these additional migrants will move due to climate change.

The research also confirms that migration is a coping mechanism for vulnerable people. Approximately 30% of the communities interviewed in across six developing countries identified migration as a coping strategy in the face of climate change impacts.   However, the study also finds that migrants often end up living in slums and informal settlements of growing cities, exposed to natural hazards and other risks.

Since the Foresight report was launched the evidence of climate change has been added to through the publication of the IPCC’s Special Report on Extreme Events (SREX) which indicates that extreme hot days and more intense rainfall has and are likely to increase as a consequence of climate change.   We passed the passed sobering landmark of 400ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide in May 2013 and the upcoming IPCCs Fifth Assessment will almost certainly provide further alarming evidence of climate change and the need for action now.

Both domestic and international migration have economic, social and political implications.   Policy, planning, legal and institutional frameworks make a difference as to whether migration has negative or positive results to countries and individual migrants.  For example, the CDKN supported research in Bangladesh has proposed that an internal migration policy could be developed with the objective of protecting the rights of internal migrants.  Bangladesh’s Migrant Welfare Bank which was set up to assist international short-term labour migration could be extended to climate affected areas.

In the Pacific where low lying countries such as Kiribati face existential threats from climate change, climate policy is critical.  This week at the Pacific Island Forum in the Marshall Islands the Majuro Declaration on Climate Leadership urged “action at all levels” to address “climate change to ensure the survival and viability of all Pacific small island developing States”.   Transformative domestic actions and targets are underway to move to 100% renewable power generation in some islands (eg Tuvalu and Vanuatu) and reduction of GHG emissions (40% by 2020 in the Marshall Islands).   Policies to address international mobility and rights such as better residency rights, access to healthcare and education or services to convey remittances are under discussion across the region.   Kiribati has established a ‘migration with dignity’ policy to try and upskill citizens to give them a better chance of making a life in another country. It has recently concluded a deal to purchase 2,200 ha of land on Fiji’s second island, Vanua Levu primarily to increase food security but it has the potential as an area for relocation of Kiribati communities.

International action through the UNFCCC is unavoidable for the most vulnerable and poor states and it is for this reason that CDKN provides support to strengthen their voice in the negotiations. The Cancun COP16 recognised that climate change  will trigger human mobility and calls for measures to “enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with related to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation”.   The outcomes of the Doha COP18 in relation to loss and damage relate to this and some progress is expected around this in the upcoming Warsaw COP19.

Climate induced migration, whether domestic or  cross border, raises challenges for policy makers at both national and international levels.    Progress in meeting these challenges is underway but building up better data and analysis will be critical to ensure appropriate measures are put in place to improve the well-being and opportunities for migrants and those affected.


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