Migration: A form of climate change adaptation?

The recent publication of the IPCC special report on global warming was a reminder that averting the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change requires immediate action. Among the many consequences of a delayed response could be mass displacement of people as climate-vulnerable areas become uninhabitable. People will be forced to abandon their homes in search of livelihoods and economic opportunities elsewhere.

Poorer and developing countries with large populations dependent on farming are particularly vulnerable, given agriculture’s sensitivity to shifting climatic conditions. As these countries consider the challenges ahead, could they intervene early to facilitate planned and coordinated relocations?

The concept of ‘migration as adaptation’ is gaining support as climate change intensifies. It was reflected, for instance, in the landmark Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration – the first high-level intergovernmental agreement to address migration comprehensively – which encourages member states to enhance the availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration, including in response to environmental degradation and the adverse impacts of climate change.

INCLUDING MIGRATION IN CLIMATE ACTION PLANS

Migration is on the rise. A UN report released in 2015 found that in the 15 years prior, the growth rate for the number of international migrants – people living in a country different than their birth country – was higher than that of the global population. These numbers include expats, refugees and workers, nevertheless indicating that the movement of people is increasing across the board.

By incorporating coordinated relocations into national planning processes, governments can support development objectives while alleviating migration’s potential social and economic pressures. Foresight is also crucial to avoiding people moving from one climate-vulnerable area only to end up in another, where the burden of a large new population could exacerbate environmental problems.

Options to facilitate ‘migration as adaptation’ could include removing legislation that limits mobility; supporting circular migration and temporary work schemes; strategically relocating people to areas with labor and skills shortages; and establishing regional trading blocs that extend the free movement of goods and services to include people. Such agreements have already been signed between Colombia and Spain, and the Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand.

Social protection programs should also become portable and responsive to changes in human mobility. Migrants can contribute more to their surrounds if they feel secure in their rights; enjoy economic and political freedoms; and have access to educational, health and financial services. With the right social assistance, migration can bring broader societal benefits.

MIGRATION AS DEVELOPMENT

If handled well, migration can potentially help the development and resilience of climate-vulnerable communities in major ways. Migration circulates new skills, innovations and resources, and in turn, these assets can be invested in climate adaptation.

The Global Compact names ways that countries can help facilitate this, including allowing flexible and barrier-free travel and building partnerships with diaspora organizations to enhance philanthropic and knowledge-based aid. Countries can also encourage migrant investments and entrepreneurship through administrative and legal support and the creation of targeted financial products, such as seed capital matching and diaspora bonds.

Better regulatory support for remittances is also key, the report says. In addition to providing lifelines to poor households, the money migrants send home offers additional income for their families and communities to purchase new agricultural technologies and inputs, as well as a safety net for risks associated with adopting new and unconventional practices. Strategically aligning planned movements with employment opportunities can help secure stable remittance flows.

Then, the Compact calls for money transfer options to become faster, safer and cheaper. Migrants often incur high fees to send money, which limits the development potential of these remittances. It also encourages migrants to opt for informal, riskier services instead. The Compact supports capping transaction costs at three percent; boosting competition in the remittance-transfer sector; and making transfers more accessible through mobile payments, e-banking and other technology.

Convincing decision-makers to act on these suggestions, however, could be difficult. Migration is not always seen in the most positive light, often regarded as either a failure of development policy or a destabilizing threat.

Underpinning the Compact as a whole is the notion that these negative perceptions need to change. People will move more and more as the effects of climate change escalate, and both their wellbeing and the interests of broader society will be better served if governments plan ahead, act early and coordinate these movements.

Avoiding the challenges of displacement can serve – rather than undermine – adaptation.