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Migration, environment and climate change: What’s new, and what’s true

1 Nov 2018
IOM’s approach to environmental migration

By Lisa Lim Ah Ken, Regional Thematic Specialist on Migration, Environment and Climate Change, IOM East and Horn of Africa Region

The question of human mobility in relation to climate change and environmental degradation has been gaining increasing prominence in public and policy debates, with the emergence of a plethora of academic literature and policy discussions over the course of the last decade. However, this is not a new concept; environmental change and natural disasters have always been major drivers of migration. The Atlas of Environmental Migration provides a timeline of human migration related to environmental degradation and climate change throughout history, dating back to 50,000 B.C.

What is new, though, is that climate predictions for the 21st century indicate that even more people are expected to be on the move as weather-related disasters become more frequent and intense, strongly attributed to anthropogenic global warming. The most recent IPCC report states that a 1-degree Celsius global increase in temperature was already reached in 2017, which accounts for the increased frequency, intensity and/or volume of heavy precipitations experienced globally, resulting in mass displacement. An estimated 3.3 million people were newly displaced from 700 disaster events between January and June 2018 according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s mid-year internal displacement report.

In addition to sudden-onset disasters, as global temperatures continue to rise, gradual-onset environmental changes, such as ecosystem degradation and rising sea-levels, are also likely to impact negatively on vulnerable populations who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods and basic needs. In countries where rapid, unplanned urbanization forces people to live in environmentally hazardous and densely populated areas, the potential for large-scale population movement is high.

Haiti, Port au Prince. A view over the slum of Jealousy. Climate change and deforestation dramatically reduced the farmland in the Haitian countryside and led to unplanned migration into urban areas with consequent overpopulation and development of slum areas. Alessandro Grassani 2015

Even before the creation of its Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) Division in 2015, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) undertook extensive research on the nexus between migration, environment and climate change. Migration due to drought and extreme temperatures is already well-documented across the world, and studies on migration and extreme heat reveal that if nothing is done to mitigate global warming, more than 1 billion people will be living under ‘extreme heat stress’ (conditions under which the human body is not able to function optimally) by the end of this century.

IOM’s research in South Asia also revealed a direct correlation between environmental degradation, loss of livelihoods and resulting migration. These findings are also reflected in IOM’s Assessing the Evidence Series of country-level assessments, National Research Reports and Policy Brief Series, all of which are on open source and can be accessed online along with many other resources and information at IOM’s Environmental Migration Portal.

While the correlation between displacement and sudden-onset disaster is quite clear, attributing migration to climate change in a direct cause-and-effect relationship would not be accurate; it is well documented that the relationship is complex and affected by other variables such as social, political and economic drivers. The Foresight report explores these drivers, concluding that while the natural environment is not a leading driver of migration, it does play a significant role. The Foresight model was more recently expanded in the Groundswell report, to illustrate the complex decision-making processes households undergo when considering migrating due to climate change factors.

With a backdrop of such complexity, it is not surprising that there is still no legally agreed-upon definition of environmental migrants. In this absence, IOM’s working definition is often cited, as it seeks to reflect the different variables associated with environmental migration:

IOM defines environmental migrants as:
“Persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their homes or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

The definition reflects IOM’s perspective on migrants and migrant rights, and therefore incorporates both sudden- and slow-onset environmental changes, considers the threat to human life as well as people’s rights to decent living conditions, and addresses forced displacement, while respecting an individual’s choice to migrate, either internally or abroad. It further accommodates people’s choice on the length of their period of migration.

IOM thus promotes the balanced message that migration is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’; it can be used positively as an adaptation strategy in the face of climate change, but conversely increases vulnerability if not managed in a safe and orderly way.

In light of this message, IOM also recognizes that the cost of migration is often high, and the most vulnerable may be those who do not have the economic and social capital to move to seek new opportunities. The most vulnerable may therefore be these ‘trapped populations.’

Haiti, Port au Prince, Citè Soleil, Village des Rapatriès. As the sea level rises, the area is often flooded, and people are forced to live under seawater. Here, two children walk back home after school. Despite the constant flooding of sea water into the area, people have no other option but to continue to build houses here in Village des Rapatriès, a slum area that resulted from unplanned migration into urban areas due to climate change. Alessandro Grassani 2015

IOM’s institutional engagement on Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) is guided by three objectives, all of which place the protection and rights of migrants at their center:

1. To minimize forced and unmanaged migration as much as possible;
2. Where forced migration does occur, to ensure assistance and protection for those affected and to seek durable solutions; and
3. To facilitate the role of migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change.

The MECC objectives are operationalized through IOM’s research, policy and programmatic work at global, regional and country levels. In addition to IOM’s continued engagement with the Platform for Disaster Displacement (PDD), the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and contributions to global frameworks such as the UNFCCC and its WIM Task Force for Displacement, the soon-to-be adopted new Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) further marks a concrete step in addressing the migration, environment and climate change nexus.

The GCM text, finalized on 13 July 2018, was the culmination of more than 18 months of Member State–led multi-stakeholder dialogue, consultation and intergovernmental negotiations. It addresses the needs and rights of environmental migrants under its second objective, which intends to “minimize the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin.”

Linking policy and operational efforts, IOM also has decades of operational experience. Thanks to its large field presence and extensive project base, it has been working with populations affected by natural disasters and a changing environment, and conducting activities in humanitarian, transitional and development contexts. With global, regional and state-level partnerships, IOM continues to address environmental displacement through its institutional approach, the Migration Governance Framework (MiGoF), aiding the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs).

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