Authors: Neil Adger, Ricardo Safra de Campos and Tasneem Siddiqui

Photo by Amanda Nero, IOM.

Climate change related migration is happening now, even if it is not the principal determinant of current migration flows. How can governments react and handle this emerging challenge? First, planners need to make destinations safe and resilient for new populations. Second, governments need fair processes to help communities to relocate. Third governments need to co-ordinate with like-minded countries in their own regions to facilitate international migrants.

The impacts of climate change are disrupting where and how people live now and will increasingly do so into the future. Over the long term, for example, coastal populations could move from low-lying areas. And in the short-run, large numbers of people are already displaced from their homes, at least temporarily, by extreme weather events that will change in terms of their frequency and intensity. So, the new reality of climate change is a challenge for collective action and stakeholders at all scales: for disaster relief, for urban planning and for international diplomats. Hence the immediate issues for policy makers are how to anticipate the challenges and propose solutions based on sustainability, fairness, and moral responsibility.

Our own research has suggested three main areas for action. First, from our study of migrants’ lived experience in moving to cities, we have charted how urban planners need to make destinations safe and resilient for new populations as they move. Second, we have further shown that governments need to consider the unthinkable and develop criteria for fair process in helping communities to move. Third, governments need to coordinate with countries in their regions with established migration flows to facilitate international movement when climate change makes the desirability for movement all the greater.

First, make cities safe. The drift to the cities continues apace in every region of the world. In Bangladesh, for example, over the four decades since independence in 1970, the urban shift has been fueled by major expansion in manufacturing, but also related to declining land availability and agricultural productivity in coastal regions. But such migration demonstrates clearly the urban reality of climate risks, especially for low-income migrants living in informal settlements in cities such as Dhaka, Chattogram and Khulna.

In our action research, migrants related their own experience of insecurity in Chattogram using photographs. The migrants told us that ill health and poor water quality mattered as much to their perceived security and quality of life as the threat of eviction and sexual harassment. Our review of policies in Bangladesh showed that these migrant populations are largely invisible to urban planning. But our action research, putting planners and migrant communities into conversation, led to practical steps for action on the infrastructure of the neighborhoods where migrants live, where they work, and how the city works for them. These included suggestions for low-income housing to reduce the demand for informal settlements, skills training for new entrepreneurs and a greater monitoring of growing populations in informal settlements, all of which would increase the efficacy of urban planning when cities are growing through migration.

Integrating migrants’ perspectives with the work of urban planning offices focused on addressing the challenges associated with rapid urbanization. These steps include creating public space for entrepreneurs and design of schemes to secure water supplies for all. Cities will keep on growing, and the processes of making new migrant populations visible and integrating them into city life is at the heart of urban planning for resilient cities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that migrants’ lives have been disrupted in many dimensions. Internal and international migrants, those in formal employment and in the informal economy and low and high income groups have all been affected immediately and in their trajectories. The pandemic has also highlighted the role of mobile workers in the key role they play in the viability and resilience of cities and their health care systems. The economic shocks associated with the pandemic further highlight their lack of voice in planning for safe and sustainable cities.

Second, plan for relocation. There is a growing impetus to recognize climate-related risks and contemplate moving people out of harm’s way. The Environment Agency in the UK has incorporated this concept into planning for floods. Sir James Bevan, the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, in early 2020 suggested that:

Climate change means accepting the hard truth that in a few places, the scale of coastal erosion and the risk of flooding from rivers or the sea will become so big that it may be better for communities to choose to relocate out of harm’s way. So not only do we need to build back better. Sometimes we will need to build back in better places.

Such changes are never likely to be popular, or cheap. But how can they be made legitimate and within the bounds of possibility? Our review of experience around the world suggests that fair process is the key – ensuring that communities are consulted, compensated, and get to say themselves their preferences for resettlement and what is at risk from moving. In Alaska, for example, communities threatened by erosion as the ice melts have been developing their own plans for moving, helped by State authorities. This is an increasing challenge.

Third, facilitate international movement. International migration due to climate change is only a modest proportion of all movements, but a challenge fraught with political conflict due to highly polarized views on the benefits and costs to all societies. There is one certainty in international migration – that people move to destinations where there are already established economic and historical links. It is as certain as gravity. This means that the destination of people moving across borders because of climate change are likely to be to neighboring countries, and all evidence from countries in the Pacific shows this to be true. Both source and destination countries can, however, benefit from predicting future flows with certainty. These types of arrangement reduce irregular migration and trafficking and the ability to match skills needs in both countries. These types of coordination are becoming the norm, for example in Pacific countries with regional agreements on visas and return migration. Hence we argue that increasing and facilitating mobility, including the ability for return migration, as espoused by the Global Compact on Migration, makes migration flows more predictable, orderly, and safe.

Migration has been the lifeblood of cities in every region of the world, and unceasingly cities are themselves acting to complement national policies by recognizing and encouraging migration. The Mayors Migration Council, for example, is paving the way to strengthen cities' ability to strategically engage in migration and climate diplomacy. Recent research has shown for Kenya and Vietnam that city residents are generally positive towards newcomers arriving from areas affected by environmental degradation, at least in terms of perceiving this as a legitimate reason for arriving.

There are good reasons not to overplay the impact of climate change and migration. But there are also good reasons to plan for increased demand for movement, and to mitigate the impact of climate change on populations everywhere.

This article is based on two recent research papers:

Adger, W.N., Crépin, A.S., Folke, C., Ospina, D., Chapin III, F.S., Segerson, K., Seto, K.C. et al. 2020. Urbanization, Migration, and Adaptation to Climate Change. One Earth 3, 396-399.

Siddiqui, T., Szaboova, L., Adger, W.N., Safra de Campos, R., Bhuiyan, M.R.A. and Billah, T., 2020. Policy Opportunities and Constraints for Addressing Urban Precarity of Migrant Populations. Global Policy.

This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.

This article was originally published on IOM Environmental Migration Portal on 21 December 2020

About the authors:

Neil Adger is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Exeter, UK. He researches economic and social dynamics of environmental change, resilience and vulnerability. His work has been published across the social and natural sciences on adaptation to climate change, human security, demography, and public health.

Dr. Ricardo Safra de Campos is a lecturer in human geography at the Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter, United Kingdom, focusing on mobility and migration responses to global environmental change. His research interests include spatial mobility associated with environmental factors, temporary and permanent internal mobility in developing countries, data collection methods in migration research, and sustainable livelihoods.

Tasneem Siddiqui is Professor of Political Science at the University of Dhaka and co-founder of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit. Her work on the drivers and impact of labour migration, diaspora, remittances, climate change adaptation and migration has been published nationally and internationally. She has contributed to major policy changes on migration in Bangladesh and led the preparation of the National Strategy for Climate and Disaster Induced Internally Displaced Persons in Bangladesh for the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief.

Authors: Dominique Jolivet (University of Amsterdam) and Mumuni Abu (RIPS, University of Ghana)

Enumerators from receive training for face-to face survey work in Accra, Ghana.

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, MISTY had to postpone its plans to conduct a comparative survey in five cities across the globe. Survey plans have resumed eight months later with the launch of face-to-face and online surveys. We have diversified the data collection methods to comply with local institutional biosecurity measures and adjusted our study to the evolution of the pandemic in Accra, Amsterdam, Brussels, Dhaka, London, Maputo and Worcester (US).

The MISTY survey is designed to study changes in sustainable practices (attitudes and behaviours) in individuals’ lives over the life course and the migration trajectory. The survey compares life trajectories of international migrants, internal migrants, and non-migrants in different cities across the globe.

MISTY has readjusted its research design to conduct biographic surveys with retrospective questions in Accra, Maputo and Dhaka and shorter cross-sectional online surveys in the other sites. The compensation of losing the retrospective component in the online survey is the reduced cost of online data collection. This allows MISTY to broaden the geographical scope of the online survey and add London and Brussels to Amsterdam and Worcester. The biographic and online surveys will collect a substantial amount of overlapping information which can be used for comparative research.

MISTY field work resumes with the RIPS team rolling out the qualitative survey in Accra

The Regional Institute for Population Studies (RIPS) at the University of Ghana is the first to implement the biographic survey face to face in Accra. The fieldwork kicked off in November and the team has already collected data among 878 respondents. Enumerators are extra careful in the field to ensure both their safety and that of respondents and keep to the established COVID-19 protocols. Respondents tend to share their experiences during the initial lockdown in Accra, and how it affected their businesses. Some respondents claim to have lost their capital as a result of the pandemic because of the closure of the borders between Ghana and Nigeria – the major route for their business. In addition, their goods are hardly sold these days because their usual customers are particularly careful with their expenditure due to the economic shocks brought by the pandemic. Most schools are still closed in Accra, which puts additional stress on respondents who spend so much time with their children that it is also affecting their business.

On December 7, MISTY launched its online survey in Amsterdam, Brussels and London. An online remote survey prevents us from gathering respondents’ everyday experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the online approach does allow us to overcome local institutional biosecurity measures and collect without further delays rich data to answer some of our research questions while data collection through face to face and remote interviews is ongoing in the other sites. The next step is to launch the online survey in Worcester while we prepare the fieldwork in Dhaka and Maputo, where we plan to combine face-to-face and mobile phone interviews.

(Authors: Sonja Fransen & Beatriz Cardoso Fernandes, UNU-MERIT with Dominique Jolivet, University of Amsterdam)

Can the global health pandemic provide a ‘window of opportunity’ to change the way we think about sustainability? A new study by researchers from the Migration, Transformation and Sustainability (MISTY) project and UNU-MERIT finds that for almost a quarter of Amsterdam residents surveyed, the coronavirus has increased their interest in sustainability.

On 17 March 2020, the Mayor of Amsterdam announced new measures to contain the coronavirus, including the closure of schools, restaurants, and cultural venues. In July 2020, researchers from the Migration, Transformation and Sustainability (MISTY) project sent an online survey to members of the Amsterdam City Research Panel asking them what impact the coronavirus crisis was having on their lives, set against the broader backdrop of sustainability (understood here in terms of social, economic, and environmental sustainability). Members of the Amsterdam City Research panel are ‘Amsterdammers’ who regularly participate in different online surveys about varying subjects related to the city. Our sample included 1,381 individuals, of whom 20% are migrants, 53% are Dutch-born with parents also born in the Netherlands, and 24% are Dutch-born with parents born abroad. The majority of the sample is highly educated, in a rather comfortable economic situation, and aged between 35 and 64 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Profile for majority of survey respondents. Source: MISTY Project

We first asked how the COVID-19 crisis had impacted respondents’ health, income, and social lives. Four months after the initial outbreak, almost 60% were feeling the negative effects of the pandemic in at least one of these dimensions — more than 16% had experienced negative effects on their health and almost 21% on their household incomes. COVID-19 restrictions hit their social lives in particular — 43% declared a worsening of social contacts. This confirms recent studies on the impact of the various COVID-19 measures on subjective well-being and social isolation of individuals. International migrants and second-generation migrants were the most affected in Amsterdam (Figure 2). Apart from these negative effects, there were some positive impacts: 12% of respondents reported that social contact with neighbours had improved, while 8% said that they appreciated the natural environment in their neighbourhoods more during the COVID-19 crisis.

Figure 2: Number of respondents reporting negative impacts of COVID-19 pandemic. Source: MISTY Project

Can a global health crisis affect our attitudes towards sustainability?

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for researchers to study how a global health crisis affects the way people think about sustainability issues. Academic literature shows that attitudes are not stable over time. They are dependent on one’s social environment — and a change in this environment can change the way individuals think about certain social issues. In fact, major ‘shocks’ can profoundly change individual attitudes.

In our study, almost 24% of Amsterdammers reported more interest in sustainability issues compared to the start of the pandemic. When asked why, many respondents said that the pandemic had been a ‘wake-up call’, prompting the realisation that we, as global citizens, should take better care of the environment and each other:

“The crisis makes obvious both some of the ways in which our way of life is not sustainable, and the capacity we have to adapt quickly to a new environment with increased constraints.” (Male, 31 years old, first-generation migrant)

“The coronavirus has exposed in a painful way that a limit has been reached with what the earth can handle from humanity.” (Male, 52 years old, second-generation migrant)

Some individuals also mentioned that simply spending more time at home gave them more time to think about ‘larger’ societal questions such as pollution, overconsumption, and social ties in their neighbourhoods and city. Contrary to our expectations, those who were more affected by the pandemic (socially or economically) were not more likely to become more concerned with sustainability issues. Instead, higher educated individuals and those with migration backgrounds reported increasing awareness of sustainability issues. Moreover, the neighbourhoods in which people resided played a big role as well. For example, individuals residing in the centre of Amsterdam expressed more concerns compared with those living in the suburbs. Further research on this topic will have to show why this is the case.

A turning point in our views on sustainability?

Apart from expressing their fears and concerns, many Amsterdam residents also articulated their hopes that this crisis would create a turning point in our thinking on sustainability at local, national, and global levels. Whether the global health pandemic will support lasting transformations to sustainability remains to be seen. Despite reporting increasing awareness of the importance of leading sustainable lives, few respondents (on average between 5-10%) reported changing their actual behaviour since March 2020 in terms of consumption, energy use, or recycling. This shows that changing attitudes do not necessarily translate into action.

This article was first posted here as part of a United Nations University Migration Network series that explores the interrelations and acute challenges of migration, climate change, and COVID-19. As a build-up to International Migrants Day on 18 December 2020, the series examines these connections at local and global levels, highlights impacts on migrants, and provides evidence-based insights for United Nations member states, governments, and policymakers.


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