(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.

(Authors: Sarah Nash and Caroline Zickgraf)

Beating the anti-immigrant drum does nothing to help climate action

Grace, a refugee from South Sudan (Wikimedia Commons)

Exaggerated predictions for future flows of people have long formed the core of the anti-immigration playbook. When you add the impacts of climate change to the equation, the numbers skyrocket.

Experts agree there is a relationship between climate change and human mobility. As early as 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s principal scientific body on climate change, deemed mass migration a key risk associated with rising global temperatures. Since then, scientists have amassed an impressive amount of diverse data and complex knowledge on how impacts of climate change, from sea-level rise to drought and desertification, can affect the ways people move. Yet, above all else, people want headline numbers. The future scale of displacement is seen to give weight to the issue.

Predictions of how many people will be displaced in the future by climate change are what continually gain traction in the media, and, therefore, grab public attention. Over the past three decades, several reports have offered up predictions for how many people will be forced to move, typically delivering a figure in the hundreds of millions. More often than not – and much to the chagrin of experts on the topic – the predictions are little more than guesstimates motivated by the goal of shocking people into climate action. Scientific rigour takes a back seat.

Those of us who have made careers in the academic nuance of climate change and human mobility tend to work hard not to auction our expertise to media outlets desperate to peddle people who move as a homogenous bloc to be feared. And yet our careers tend to be punctuated by the frustration foisted on us by these high profile reports – often from well-meaning environmentalists – being picked up by the press, and transformed into yet more scare stories about ‘immigrants’ to the West.

The latest, published in the Institute for Economics and Peace’s ‘Ecological Threat Register 2020’, claims that a staggering 1.2 billion people could and indeed will be displaced due to “ecological threats” by 2050. Major news outlets like the Guardian, the Independent, the New York Times, Reuters and CNN have all run stories on the 1.2 billion people to be displaced by the climate crisis, without ever stopping to question the number. In fact, the report’s conclusions have been uncritically reproduced practically across the board despite significant flaws.

Far from anything resembling credible science, the 1.2 billion figure is arrived at through manipulation and misrepresentation of data that might as well have been worked out on the back of an envelope. This discredits both the data that the report misuses and the work of reputable modellers who are developing robust, albeit less sensationalist, predictions.

Within the report a graph depicts the global displacement trajectory: a line climbs swiftly and steadily from some 20 million displaced in 2008 to 1.2 billion in 2050. This is no accident: the report blatantly misuses statistics on annual, new internal displacement from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) to paint an exaggeratedly alarming picture. If we look back at how recent years are presented in the graph, the trick is cumulative. IDMC estimates that 46 million people are currently displaced within their own country. The report places displacements in 2019 closer to the 400 million mark.

What the report has done is add together each year’s figures for annual new displacements, treating each year’s figures as a building block to be stacked upon the rest. This means that what we are seeing is not the number of people displaced from their homes in or by any given year, but a sum of annual new displacements since 2008. Moreover, it includes new displacements regardless of whether they were caused by natural disaster or by conflict, increasing the projection even more.

With contemporary data already skewed, the future prognosis cannot be anything but fiction.

A threat to Europe

Another central tenet of research on climate change and human mobility – that the majority of people forced to leave their homes stay in their home country – is also conveniently brushed aside. Although the authors only consider internal displacement statistics in their calculation, they emphasise the adverse effects that huge numbers of migrants and refugees will have on developed regions, in particular Europe. It is presented so as to spark fear of a dystopian world in which the Global North is overrun by people fleeing the Global South, bringing with them chaos, conflict, and destabilising (largely White) democracies.

The Institute for Economics and Peace claims that while Europe has higher capacity to cope with ecological threats, it will not be ‘immune’ from flows of refugees (an interesting choice of words in the midst of a global pandemic). It warns that 1.2 billion people on the move will “cause considerable unrest and shift political systems” in Europe, calling upon the so-called ‘European migrant crisis’ beginning in the second half of 2015 as a harbinger.

In an ironic twist, the report blames the arrival of 2 million Syrians and Iraqis for a rise in populism in Europe, fuelling “the rise of new political parties, increased hostilities to immigrants and heightened political instability”. This is a clear example of blaming the discriminated for their discrimination rather than broaching the uncomfortable reality of socially entrenched racism and xenophobia.

Often, we see populists and right-wing political parties espousing this constructed immigrant threat, blaming people from the Global South for stretched welfare states and health systems in the global North, presenting them as a danger to existing belief systems and values and as a potential source of terrorism and gender-based violence. This kind of xenophobic rhetoric is easy to spot. But sometimes a wolf is dressed in ‘liberal’ and ‘scientific’ clothing. Reports such as the Ecological Threat Register may take a subtler tone, but they are playing off of and feeding into these fears.

And that is the crux of such reports: it’s not the changes in climate and the floods, heatwaves, extreme weather events, droughts and forest fires that are to be feared. The object of fear is the ‘Other’, people forced to flee their homes as a result of these changes who travel to ‘our’ shores. Despite summer heatwaves in cities across Europe and associated mortality, wildfires in the United States that have reduced entire communities to ashes, and recurring floods affecting the same communities again and again, the Global North is more scared of boats of people traversing the Mediterranean Sea, of people clandestinely moving across its land borders, and scaling walls built to keep them out. In this worldview, the ecological threat isn’t ecological at all – it’s human.

Strengthening the fortress

Of course not every articulation of displacement in the context of climate change has a malicious background. Environmental activists and humanitarians, too, draw upon these predictions as leverage to agitate for more action to counter climate change: Swedish activist Greta Thunberg tweeted this report’s figures to urge us to #facetheclimateemergency. However, contrary to their well-meaning aims, there is no evidence that concerns for displaced people lead concerted climate action.

What such misleading predictions do achieve is the entrenchment of anti-immigrant sentiments that seep into policy frameworks and are subsequently difficult to change. We call for climate action, but get anti-immigrant action. For Europe, this is translating into the strengthening of the European Border Agency FRONTEX, financially propping up camps to house the displaced in border regions, tying development assistance to a willingness to block migration routes, and even information campaigns to dissuade people from pursuing a new life in Europe.

And this is why we are so concerned about this report, and the narrative that comes with it. It provides fuel to the anti-immigrant fire; fuel that has been given a veneer of scientific rigour and can be used to argue for ever more restrictive immigration policy. It centres a European gaze on displacement, reducing the tragedy of people being displaced to a dehumanised question of scale and using them as another rhetorical weapon in the climate debate. We are talking about people’s lives. And if this is not the starting point of every conversation on climate change and displacement, then we are doing something wrong.

This opinion piece was first published here at openDemocracy

About the authors:

Dr. Caroline Zickgraf is Deputy Director of the Hugo Observatory: Environment, Migration and Politics and Research Fellow within the Belmont-forum funded MISTY (migration, transformation, sustainability) international research project. Based in the Department of Geography at the University of Liège, she researches the links between human migration and environmental changes, specializing in the issues of immobility in coastal populations and transnational practices between migrants and non-migrants. Her field research has taken her from Morocco to Senegal to Viet Nam to Comoros.

Dr. Sarah Nash is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Political Science in the Institute of Forest, Environmental and Natural Resource Policy, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna.

(Authors: Amina Maharjan, Ricardo Safra de Campos, Chandni Singh)

What happens when spatial diversification of livelihoods is not an option anymore?

An informal settlement in Bengaluru, India (2017). Migrants often tend to move into informal settlements within the cities they move to, where they are exposed to new risks such as poor access to water and electricity, inadequate health facilities, and precarious livelihoods. (Photo: Chandni Singh)

Labour migration – an important livelihood strategy

Migration has long existed in South Asia. It has historically been central to the lives and livelihoods of individuals and households across the subcontinent. People have always moved – for employment and marriage, to avoid conflict and disasters, to meet personal aspirations, and to access opportunities. These movements, while individual and local, are also significant at regional and national scales. In India, internal migrants account for 37% of the country’s population, while in Nepal and Bangladesh, they account for 14% and 10% respectively as per Census 2011. The Labour Force Survey of Pakistan (2014–2015) estimates that around 13% of the country’s population are internal migrants. Significantly, internal migration is a key livelihood strategy across South Asia. It is estimated that remittances from internal migrants amounted to USD 10 billion in India (2007–08). In Bangladesh, data from the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) of 2010 estimated that about 12% of households received internal remittances.

Climate change and migration

While present-day migration across South Asia draws on multi-generational experiences, existing social networks, and past encounters in regular migration destinations, these patterns of movement are increasingly being mediated by ongoing climate change. In “climate hotspots” – locations where climate change impacts are well pronounced and well documented, such as the Himalayan region of South Asia, the deltaic regions in east India and Bangladesh, and semi-arid lands across Pakistan and southern India – people are increasingly adopting migration as a strategy to adapt to the environmental impacts associated with climate change and to deal with increasing risks.

Modelling exercises project that without any action, internal migrants in South Asia, currently estimated at over 40 million (or 1.8% of the region’s population), can increase to 25% or six-fold between 2020 and 2050. Such narratives of climate-induced migration are often criticized by different factions – for being alarmist on the one hand, and underplaying one of the largest challenges of a globalized world on the other. What, then, is the picture on the ground?

To assess what is driving migration and how it affects household incomes, wellbeing, and capacities to deal with climate change, we conducted a multi-country study across 21 locations in Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Using empirical evidence across 9,440 migrant and non-migrant households, we examined the drivers and experiences of migration, exploring who migrate, where they migrate to, and towards what end.

We found that in climate-sensitive hotspots across South Asia, migration is an important way for people to diversify livelihoods and respond to multiple climatic and non-climatic risks. In the Sunderbans delta across east India and Bangladesh, for example, existing threats from extreme events such as cyclones intersect with non-climatic factors such as limited livelihood diversification opportunities to drive migration. In semi-arid areas in South India, increasingly erratic rainfall and prolonged drought, as well as shifting youth aspirations (away from farming) are driving young men to migrate to cities such as Bangalore and Mumbai. In the Himalaya, already precarious livelihoods are being exacerbated by extreme and erratic rainfall, forcing people to seek secure income sources outside the marginal mountains. In Pakistan’s semi-arid areas, floods, droughts, and heat waves are significant climatic risks that force people to migrate in order to build their ability to manage risks better back home. Empirical evidence suggests that most of this migration is internal.

Migration is also gendered. In our study locations, more men (83%) than women (17%) have migrated. The outcomes of migratory movement are mediated by gender. Women who moved as well as those who were left behind reported higher work burdens and reduced time for leisure. However, in some cases, such as in peri-urban Bangalore, migrant women reported improved well-being, with higher incomes translating to greater autonomy and bargaining power within households.

Migrant yartsa gunbu collectors in upper Raidhungi, Bajhang District, Nepal (2019). People from various parts of Bajhang and nearby districts migrate to yarsa gunbu collection sites each harvesting season, uprooting their entire families (including school-going children) to forage for the elusive, lucrative caterpillar fungus. These migrants take shelter in temporary plastic camps. In the Himalaya, already precarious livelihoods are being exacerbated by extreme and erratic rainfall, forcing people to seek secure income sources outside traditional mountain agriculture. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)

Does migration help households manage risks better?

In climate change research, migration is often portrayed as an adaptation strategy – denoting that those with resources and networks can move out of risk-prone regions altogether or at least spatially diversify their livelihoods – and as such is taken as a successful mechanism with which to deal with climate change. However, the climate refugee discourse views migration as the last resort of the most vulnerable, tending to identify migrants as most exposed to climate change and with reduced capacity to adapt to risk. In our work across South Asia, we found that such binary views of migration do not fully realize the breadth of migrant experiences in the real world.

Our study found that remittances greatly improve households’ capacity to diversify income and move away from sectors exposed to climate change – such as farming and fishing. Remittances also insured families against a range of other environmental stressors, including droughts, floods, and landslides. However, when the most able bodied member of a family moves, those left behind find themselves in more vulnerable positions during times of hazard. Additionally, due to existing gender inequalities, an absence of male members in a household can adversely affect its capacity to adapt to climate change impacts. The outcomes of migration are therefore highly heterogeneous, and strongly influenced by who moves, what capacities they possess, and where they move to.

Falling between the cracks – migrants and the Covid-19 pandemic response

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly devastating for migrants across South Asia, with numerous reports of migrants losing jobs in destination cities that are under lockdown, being quarantined at borders and unable to return to their homes, and facing extreme food shortages as they fall through social safety nets. In India, migrants hit by a sudden and complete lockdown and unsure of where to look for food and shelter have died trying to cover hundreds of kilometres on foot. In a belated move, the government has taken steps to include migrant workers under social protection schemes. In Bangladesh, the task of supporting vulnerable migrants working in the country’s informal sector has fallen upon voluntary organizations with limited capacity to do so. Its financial stimulus package – announced by the Prime Minister to support export-oriented industries to fight the adverse impact of COVID-19 on the economy – does cover workers employed in the formal sector though, where internal migrants – mostly employed in garment factories – form the bulk of the workforce. In Nepal, the government’s advance announcement of planned closures of long-distance transport as a measure to mitigate the spread of the virus led to an exodus of internal migrant workers heading home. Those stranded in destinations were provided with food support by local authorities. Similarly in Pakistan relief was provided to daily wage workers, many of whom are migrant workers. In all cases, lack of data has been a major challenge in providing the needed support to the migrant workers. Thousands of migrant workers heading home to Nepal from India were stuck at border points for a long time before they could reach their home.

The Global Compact for Migration covers the needs and safety concerns of international migrants. However, internal migration, which is less visible, has not received as much policy attention at national and sub-national scales. This relative inattention has resulted in inadequate and conflicting data on the nature and number of internal migrants as well as the policies that include them.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed urban dwellers to recognize the wide range of services migrants provide, it has also led to the stigmatization of migrants – both in cities, as they transit back home, and in their villages. Such stigma was blatantly played out when returning migrants were sprayed with disinfectants in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Compounding risks – COVID-19, climate change, and livelihood insecurity

Climate hotspots across South Asia will continue to experience the adverse impacts of climate change alongside the current pandemic. In non-pandemic times, migration allowed vulnerable households to move, giving them a chance to diversity livelihoods and deal with climatic risks in their villages. However, the economic repercussions of COVID-19 are projected to shrink economies, curtail growth, and negatively impact sectors like manufacturing and transport that regularly absorb migrants. As the space for migrating shrinks, this key adaptation strategy will become unavailable to households, severely hindering remittances and their capacity to mitigate and manage external risks.

Building on our research, which highlights the importance of migration to a household’s livelihood portfolio, we expect that the absence of a major livelihood diversification option may severely curtail the adaptive capacities of already vulnerable populations. When people who usually migrate are forced to depend on local livelihoods that are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, the risk of increase in chronic poverty can rise in these climate hotspots.

As governments ease lockdowns and explore ways to boost economic growth, this potential of vulnerable people falling into chronic poverty and deprivation looms large. Internal migrants working in the informal sector of economies in South Asia are not easily covered by social protection measures put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. These individuals and their families face destitution brought about by the loss of income over an uncertain period of time.

This article is also published by ICIMOD.

(Ricardo Safra de Campos is a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. Chandni Singh is a researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru, India. Amina Maharjan is a Livelihoods Specialist on Migration for the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Nepal)



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