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Priorities for government action on climate change migration

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.

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