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Climate change is being linked to such far-flung situations as rising seas that threaten to sink small island nations and drying up vast regions in Africa, which has spurred large upheavals of people, most recently in Somalia.
This week, the complicated topic of environmental shifts and their effect on migration was tackled at a lunchtime panel sponsored by the International Peace Institute with the Portuguese and German governments. This summer, the subject was debated for the first time at the United Nations Security Council when Germany assumed the presidency in July.
Human migration is an ancient adaptation strategy rooted in the desire to find a better life, and today the phenomenon still reflects that urge. But climate change and related food scarcity problems have created new pressures that few countries can handle or understand. Take Somalia again, where the drought in the Horn of Africa has led to hundreds of thousands of people displaced, straining relations with Kenya while heightening warfare within its own borders.
The Peace Institute discussion focused on how multilateral institutions are being forced to address climate change and migration, despite relative inexperience in the matter. The speakers were Udo Janz, the director of the New York office of the UN high commissioner for refugees; Susan Martin, the executive director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University; and Michele Klein Solomon, the permanent observer to the UN for the International Organization for Migration. Warren Hoge, senior adviser for external relations at the Peace Institute, moderated (http://www.ipacademy.org/news/general-announcement/276-environmental-migrants-climate-change-and-human-migration.html).
Dialogue on climate shifts and human movement remain contentious. As Professor Martin pointed out in her scholarly talk, projections of numbers have not been borne out. Experts in the environment and in migration have not been conversing with each other, though that is improving, she said.
The problem is that “there has been a great deal of disagreement about what the actual causal or determinative linkages are between environmental change on one hand and human migration on the other,” she said.
Moving away from projections, migration experts are now focusing on the ground, Professor Martin said. Migration is pushed by various factors that include economics, social relationships, politics and national and human security. The environment is an important factor, but seldom is it the only reason that people move.
Climate change affects mobility gradually from, say, rising sea levels, making life uninhabitable; increasing droughts and desertification, especially disrupting agricultural livelihoods; severe hazards like cyclones, causing sudden displacement; and intense competition for scarce resources, sowing conflicts and tension.
In addition, migration patterns vary widely and can change overnight, as in the Somalia crisis. The movements can be temporary (a few days or months) or permanent; internal (most within borders); and international – most people head to neighboring countries, where problems are slightly less extreme. For example, desperate Somalis who made the boat journey to Yemen had no idea the country was battling a civil war, so some returned home.
Migration is expected to continue mainly in developing countries, given the costs of going long distances, notably from poor to wealthier nations. One big concern, Professor Martin said, are those who can’t leave, “the most vulnerable amongst us.”
As for policies to help fix the problems, Professor Martin recommended that “pre-migration” phases focus on mitigation and adaptation – like developing coping skills to contend with unfolding dramas and finding strategies for reducing disaster risks.
Yet some migration, she acknowledged, is inevitable, through either a spontaneous departure to a new location or a planned relocation, as with small island countries. Both paths involve challenges of integration or reintegration. More important, Professor Martin said, migration doesn’t end with the arrival of people in a new place but “with how they are received.”
Laws and policy programs addressing all forms of movements and phases are weak except for emergencies, particularly related to conflict, which fall under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Policies are almost nonexistent for slow-forming situations, especially for ones across borders. Some treaties are evolving for internal displacement, but most are not binding. The African Union has adopted a convention of rights of internally displaced people, though it is not in force yet. Meanwhile, African populations are the fastest-growing in the world, the UN says, increasing the number of people at risk in many places and putting greater pressures on natural resources.
Klein Solomon of the International Organization for Migration, which consists of 132 member countries that is independent of the UN, reiterated much of Professor Martin’s remarks but summarized her group’s function in migration policy discussions.
For example, IOM, as it is known, is researching situations and trends and bringing people together to talk at national and international levels, like climate change scientists with migration experts and political groups with development communities.
Janz of the UN refugee office repeatedly linked increased displacement of people to environmental factors such as natural disasters, which he said are growing in number and intensity. But he mainly concentrated his talk on drought and desertification in Africa and the plight of low-lying island countries in the Pacific, all problems stemming from climate change, he said.
“Drought and desertification are at the core of serious challenges and threats facing sustainable development,” Janz said, adding that land degradation is a major cause of forced migration and incites violent conflicts over dwindling natural resources, food insecurity and starvation, loss of biological diversity and homes, poor health and rising poverty.
Two-thirds of Africa is classified as desert or dry land, primarily in the Horn of Africa and the Kalahari Desert, farther south. More droughts are predicted, Janz said, while arid conditions are pushing more people out of their homes internally. The greatest people affected are at the lowest end, settling in the outskirts of urban areas or suboptimal coastal lands.
The effects of the drought in Somalia are threatening up to 750,000 more lives, the UN says. Unusually, some herders and their livestock have even gone to live in Mogadishu, the capital, hardly a city with a welcome mat. Women and children bear the heaviest burden, making weeks-long treks to presumed safety while risking sexual assault as their men stay behind to tend whatever livestock remains.
Sea-level rises in the Pacific are not just about islands disappearing but entire populations having to vacate long before then, Janz said, because of salinization in otherwise arable land. Twenty-two countries with up to 9.2 million people could be without homes and livelihoods.
“What can we do?” he asked. UN and other international organizations must develop efficient adaptive mechanisms, he suggested, among other actions, while countries should be more responsible for developing responses for areas prone to disasters, like Bangladesh. There, Janz said, the region is constantly vulnerable to cyclones, but a flexible shelter program has helped people manage.