Written by Callum Alexander
Human migration has been historically seen to be predominantly triggered by changing economic, social or political factors; such as fleeing conflict or pursuing employment in urban areas. However until recently, policy makers have given very little consideration to the effect of environmental change upon the level of human migration. During the early 2000’s environmental migration was adopted as the ‘face of climate change’ as policy makers tried to determine the societal effects of changing climates and environmental degradation. On Day Three of the Geneva University summer school programme students received a lecture from Dr Dina Ionesco; Head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change division at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) upon which this blog entry will focus.
Environmental migration is recognised as being most significantly caused by sudden and long term changes in a local environment. Such changes include rising sea levels, desertification, changing weather systems and droughts, which result in the mobility of people within countries and cross borders. The UNHR estimates that 22.5 million people per year on average have been displaced by climate change worldwide since 2008.
It was my understanding from the lecture at the IOM that the causes of environmental migration must be given broad consideration, as there are often many interconnectivities, therefore we are unable to purely define a particular flow of migration by either a social, environmental or economic dynamic of change. Even within the cases of quickly occurring natural disasters where the direct cause of environmental change may seem obvious, the existence of other causes will play a part within a migration decision; with the natural disaster being the ‘straw that broke the Camel’s back’. Considering the interconnectivities is in my view vital to the formulation of solutions and consequently the strategy to be implemented. This therefore needs to be a particular focus of international organisations such as the IOM and the UNHR; accusations could be made that the lack of understanding by international organisations leads to a severe underestimation and inadequate preparation with regards to the response to the European migration crisis.
A further limitation identified at the IOM is the clear lack of cooperation and understanding between the IOM and UNHR. From an outside perspective beyond UN bubble, this situation would seem only to create inefficiencies and neglect synergy. It is my understanding that the lines between refugees and migrants and blurred, now more than ever especially when it comes to the fast changing environment. This suggests high cooperation and coordination to be a more sensible understanding. Just as climate change and weather systems do not recognise international borders, the same is often true for migrants, and the IOM is to my understanding limited by a country’s willingness to cooperate.
Climate change by its very nature is impacting populations in many different ways. It therefore requires varied forms of solutions; the IOM works upon the premise that it isn’t always the correct solution for people to migrate and in many instances improving resilience within the original location can be more beneficial. However, there are many examples where the environmental and economic costs simply outweigh this type of solution. In this instance the IOM has worked with governments to provide ‘orderly and humane management of migration’. Migration is a long, ongoing process for individuals which results in the IOM having a potentially very long presence within a migrant’s life.
Furthermore, Dr Dina Ionesco identifies within her division of the IOM that the links between the environment and migration don’t solely exist within the causes of environmental migration but also within the consideration of any short and long term solutions. These include any of the IOM’s direct operations, for example environmental sustainability within the provision of temporary emergency centres.
This Blog also considers that human mobility can be utilised in the progression of a particular natural environment and consequently in the interest of conservation. A successful example of this can be found in the India Sariska Tiger reserve, where a programme to relocate 350 people through compensation schemes allowed for the transformation of a large land area into a Bengal Tiger habitat. The results have shown a rebound in tiger numbers and improved biodiversity, hailed as a ‘new paradigm for conservation’ this migration was also successful in improving the impoverished lives of the individuals.
Migration was not represented within Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), which are now widely considered as failures in their implementation and success. However, due to the insistence of the IOM and lobbying from other organisation such as the World Bank, migration is now represented clearly in goals 4, 5, 8, 10, 16 and 17 within the recently ratified Sustainable Development Goals. Despite this, all references to migration are centred on the rights of individual migrants and not specifically linked to environmental migration. Furthermore, environmental migration is not directly referenced within any environment-based SDG’s. The result is that environmental migration is not directly being addressed by policy makers, possibly representing the difficulties and differences around its understanding and solutions.