Opinion: What we're missing in the climate migration story

Over 140 million people will move within their countries' borders by 2050, according to World Bank estimates. Photo by: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND 

The stories are stark and frequent. Climate refugees and environmental migrants are fleeing floods, droughts, and rising temperatures. The World Bank predicts over 140 million people will migrate within their countries’ borders due to climate change by 2050. Governments are responding with bills to protect climate refugees.

Yes, the plight of the climate migrant is — increasingly — the tale we read today. And the story often ends with the conclusion that something needs to be done to “prevent” this movement. These narratives push the notion that moving from one’s community isn’t a natural human condition but a worrisome new phenomenon in times of climate extremes. The result is often an overly simplistic perception of who these people are and why they’re moving.

National policies and campaigns often frame migration as a problem in need of a solution. We see this happening in border protection: The European Union first ramped up border management to limit migrant arrivals in 2016 following the Valletta summit between African and European leaders, which was held in response to the migration situation. It launched the European Border and Coast Guard Agency in 2016 and announced that border agents and staff would increase to 10,000 by 2027.

But these prevention strategies may be shortsighted. Some argue that tightening border control only perpetuates illegal smuggling and that introducing stricter laws that aim to limit border crossings does not guarantee these dangerous routes will close.

Meanwhile, government interventions that go beyond climate — in areas such as education, employment, and industry — have often been ineffective or even omitted from the discussion. Overlooking these causes lets key players — notably governments — off the hook.

It’s true that refugees seeking asylum often flee conflict or violence. But most other people migrating seek better employment opportunities, education, or a mix of both. The causes are complex and, of course, climate extremes can undermine economic systems and harm vulnerable communities.

But the reality is that we lack sufficient data to make claims linking climate and long-term migration patterns. For example, the evidence for desertification-induced migration — farmers pushed to leave their land suddenly as it becomes infertile — is limited. In fact, degradation is just one of a complex set of factors, including youths increasingly seeking alternative livelihoods. The UNHCR said as much in a report challenging the concept of “environmental refugees” as far back as 2001.

A 2018 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization points out that patterns of human settlement have always been affected by changes in local climate and that “migration can also be a part of climate change adaptation efforts.”

Safe and orderly migration can even potentially improve agricultural development and economic sustainability. Voluntary migration can bring positive change by improving food security for both source and destination countries. Scarcities caused by climate have to be balanced with human-induced scarcities and competition for resources. Climate change may be increasingly disruptive, but climate variability has affected agricultural systems for millennia, and rural societies have built coping mechanisms.

What has really changed in the last 50 years, however, is the dramatic increase in the world’s population. This means less land availability and a number of people being pushed into marginal production areas with higher sensitivities to climate extremes.

Social and economic barriers still limit small farmers and provide barriers to sustainable intensification, the term for producing more food with less land and environmental harm. So it’s hard to disentangle climate change from a host of other stresses and trends. Resource scarcity, population growth, changing youth aspirations, and market forces — along with inequalities within and between locations — are other major factors. In short, decisions to move from home areas are invariably complex, as is the relationship between migration and development in those areas.

Drawing simple conclusions is a fool’s errand. Governments blame climate stress for out-migration instead of identifying factors such as a weak economy, declining employment opportunities, or inadequate education systems churning out people with low levels of employability. Leaders propose reactive anti-migration policies rather than examining these causes — or taking a more rational view to support and safeguard migrants based on understanding the why of migration and how migration might support national development. In fact, myths about migrants often serve as useful political tools, and have done so since the 2008 financial crisis.

So how can we shift to a more “positive migration” policy program? We must invest in research on what causes migration and how to improve resource-sharing, both in countries of origin and host countries. Efforts by the International Water Management Institute under the Horizon 2020-funded AGRUMIG project focus on understanding these community transformations and putting migration at the forefront of the agricultural research agenda.

Our approach should include supporting policies that take a more nuanced “developmental” approach, linking migration to remittance streams and to agricultural and nonagricultural incomes in rural areas. What’s more, it should also mean better support for migrants who endure long and sometimes risky journeys so they can adapt and thrive in recipient areas and countries.

We also have to invest in supporting those left behind by family members who migrate. Women often lack access to the legal, social, and economic resources needed to take on new roles while maintaining household duties. Similarly, as young people leave rural areas, the elderly are often left behind to work the land alone. There are promising leads, such as setting up farmer collectives in India’s Bihar state in response to male migration and the feminization of agriculture.

Along with these efforts must come incentives for local people to remain home. This principally means better job markets, more diversified employment, education opportunities, and more social and financial support. Outsourcing employment is a risky business, particularly with recipient countries adopting stronger prevention strategies and labor markets being challenged by domestic politics. Yet the relationships between migration, employment, and self-employment remain complex. Effective employment policies are a must.

So instead of channeling funds into stopping migration, governments and international organizations should ensure inclusive economic development in countries of origin and unite in developing more progressive migration policy, such as that established in Sri Lanka. Then we might have a new story to tell — one in which migration is portrayed as a natural part of our complex world and climate change is a factor but not an excuse.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Alan Nicol

    Dr. Alan Nicol is the strategic program leader on promoting sustainable growth at the International Water Management Institute. A political scientist by training, Dr. Nicol has more than 20 years of experience in research, policy advice, consulting, and program development across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
  • Liza Debevec

    Dr. Liza Debevec is a senior researcher on social sciences at the International Water Management Institute. Her scientific work involves the protection and management of water, and her latest publication is a review of available tools for monitoring and assessing agricultural and social resilience to climate change.