Q&A: Climate change and IDPs — adapting to the changing reality of migration

Internally displaced Syrians at a camp located in Idlib, Syria. Photo by: REUTERS / Umit Bektas

WASHINGTON — In the past 20 years, the number of people migrating globally has jumped from 150 million to 272 million. While the vast majority of that movement is safe, legal, and regularized, the total number of both refugees and internally displaced persons has nearly doubled.

This analysis is part of the International Organization for Migration’s newest “World Migration Report,” a document the organization produces every two years to examine trends in movement across the globe.

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Although overall migration data shows the international system works to regulate migration, events such as conflict and climate change challenge IOM’s response to most vulnerable populations, according to Marie McAuliffe, head of the Migration Policy Research Division at IOM’s Department of International Cooperation and Partnerships.

“On the whole, most migration is safe, it is orderly, it is regulated, it does work well.”

— Marie McAuliffe, head of the Migration Policy Research Division, IOM Department of International Cooperation and Partnerships

“We do need to be supported more by states, and that’s well recognized. And that is why the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration was developed and negotiated,” McAuliffe said. “Yet the anomaly is that, at the same time, we’re having a geopolitical environment that is really difficult in terms of institutions and democracy ... being eroded.”

Despite those challenges, IOM and the wider U.N. system must continue to focus on action and delivery to vulnerable populations who are migrating, McAuliffe said. She sat down with Devex following the launch of the “World Migration Report” in Washington to discuss how IOM and the international system can adapt to changing realities of migration, including internal displacement and climate migration.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Did any of the findings in your report surprise you?

I’ve been working in this area for such a long time. It’s more about what others find surprising which I get surprised at. I was doing media interviews after the report was released in Geneva. The media folk were saying, “So, what you’re telling me is the general trend globally is on track, and it’s quite stable?” And I’m saying, “Yes, that’s right.” They’re really surprised to hear that.

Then there’s the little caveat, which is the “however.” There are big events that do challenge governance arrangements. They challenge communities — those people who have been displaced. Venezuela is one very, very current, salient example at the moment. And Syria is so, so profound and exceptional. Those are kind of the “howevers.”

On the whole, most migration is safe, it is orderly, it is regulated, it does work well. But it is the small amount that we really, really need to be focusing our attention — not so much necessarily in crisis ways. There are some pockets of residual populations, especially in Greece, for example, that really need our attention and support, including with donors and member states and civil society organizations that we work with to deliver services. Most of the time, I'm surprised that people are surprised that migration is positive, that it is well managed, because that’s not what we hear in the media.

I did a big data analysis of media and migration in 13 countries. One of the things that we found that is consistent across all of the countries is that the biggest voices in the traditional media are politicians. This was consistent across every single country. We did sentiment analysis that looked at whether it was positive or negative, and that does change with political waves. But the one thing bound right the way through is that it’s politicians who have the biggest voice on this topic everywhere, regardless of the level of development, regardless of the thematic areas. It’s politicians who are heard in the traditional media on migration issues.

Does the international system currently have the means to make migration from those “howevers” — Syria, Venezuela, other conflict areas — regular and orderly?

The one that we really need to be working a lot more on is displacement. We’ve seen better statistics coming through, better data collection, so I definitely acknowledge that. But we’re also seeing a trend where we’ve got more people who are in displaced populations, and they’re not being resettled and they’re not being assisted. They’re not being repatriated back. That’s a real challenge.

It’s completely normal, and we do understand that historically, of course, there has been transnational and civil conflict. At the moment though, if you look at the Peace Index, we’re in a very good place. And yet the sentiment and the discussion and the narrative is very doomsday, “the sky is falling,” and it’s all crisis-related. But when you look at the big metrics, we’ve had wildly successful long-term human development achievements globally. That’s not to say there are not still challenges, but proportionality is very much missing in this discussion.

How does the response to displacement need to change?

I think the international system has really served migrants and member states very, very well for a long time. I think it is being undermined deliberately in certain ways. But also the way that people move, their ability to move, has changed. The risk is: If you open up the international protection system, it will be written down in the current environment. I think everybody is quite keenly aware of that and needs to make sure that there is continued focus, or I would even say renewed focus — certainly when you look at the Global Compact on Refugees — on action.

There’s a real anomaly when you look at displacement data. We’ve gone from — still large numbers — 14 million refugees in 2000 to 25.9 million, for example. And [internally displaced persons] is an even more pronounced increase. We’ve got very good data collections systems in place, but then we’ve actually got dwindling support and action occurring. What we do need is greater political will. We do need the support of states.

We are increasingly seeing the support of the private sector being involved actively in terms of impact work. They understand how important safeguarding peace and prosperity and stability globally and regionally is, so they’re becoming much more involved. We have a whole range of nonstate actors, nongovernmental organizations, civil society who are increasingly becoming active in this work in terms of delivering this action, not just dialogue and discussion.

Displacement due to climate change is increasing but is not a formal criterion for being considered a refugee. Should this change?

I think there’s a real challenge there in understanding that the issue of primary concern is climate change for all of us, globally. For all of our lives in very immediate ways: in how we live, in how we eat. We’ve got increasing issues around disasters.

It’s not just about cross-border displacement. Internal displacement is far more significant and profound. But it also is linked to cross-border displacement. We need to be very clear about understanding that there isn’t the appetite within the international community, and recent decisions have confirmed that in regards to climate refugees.

We have to be working together collaboratively to look at what the science is telling us — not getting caught into squabbling over particular scenarios, but understanding the trend. The trend, it’s clear. It’s up.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.