Making Migration Resilience-Friendly in a Changing Climate

The new IPCC report indicates a considerable increase in future migration patterns, Luke Craven considers what happens to those who are left behind when others migrate.

'Climatalk' via flickr

What will be remembered most about our century is the shift of human populations. These movements will be both at the domestic level, as migrants trade agrarian life for the city, and internationally as coastal areas become increasingly uninhabitable. Yesterday’s IPCC report (working group II, AR5) has found that both levels of migration will be considerably amplified by climate change, drawing upon projections that suggest that in 2030, 12 million people will be displaced by sea-level rise in four coastal areas of the US alone. While economists speak of the inexorable benefits of the migration process in terms of ‘development’, we know surprisingly little about how migration affects the lives of those that are left behind.  Indeed, the effects of migration on social, political, institutional and cultural structures in migrants’ communities are chronically understudied.

At the same time, international development agencies and governments are trumpeting the potential of migration and remittances as a strategy to address the impacts of a changing climate.  The underlying assumption here is that migration builds resilience in sending communities – that it is a panacea to the problems of climate change.  Put simply, this assumption is misplaced.  Migrants alone can generally not mitigate the vulnerabilities they face at home.  Instead, migration may actually contribute to new vulnerabilities or reinforce the status quo.

For instance, in Melanesian communities that are traditionally held together by strong kinship ties, subsistence agricultural practices, and village-level local institutions, migration can tear at the very fabric of the community.  It is not my claim here that all change is a bad thing – far from it.  The problem is that significant levels of out-migration result in radical, deep-reaching changes, which modify the configuration of communities within a relatively short time span.  The stark reality is these communities struggle to adapt to changing circumstance, governments in the Third World are ill equipped, and the effectiveness of Western development assistance is questionable at best.

The above notwithstanding, migration is here to stay.   But we require a massive shift in the way that we think about the effects of migration, how we regulate the flow of migrants, and how we can best promote wellbeing in the places migrants call home.  At its simplest, this is a debate about making migration resilience-friendly.  Admittedly, this is not an easy task – but it is one that desperately requires our attention.

More than anything this requires a commitment to the local scale – especially to village life – to the poor, and to practical measures that can be taken to address social and environmental problems.  Such a commitment is often lost in economic analyses of migration where the focus is on higher-order political and economic reform.  To understand the complicated sets of variables that impact on local livelihoods, and the varied landscapes that migrant communities navigate, we must employ a broad, qualitative and holistic analytical toolbox – that is, one that can answer questions about the way migration affects cultural practice, local institutions, and traditional ways of life.

In 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development at the UN General Assembly by outlining an eight-point agenda to “make migration work” for the world’s 232 million migrants, as well as their countries of origin and destination.  His efforts should be applauded, but if anything is true about migration it is this: to make it it work – truly work – our first task it to make it resilience-friendly.  The findings contained in yesterday’s IPCC report make this all the more apparent.

Luke Craven  is a current PhD candidate at the University of Sydney in the Department of Government and International Relations. His research is broadly concerned with migration, food systems, sustainability, and the connections between them.