Disaster and climate change will not automatically lead to a surge of environmental migrants. By reducing exposure to risks and by building resilience, and putting preventive measures in place, it is possible to reduce the number of people affected and those who will be forced to move due to environmental factors.
Sieun Lee is a Programme Officer of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva. Sieun first delved into the topic of environmental migration in 2009, while initially researching about climate change negotiations. While reading key climate change decisions and policies, she realised that the human face of climate change was largely absent in dialogues and on paper. This led to her interest and determination to work in environmental migration, and to be a voice for those forced to leave their homes due to the effects of climate change.
In recent years, the attention on environmental migration has grown immensely from all angles — especially in research and media; however many countries do not yet have policies and programmes in place to address the concerns and needs of the population at risk, and through her work at IOM, Sieun is devoted to see such developments where needed most.
When we talk about environmental migrants, does that mean that the environment is the only factor of the migration?
Environmental migrants are “persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad”.
As you can see in IOM’s definition of environmental migration, changes in the environment could play a major role in driving migration, but often, except in the case of disaster-displacement, other factors such as political and social factors will come into play. And as seen in the case of Syria, environmental factors and conflicts both had an impact on migration. So it’s very difficult to isolate these factors from one another. What we do know is that we need work to ensure “safe, orderly” migration, whatever the major driver of migration may be.
What are the regions that are the most at risk today when we talk about environmental migration, and why?
According to data on people displaced due to disasters, Asia has ranked the top region with most new displacements per year, accounting for 82% of total displacement from 2008 to 2014 (IDMC, 2015). This trend has continued as shown in the most recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (2017), which shows that in 2016, Asia again had the highest number of people displaced, mainly due to weather related events — such as typhoon in the Philippines and floods in China and India. In the last three years, Horn of Africa has been severely affected by drought, which has heavily taken a toll on food security and livelihood leading to displacement but also linked with other factors such as conflict.
The number of people displaced per year gives us a snapshot of the situation at hand, however, the numbers do not reveal how many people are at risk living in areas vulnerable to climate change in the future. It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of people migrating or being displaced by slow or sudden onset events. Also, numbers are only available from countries where such data is collected after a disaster hits, and in some countries such data is not systematically collected; and we do not have reliable figures on people displaced across borders.
If we look at the predicted adverse impacts of climate change, it is estimated that many people living in small island developing states (SIDS) will be facing greater risks of being forced to migrate or to move as a preventive measure to cope with the changing climate. Another “hotspot” will be coastal cities exposed to sea-level rise and river flooding. For example, in West Africa many of the capitals are located near the coast, where there is increasingly in-migration from rural areas into the cities, which may lead to high demographic pressure in at-risk areas. This also applies to Asia where megacities are located in low-lying coastlines.