Schraven, B.: Policy Perspectives, 2012

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Policy Perspectives for Environmentally Induced Migration


Both sudden and slow onset ecological events have always had an impact on the movements of human populations. However, in the last decade and a half, in particular, the issue of environmentally induced migration has received a high degree of public attention, which must be perceived and analysed in the context of rising awareness and fear regarding the possible consequences of global climate change. As early as 1990, the IPCC was concerned that the most severe single impact of climate change could be ‘climigration’ (Bronen 2009), that is, environmental, or in particular, climate induced migration ‘with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and severe drought’ (IPCC 1990, 20; as cited in Warner and Laczko 2008, 235). The estimated numbers of environmental migrants in the future range up to several hundreds of millions by 2050 (Myers 1997; Myers 2005) or even up to one billion by 2060 (IOM 2009, 9). But are these numbers realistic and what are actually the current global trends in environmental migration? Further, what policy measures can be implemented to mitigate the need for environmental migration or its possible negative consequences? These questions shall be addressed in the following.

Current Trends in Environmental Migration

Looking at the current scientific debate, there is a consensus that migration decisions affected by ecological stimuli are very rarely affected by these factors solely but they are usually shaped by social, political and economic drivers as well. But despite the establishment of a several research initiatives focusing on the environment-migration nexus during the 2000s, there is still a discussion concerning a convincing classification of environmentally induced migration according to the severity of an ecological impact in migration decisions. The latest categorization approach by Renaud et al. (2011) has three categories: environmental emergency migration, environmentally forced migration, and environmentally motivated migration. Environmental emergency migrants are those who leave their homes in order to save their own lives, whereas environmental forced migrants leave their homes to avoid ‘the worst of environmental deterioration’ in cases of rapid onset hazards (Renaud 2010, 1); the usage of the term refugees (climate refugees or environmental refugees) for affected people in this context is increasingly rejected in the general discussion mainly due to misleading legal implications. In the case of slow onset hazards, environmental forced migrants do not face the same urgency for fleeing as environmental emergency migrants. The third category, environmentally motivated migrants, consists of people who may respond to environmental degradation with migration, but in this category, migration is neither a last resort nor an emergency action. The distinction between forced and motivated migrants is based on the question of whether an alternative livelihood under the occurrence of a slow onset hazard is possible. An environmental emergency migrant can turn into a motivated migrant if her impacted area faces a rapid and effective social, economic, and physical recovery, but she does not return. If an environmental emergency migrant does not return after a slow and ineffective overall recovery, then he can be classified as an environmental forced migrant. The categorization being introduced by Renaud et al. (2011) is still not fully convincing as it for instance remains totally unclear how to determine whether environmental factors are dominant, and what classifies someone as an environmental or non-environmental migrant remains, in the end, unanswered. Although the empirical basis of environmental migration generally is still rather weak, and the need to collect more data and sharpen the relevant concepts in this regard is imminent, based mainly on the results of the EACH-FOR project (2009) or the British Foresight Initiative on Migration and Global Environmental Change (2011)and new monitoring systems, it is possible to at least carefully identify certain trends concerning the current characteristics of environmental migrants on a global level. The following can be said about the global trends in environmental migration:

- The global number of people being displaced due to rapid onset hazards is according to the Disaster Database (EM-DAT), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council (OHCA-IDMC 2009) varying between 36 million people in 2008 (17% of the total global population affected by floods, storms, or earthquakes), 17 million in 2009 (15% of the total affected population worldwide), but and 42 million in 2010 (20%) (IDMC 2011).

- Environmental migration is mainly occurring in a voluntary or non-forced form and cannot be perceived as a new trend; it is rather a traditional (peasant) coping or adaptation strategy. Although other socioeconomic groups are also affected, many (agro-pastoral) smallholders, who are the vast majority of environmental migrants in many regions of the world, use migration to cope with certain, but mainly temporarily appearing, ecological events such as droughts/dry seasons or floods threatening their livelihoods.

- The migration of complete households is usually only the very last resort, if agro-pastoral livelihoods at the place of origin can no longer be maintained.

- Current trends underline Kniveton et al.’s (2008) assumption that there is no simple linear link between environmental change and migration. Affected people can only leave if they have adequate financial means for information and travelling costs; however, in addition to socioeconomic or political factors, environmental degradation may have a severe effect on one’s livelihood opportunities, and thus one’s chances of earning a certain amount of money.

- Environmental migrants are mainly migrating within their own countries or regions. It is rare that such affected people migrate internationally, but when they do so, they usually go to directly neighbouring countries, or to countries within the region that share a certain link, such as a common colonial past or the same spoken language (see also Afifi and Warner 2008).

- Possible socio-economic or socio-political implications of environmentally induced migrations such as conflicts or rapid urbanisation seem to be obvious but certainly need to be researched in a much more intensive way.

- One must not oversee that there is a certain global tendency that many people are rather moving to places of ecological vulnerability than leaving these. This is predominantly valid for (flood-prone) urban areas.

Policy Responses to Environmental Migration
International Governance Mechanisms for Environmental Migration – Leading and Prospective Solutions

Although the importance of a rights-based approach particularly for protecting environmental forced migrants has often been stressed (e.g. Zetter 2009), there are currently no international legal instruments that explicitly address the issue of environmental migration, which, in the viewpoint of international law and discussion circles, is usually restricted to environmental forced migration. Some authors such as McAdam (2009) or Ammer (2009) have examined several existing international legal frameworks in the areas of international refugee laws, human rights regulations, and environmental and labour laws concerning their (potential) appropriateness for regulating environmental displacement or offering protective mechanisms. Although existing legal instruments and frameworks generally have potential, they are thus far largely inadequate for offering effective protection for environmental forced migrants. However, what would be a way ahead concerning the foundation of legal mechanisms that really address the issue of international environmentally induced forced migration? Angenendt (2011) has basically identified three options in such a discussion: a widening of the Geneva Protocol and international refugee laws; the establishment of a new environmental migration regime; or enhancing the debate on strengthening, widening, and/or interconnecting the existing international law instruments and norms for the protection of human security described above. A widening of the Geneva Protocol will likely not be favourable due to the danger of diluting or weakening the Protocol in general, which in the past decades has already experienced a certain degree of erosion due to the increasingly restrictive refugee and asylum policies of many industrial countries. Likewise, the establishment of a special international environmental migration regime as proposed by Biermann and Boas (2010) is increasingly being perceived as non-effective, since it is expected that negotiations aiming at establishing an effective regime for environmentally forced migrants would last for years if not decades given the experience of long negotiations in other international conventions and long and hard implementation processes (Bauer 2010; Angenendt 2011). Enhancing the debate on the effective strengthening of existing legal frameworks and bringing forward a rights-based protection approach seem to be more promising in this regard. According to Angenendt (2011) or Zetter (2009), such debate can create a significant amount of genuine potential, although it will not offer concrete instruments of action. However, it can show the way forward for concrete policies and strategies for environmentally induced migrants. While there is little doubt in the literature that states will be the main actors in finding policy responses toward environmentally induced migration, the role of (institutionalised) international cooperation may be a realistic and adequate way toward the monitoring, agenda setting, awareness, and implementation issues regarding environmentally induced migration. At the level of international bodies – and, as shown below, at the regional and national levels – the issue of environmentally induced migration was for a long time a widely neglected issue and only in recent years has raised some eyebrows. The question is, how to come up with a solution toward more international coherence, and which organisation can take the lead? McAdam (2009) has identified four international spheres of governance and the corresponding institutions, which in some cases have a degree of responsibility in two or more of the other areas mentioned. These spheres include the following:

- Migration and asylum (UNHCR, IOM, OHCHR, The Hague Process on Refugees and Migration, International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), etc.)
- Environment (UNFCCC, UNEP, IPCC, UNCCD, etc.) - Development (UNDP, UNFPA, IISD, ILO, etc.)
- Humanitarian rights and aid agencies (OHCHR, UNFPA, etc.)

None of these organisations provides a comprehensive international framework towards state regulations of environmentally induced migration, and some institutions even have conflicting mandates or such a ‘limited/partial perspective that the phenomenon as a whole remains beyond their scope’ (McAdam 2009, 168). McAdam (2009) therefore proposes the establishment of an inter-agency and a multi-sector oriented group with one coordinating institution or focal point as a pragmatic and efficient strategy for creating an effective body capable of providing institutional leadership and guidance. This agency will need to be an agglomeration of relevant UN organisations and non-UN-related agencies (such as the IOM) that can make use of all the particular expertise of the institutions involved. The major duties of such an inter-agency group would be a constant and intensified risk assessment (i.e. the identification of areas that are or will be facing environmental migration); information provisioning and consultation of affected states, regions, and communities, which would include concrete recommendations for place-specific adaptation measures; providing the means for humanitarian aid; raising global awareness; pushing the process toward adequate international legislation (see above); and improving our scientific knowledge on the issue (Renaud, Bogardi et al. 2007; Boano, Zetter et al. 2008; McAdam 2009). But so far, the issue of environmentally induced migration is quite important to some of the institutions mentioned whereas there is a lot of reluctance to deal with the issue of environmentally induced migration in other institutions. Furthermore, it is totally unclear which organisation could take the lead in setting up an inter-agency focusing on environmental migration. However, in addition to the issues of achieving more international cooperation in the area of environmental migration, however, it is certain that a successful global limitation of greenhouse gas emissions within a Post-Kyoto regime, curbing the worst effects of climate change as well as the removal of unfair barriers in world trade, which have the potential to open up new income opportunities for millions of smallholders, could lastingly mitigate the need for environmentally induced migration.

Policy Recommendations for Regional and National Levels

For the bilateral or regional level, it is highly recommended in the literature that policies and governance mechanisms aiming at regulating (environmentally induced) migration be established in order to offer reliable protection in the absence of an internationally accepted legal framework, and to improve the portability of social benefits across borders (Black, Kniveton et al. 2008). Thus far, environmentally induced migration is hardly an issue. Only a few countries have for instance established special schemes allowing persons to immigrate and remain (at least) temporarily when their home country has experienced a severe natural disaster. On the national level, the major and rather general recommendation for addressing environmental migration is surely its integration into the areas of environmental policies, disaster relief, and in particular, sustainable and inclusive development and a strengthening of the areas mentioned, which focuses not only on (potential) migrants but also on those who are usually left behind, as such people – the very young, elderly, or sick – are generally the most vulnerable of rural populations (Warner 2010). An entry point is widely perceived as integrating the issue of environmental migration into environmental politics, in particular into National Adaptation Plans of Action (NAPAs), which under the UNFCCC specifically address the specific adaptation needs of the Least Developed Countries (LDC), or accordant adaptation action plans for non-LDCs (Martin 2009). However, although the literature is usually not very concrete concerning practical measures, smallholder oriented rural development is certainly a key factor – taking into consideration that smallholders are the large majority of (potential) environmentally induced migrants. After decades of neglect by national states and the international donor community beginning with the period of structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s, the issue of peasant agriculture and rural development has re-entered the international policy arena; the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) or 2009 G8 promise to allocate 20 billion dollars for rural/smallholder development for a three-year period are prominent examples. In light of massive climatic changes, it is certainly no less important to promote a whole range of adaptation and mitigation strategies in the agricultural sector ranging from green/organic farming, mixed cropping, harvest failure insurances and other risk management tools, green manure techniques, and soil conservation measures to water storage facilities or improved crop varieties according to the locally specific conditions and potentials. However, the facilitation of alternative non-agricultural livelihood strategies and non-farm-related insurances and risk management instruments is also a crucial point, since non-farming opportunities have gained a great importance for many smallholders in developing countries within the last decades (Bryceson 1996). But adaptive rural development should not be understood as a pure migration-reduction tool – although many national governments are still rather focusing on how to curb migration - migration is a necessary coping or adaptation strategy in times of need, or when the economic prospects are promising. To progress with regard to the policy options mentioned, new modes of governance might be required to increase the resilience of those who migrate as well as those who stay behind. In addition to increased harmonization efforts in practical implementation across different sectors, Warner (2010) highly recommends the establishment of national and sub-national policy dialogue platforms, which bring together all relevant actors and in particular the affected population in order to enhance the general understanding of how environmental/climate change is affecting local livelihoods and migration patterns and to better shape accordant policy responses. A crucial task will be the integration of migrants and their networks, which are oftentimes rather marginalized groups, in such a policy dialogue, as well as in the related policy formulation process since migrant networks play an essential role in providing migrants with employment or accommodation. Generally, the protection of rights (in particular, land tenure security and worker protection) and the provisioning of better public services for many (environmental) migrants, in addition to non-migrant population groups, are issues that need to be addressed by national governments.


Although the empirical basis is still rather weak, the international research efforts on the issue of environmentally induced migration, which have been established so far, support some conclusions on the state of the art. First of all, it seems that rather voluntary migration forms are the (globally) dominant forms of environmental migration. The temporary migration of one or more household members can be perceived as a traditional coping strategy in times of environmental stress; the migration of whole households is usually only a last resort. Environmentally induced migration is in the global perspective predominantly happening within the borders of countries or within sub-regions but it is hardly related to large-scale international migration (e.g. from Africa to Europe). Generally, given the mostly very complex determinants of migration decisions, the socio-economic implications of environmental migration are not very well researched. The question what policy recommendations can be formulated for the international level with regard to environmental migration is not easy to answer. When it comes to the protection of particularly environmentally forced migrants, existing instruments of international law are currently not sufficient. In the discussion on how to achieve more and better international legal protection mechanisms for these migrants, there is a certain tendency towards strengthening and harmonising existing legal frameworks instead of trying to establish a specific environmental migration regime. A possible solution for creating more coherence and a strengthening of legal instruments as well as for setting international policy standards would be the establishment of a institutionalised international cooperation on environmentally induced migration of both UN- and non-UN-affiliated organisations from the fields of migration, development, environment and humanitarian affairs. But it is still rather unclear which organisation potentially could take the lead in such a process and how to overcome the reluctance in that regard in particular of national states. Likewise, recommendations given in the literature support a strengthening and harmonisation of the areas of migration, sustainable development, disaster relief and environmental politics for addressing environmentally induced migration in particular on the national and sub-national but also on regional levels. Given the fact that environmental migration is predominantly a smallholders’ issue, a key function can definitively be seen in a promotion of peasant oriented rural development efforts. But it would be a mistake to perceive such efforts as a pure migration reduction tool taking into consideration the huge meaning of migration as coping strategy under extreme events. Therefore, addressing environmentally induced migration has also to include an improvement of public service and infrastructure provision for migrants, planned and voluntary resettlement schemes (in case that no other option is possible) and new modes of governance that include all relevant groups such as migrant networks or farmer associations in target-oriented (and locally specific) policy formulation and implementation processes.


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