Gemenne, F./Reckien, D./Hill, J.: Policy Options to Support Climate-induced Migration, 2012

Download PDF Document



Human migration – including forced displacement – is expected to become one of climate change’s key impacts upon societies. Though the amplitude of these migration movements remains difficult to forecast, climate change might become the major driver of migration in the 21st century. The nature and the amplitude of these migration movements will be determined, to a large extent, by the policy responses that will address the social dimensions of climate change. Thus an appropriate attention to the subject now can help prevent forced displacement and improve the resilience of the most vulnerable countries and communities.

In Asia and the Pacific, these impacts will be further compounded by non-climate related natural disasters and other environmental changes, making it the region where most migration and displacement is likely to happen. Asia and the Pacific is disproportionately affected by natural disasters: in 2010, the three countries that were hit by the most disasters were the People’s Republic of China, India and the Philippines. Between 1974 and 2003, about half of disasters worldwide took place in Asia and the Pacific. In the decade 2000-2009, it accounted for 85% of global fatalities related to disasters.

Climate-induced migration is part of the broader framework of migration dynamics. As such, we do not consider in this paper that climate change induces a distinct category of migrants, but rather interplays with other drivers of migration. Similarly, we consider that migration is one of a number of possible responses to climate change. The policy responses and normative frameworks that address climate-induced migration remain scattered and highly inadequate. A key reason for this in Asia and the Pacific is the lack of reliable data about the nature and extent of population movements in general, and especially those related to environmental changes. In particular, little is known about the factors that induce some of those people affected by climate change to migrate while others stay behind. As a result of this lack of information, the very nature of migration is generally not well understood, and climate-induced migration had until recently received much less attention than economic or conflict-induced migration.

This paper first outlines some key initial facts on climate-induced migration in Asia-Pacific, then goes on to suggest some policy options, including funding mechanisms. It should be noted that this discussion paper should in no way be interpreted as reflecting the official position of ADB on this issue.

1. Climate-induced migration in Asia and the Pacific

Asia and the Pacific will be amongst the global regions most affected by the impacts of climate change, be they slow-onset changes or brutal catastrophic events. Such impacts include significant temperature increases, changing rainfall patterns, greater monsoon variability, sea-level rise, floods, and more intense tropical cyclones (Cruz et al. 2007). Asia and the Pacific is particularly vulnerable because of its already high degree of exposure to environmental risks, high population density, particularly at the coasts, and the high vulnerability of particular social or economic groups. Within Asia and the Pacific, climate change is expected to take the heaviest toll on the Pacific, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Globally, 8 of the 10 countries with the greatest number of people living in low-elevation coastal zones are located here. As a result, it could experience population displacements of unprecedented scale in the coming decades.

At the same time, Asia and the Pacific has undergone massive and rapid socioeconomic transformation. It is home to 4 billion people, representing 60% of the world’s population. It is also home to the most important source of international migrants worldwide. Migration within countries, especially from rural to urban areas, is another major factor of social transformation. One of the most striking demographic trends in Asia and the Pacific in recent decades has been an increase in the level and complexity of population mobility. Existing migration corridors and channels are expected to be further used by future migrants, including those displaced because of environmental disruptions. The capacity of some of these channels could be overwhelmed because of additional fluxes of migrants.

Countries and populations of Asia and the Pacific will be affected by climate change in different ways, leading to various migration scenarios. While most climate-induced migration will occur within countries, there is also likely to be an increase in cross-border migration. These migration flows will amplify the broader trend of rapid urbanization and leave the cities with a lack of resources to accommodate the influx of migrants, especially if cities continue to develop following Western models of urbanisation. Large-scale migration could thus threaten social cohesion and stability in receiving communities.

Conversely, migration can also be considered as part of a personal adaptation strategy and does not necessarily signal a failure to adapt. Indeed, in many circumstances, out-migration can serve as a way of coping with climate change, as well as a mechanism to reduce poverty and increase resilience in affected areas. In the near future, migration – most likely circular or temporary migration – will be a more common form of adaptation and response to the impact of climate change than the displacement of entire communities, which will occur as a last resort once adaptation possibilities and community resilience are exhausted. The most vulnerable groups however, including poor women, the elderly and socially marginalized, often lack the resources that would allow them to migrate, and are thus unable to use migration as an adaptation strategy.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate poverty and health problems, but will also interplay with other environmental disruptions. Asia and the Pacific was the region most affected by disasters during the last decade, accounting for 85% of global fatalities due to natural disasters during 2000–2009. The number of catastrophic events has more than doubled since the decade of 1980–1989.

In East Asia, several of the People’s Republic of China’s megacities are located in coastal and inner valley areas vulnerable to coastal and riparian flooding and inundation. An increasing number of cities are also vulnerable to earthquakes because of poor land use management, poor governance, lack of compliance to building regulations, etc. These at-risk populations are projected to grow substantially. In the region, more than 60% of the people depend directly on agriculture for their livelihoods, a large number of them in poverty, and the majority of the population in hot spots is now rural. Climate related events are expected to contribute to rural–urban migration substantially, which means a much larger urban population than now as early as in 2020. Despite that, the People’s Republic of China has already the largest number of people (almost 80 million) living in cities at less than 10 meters above current sea level. The country has also implemented some major relocation programmes as a way to combat desertification.

In Southeast Asia, coastal flooding poses the greatest risk induced by climate change, with around one-third of the Southeast Asian population living in high-risk areas. These populations are concentrated in Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and Viet Nam (including Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City). Southeast Asian megacities are growing rapidly, due to both natural growth and rural–urban migration, and many of them are located in zones of seismic risks. Urban vulnerability is also linked to food security: in Viet Nam, for example, the rice growing areas of the Mekong delta are highly vulnerable to salinisation. Southeast Asian countries figure prominently among countries with the largest numbers of urban dwellers in coastal areas at risk of inundation (with 3 of 10 of the world’s countries with the highest populations in low-elevation coastal zones) as well as in those with the largest proportions of their national populations at risk of coastal inundation. Another considerable threat is the risk posed by cyclones. With regard to migration, the region is characterised by a wide diversity in migration patterns: while some countries tend to send migrants abroad, others are more of receiving countries.

South Asia, with around a quarter of the world’s population and continuing high levels of poverty, is also an area at risk of being affected by the impacts of climate change, in addition to being a zone prone to earthquakes. Large populations in India live in areas likely to experience increased riparian flooding and increasing water stress as a result of climate change—major factors that will lead to lower agricultural productivity. A significant number will also be affected by coastal flooding, while others will be displaced because of coastal and riverbank erosion. Bangladesh also figures prominently in global discussions of climate change, given its millions of poor living in the deltaic regions and already subject to severe environmental hazard. The country is already at high risk of severe or catastrophic environmental hazards, with flood risk from sea surges, river flow, and local rainfall events, as well as coastal and riverbank erosion. Moreover, migration is increasingly being used within India and Bangladesh as a coping mechanism in the face of environmental and economic challenges (Afsar 2005, Siddiqui 2005). With changes in environmental and climatic conditions, Bangladesh will increasingly face the challenge of resettling and rehabilitating the affected population. The country’s international networks will, therefore, play a vital role in times of future environmental crises. In Nepal, climate change impacts, such as more extreme monsoon rainfall and associated landslides and floods, would impoverish many Nepalis in the hill and mountain valley regions. Furthermore, glacial lake outburst floods will become more frequent, leading to a potentially significant increase in migration to other areas. Pakistan has also long been subject to floods and other major disasters – last year, floods of the Indus River displaced more than 17 million people. With an average elevation of 1.5 metres, the Maldives could see their very existence at threat because of rising sea level. The highest peak of the country’s 1190 islands is only 2.3 metres, and the population is scattered over 200 islands.

The concept of climate-induced migration is not new in Central Asia. The region has experienced some of the world’s most dramatic environmental crises of recent years, with water problems predominant. A large part of the region’s population lives in areas at high risk of increased water stress due to climate change. Population growth in hot spots in each of the Central Asian countries indicates that, except for Kazakhstan, almost all of the population in the region is living in areas at risk of climate change impact, and the impact is almost entirely increased water stress as a result of reduced rainfall and runoff. The impact of climate change is exacerbated by a high degree of socioeconomic vulnerability. Average incomes are low, poverty is high, and governance is often weak, while many are reliant upon agriculture for livelihood.

Finally, the Pacific region faces significant challenges from climate change, especially rising sea levels, cyclones, droughts, and storm surges. Low-lying atolls and coral islands have drawn global attention to the potentially devastating impacts on small nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati. The situation is exacerbated by a demographic crisis, including high population growth, especially in the Melanesia subregion, and a bulging youth segment. With the exception of Papua New Guinea, virtually the entire national populations of the island states are to be considered hot spots of substantial impact, although the coastal areas are most at risk. Some countries have already explored with Australia and New Zealand different plans for the relocation of their populations. In Papua New Guinea, the southern coast and several low-lying islands are vulnerable to the effects of an increase in sea levels, while substantial inland areas are vulnerable to riparian flooding. Two-thirds of the population at risk from coastal flooding resides in urban areas, while almost all of those at risk of riparian flooding live in rural areas. There has already been some relocation of people from the Carteret Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea, due to the threat of inundation from a combination of subsidence, storm surge, and sea-level rise. Relocation from the islands of Bougainville also began recently.

2.  Policy responses 

In our view, the policy responses for Asia-Pacific should address 6 overarching themes:

2.1. Recognise that migration can be part of the solution

Climate-induced migration has often been portrayed in a negative light, one that presented the migrants either as resourceless victims or agents of conflicts. We believe it is important to recognize that:

-       migrants are resourceful agents. Migration can also be a coping and/or adaptation strategy;

-       migration represents an improvement of human security, and not necessarily a threat to security.

In many countries of the region, migration can touch upon a confluence of interests, as richer countries could accommodate migrants from poorer countries in order to fill in gaps in the labour market and sustain demographic and economic growths. At the same time, these migrants could send remittances to their families, which would diversify their sources of income and thus reduce their vulnerability to environmental changes. There are many examples of mutually-benefiting migration agreements throughout the region. Such agreements could be expanded as a way for communities affected by environmental changes to better cope with these changes. Overall, reducing the barriers to migration on a regional scale and facilitating regional mobility could greatly benefit the migrants, the origin and destination countries in the context of climate change.

A major issue here is that in general the poorest groups have been least able to migrate due to their limited resources and connections.  Yet they are the group most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Thus a key policy challenge will be to facilitate migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change.  Policy and programme interventions will be required if the poor are to be able to enhance existing channels but also to encourage the development of new channels within countries.  A particular group that requires attention are poorer residents of large cities vulnerable to climate change impacts. They often live in areas most at risk of experiencing both gradual and sudden environmental hazards. It is important that mechanisms and resources be made available to the poorest populations to encourage their participation in migration as a way of adapting to climate change. Too often, these vulnerable populations are forgotten by policy-makers. Any initiative aiming at better assisting those who leave should not forget those who are forced to stay; one should work towards the establishment of a genuine right to mobility.

While most climate change related migration will occur within countries, there is likely to be an increase in international migration associated with climate change impacts as well.  The key here is on building upon the already substantial international migration corridors, as well as identifying the potential for new flows.  Rather than establishing a new category of climate-induced migrants – which is very difficult for a number of methodological and political reasons – one should work within the existing migration categories to accommodate the additional, climate-induced migration.  Few destination countries would be willing to accept a new category of ‘climate change migrants’.  A range of existing channels for migration are already in place, and the demographic reality in those low fertility and ageing countries is that there will be an increased need for migration to sustain their workforces in the future.

2.2. Improve the data and knowledge

A major limitation of all policy initiatives will be the lack of data, and especially of quantitative data. In particular, for many states in Asia and the Pacific, there is a lack of appropriate data to:

-       be spatially and temporally specific about the location, extent, timing and nature of climate change and its likely impacts ;

-   establish accurately and comprehensively the contemporary patterns of internal and international mobility.

Accordingly, there is a need for improved data collection, modelling and analysis of both climate change and migration for the individual countries in the region.  Several countries may need external assistance to facilitate this.

The improvement of data needs to address both the collection of migration data and the downscaling of climate models. In many countries, statistical information on both internal and cross-border migration is not consistently collected. At the same time, support will be needed to downscale climate models so that they can be more precise in terms of the location of the most vulnerable areas.

Finally, it is important to point out that qualitative information is also absent in many cases. There’s a need to improve and increase the number of empirical studies on climate-induced migration, so that policy responses can rely on a more robust understanding of migration patterns, drivers, networks, etc.

2.3. Build capacities

For migration to play an effective role as an adaptation and response mechanism to the effects of climate change in a way that does not result in further deterioration of the living conditions of the communities affected, but instead facilitates an improvement in their well-being, it is necessary for appropriate policies and programmes to be formulated and operationalised. Effective management and governance of migration, both international and internal, will be required if migration is to play an effective role in responding to climate change.  Building sound migration management capacity to enable this is, therefore, a fundamental, basic requirement. 

In particular, it is important to improve the utilisation of current migration channels to accommodate climate-induced migration. These channels should reinforced in order to allow for increased migration flows. The sending of remittances by migrants should be facilitated, as it can greatly reduce the vulnerability of families and communities living in regions at risk. Migration channels could also be improved through the provision of better, portable services for migrants, such as social benefit (with regard to health services in particular) or access to financial services.
When relocation is considered, it will be vital to learn from past efforts so that the schemes can be improved to better address the needs of the relocated populations.

Too often, migration is also not considered in national and local climate strategies. Significant awareness-raising efforts will be needed in order to alert regional, national and local leaders about the importance of including migration in climate policies and strategies.

2.4. Improve governance and cooperation

It is expected that most migration will occur within national boundaries. However, both for reasons of equity and efficiency, international cooperation is most advisable. Promoting regional cooperation through dialogue and deliberation to enable knowledge sharing, risk pooling, and security provision for environment migrants – both internal and international – should therefore be on the core agenda. Security concerns will be particularly crucial in case of women climate migrants as they are highly exposed to personal security risks such as sexual violence and trafficking.

In same cases, it is expected to relocation and relocation of communities will be necessary. When inland relocation is not possible, as it could be the case for some island communities, international cooperation and support will be needed. In all cases, the participation of affected communities to the decisional process will be vital to limit negative impact on culture and social networks, and to ensure livelihood opportunities and social services after relocation.

Overall, adequate protection frameworks will be needed on regional and global scale. Currently, there are no international legal frameworks that specifically target the people displaced by environmental disruption. Numerous instruments and mechanisms exist however, but are little known, let alone implemented. It is important to gather these instruments together, publicise them, then work towards filling up policy gaps.
Such protection frameworks will be particularly important in the cases of forced displacement – be it because of a sudden or slow-onset disaster – and relocation.

2.5. Mainstream urban management and disaster risk management with adaptation policies

The movement of people to cities, which will be reinforced by climate change, will require better urban planning – including incentives to settle in mess vulnerable areas -, greater investment in basic infrastructure, and portable social benefits for migrants.

Evidently, cities – and in particular megacities – lack the carrying capacity to accommodate the likely influx of climate-induced migrants. Urban development patterns will need to be re-thought so that cities can grow in a more sustainable way and provide adequate services to their populations.

Disaster risk management is a key tool to boost the resilience of vulnerable communities. Climate-proofing of urban infrastructure can be a key part of disaster-risk management in the context of climate change. Regional cooperation should be strengthened in the field of disaster risk management, especially with regard to technology and knowledge transfer. Overall, disaster risk management should be further mainstreamed into adaptation policies, with a view to preventing forced displacement.

Further, adaptation policies of most developing countries have not yet considered the land use and public health risks that (large-scale) migration can cause. Therefore, it is important that adaptation funding also address the receiving urban areas, in order that urban in-migration and impact on urban settlements can be implemented as a component of climate change strategies. Possible areas of intervention would be affordable housing, slum rehabilitation, public health, water supply, sewage and sanitation.

2.6. Set up sustainable funding mechanisms

Significant funding will be required to facilitate a regional, holistic approach to migration.  As part of this approach, the use of migration as an adjustment or coping mechanism in the face of climate change will need funds to be raised and channelled through mechanisms which distribute them in an effective and equitable way. Different funding schemes already exist, and are described in the following section. While some agencies and funding schemes have already begun to prepare for the migration impacts of climate change, more research, dialogue, and action will be needed both to evaluate the impacts on existing funding structures and to determine how they can be used and combined to address climate-induced migration.

There is a major role for bilateral funding arrangements between poorer nations at risk and better off countries. Different funding avenues could be used, and do not need to be limited to climate change-related mechanisms.

Considering current funding constraints, the lack of any fund dedicated exclusively to climate-induced migration, and the potential for climate change to cause significant increases in both internal and cross-border migration, the question to the most effective mechanism for funding climate-induced migration remains. Isolated funding for migration may not produce the most optimal results either politically or economically, while an integrated strategy bears the challenge to dedicate adequate focus to the beneficial option of migration.

François Gemenne, Diana Reckien, Jonathan Hill, 2012