From Problem to Opportunity: Migration in the age of climate change

What do flight and migration have to do with natural disasters and climate change? Here are three common misunderstandings and a novel approach.


Misunderstanding 1: Climate change gives rise to an increasing number of natural disasters, and that is why more and more people are migrating.

Yes, it is true. Anthropogenic climate change does lead to more frequent and often more powerful hurricanes, floods, and droughts. A severe tropical storm may cause the loss of many lives while devastating infrastructure and property. Ultimately, such events may lead to the evacuation and displacement of tens of thousands of people. For instance, in 2016 about 23.5 million people were driven from their homes by natural disasters. Yet we must distinguish between temporary displacements and permanent migration. Following natural calamities, most people can return home, rebuild, and resume the lives they formerly had led. More devastating than individual extreme events are creeping environmental changes like desertification, soil degradation, altered patterns of precipitation, and rising sea levels. These changes are far more likely to disrupt people’s livelihoods and force them to find other ways and means to make ends meet. One option they have is to seek a “better” place to live. In such cases, however, environmental devastation and natural disasters often prove to be the catalysts rather than the true causes of migration. Chronic poverty, landlessness or having too little land, a scarcity of local job opportunities, and lack of support by the state in one’s home region combined with more promising opportunities for work, education, and life generally in another location that has already been discovered and publicized by other migrants are usually far more important factors than climate change.

Misunderstanding 2: “Environmental migration” is an international phenomenon, and that explains why more and more “climate refugees” are coming here.

No, it is not true that hundreds of thousands of “climate refugees” are coming to Europe, nor is this likely to happen in the foreseeable future. Forecasts predicting the arrival of somewhere between 25 million and a billion people driven from their homes by climate changes around the globe are highly controversial. Those estimates are based on a variety of divergent climate scenarios and assumptions about the reactions of the affected individuals. In fact, most people manage to live with environmental changes and natural disasters, although they experience great hardship in doing so. And if they are driven from their homes after all, they usually seek shelter in nearby locations in their own countries, often in larger towns. There they hope to encounter not only aid and support, especially from their relatives and friends, but better life prospects. In addition, people need substantial resources to undertake cross-border migrations. The long road to Europe is simply too expensive for most of the small farmers from Africa and Asia who have been hit the hardest by climate change.

Misunderstanding 3: Climate refugees are the most endangered population group.

Not all the people who inhabit a certain region are equally endangered by climate change. The truly decisive factors include the severity of the extreme weather events, environmental changes taking place locally, and the type of damages they inflict. Also crucial are the kinds of resources and skills that people have available to avert damages and cope with their aftermath. Adaptation to climate change and “environmental migration” are both matters that involve socio-economic structures. For example, studies in the rural northern part of Bangladesh have shown that more prosperous villagers do not have to migrate in years of drought or floods. They can compensate for the harvest shortfall by relying on other sources of income plus their savings. The “middle class” also suffers heavy losses. For that reason, individual family members may work temporarily in cities or other regions. The income they earn there can be devoted to repairs and keeping the family afloat. The “poor” (usually landless) are often forced to migrate in the wake of a natural disaster, since decent jobs are no longer available locally. Once having arrived at their destinations, they must work very hard for extremely low wages and are often prey to exploitation and marginalization. They are scarcely able to make up for their losses and have great difficulty in feeding their families. But those hardest hit by natural calamities tend to be the “poorest of the poor,” because, due to lack of resources or health limitations, they are unable to migrate at all. These so-called trapped populations are compelled to remain and have to depend on alms.

Let’s treat migration as an opportunity—including for adaptation to climate change

Climate change does not lead automatically to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, and those who are forced from their homes do not necessarily head for Europe. Besides, the debate should not be about the number of displaced persons and migrants; rather, we should be talking about the prospects for adapting to the negative impacts of climate change where it is happening and about the conditions of migration. In addition, we should not consider the mobility of people affected by climate change per se as an indication that local adaptations have failed. Instead, migration opens up new and often better life prospects for victims of climate change, as long as their human rights and dignity are preserved and those who work are protected from exploitation. In fact, migration can pave the way for new experiences, new knowledge, and new capital. It is often the only way in which local people can adjust to environmental changes. This new perspective—that migration is not a problem but an opportunity to respond more efficaciously to the challenges of climate change—is being acknowledged increasingly in political circles too.



Dr. Benjamin Etzold is a scholar at the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC)

FES Contact:Felix Braunsdorf, Policy Officer for Migration and Development

This contribution refers back to the message “climate change reinforces migration” of the project “Shaping Migration – Justly and Globally”.

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