Environmental change and migration

John Hay and Martin Beniston discuss the implications of environmental change for the peoples of small island states.

Professor John Hay is Director of Professional Training at the International Global Change Institute of the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Professor Martin Beniston is Director of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

“New Zealand is likely to take in some of the inhabitants of a tiny Pacific island nation whose homes are being swallowed by rising sea levels, unlike Australia which has shut them out. The Tuvaluan government last year appealed to the Australian and New Zealand authorities to provide permanent homes for at least 3000 people, and possibly its whole population, within the next few years.”

This recent news item in the New Zealand Herald on the 27th July 2001 highlights the multidimensional nature of the links between environmental changes and human migration. The causal factors are typically numerous, interactive and operating over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. The human responses are usually equally complex, involving as they do the aggregation of individual and collective decisions of the migrants and of decision makers in the regions and countries they transit and to which they eventually relocate.

Increased knowledge of these complex causes and responses is, however, required, for increased understanding is a precursor to actions that mitigate and perhaps even prevent the increasing disruption of socio-economic activities in sensitive regions of the globe which we can expect to see in coming decades.

Environmental change in general, and climatic change in particular, are likely to impact significantly upon resources such as water, soils and vegetation, transforming present-day landscapes and their ecological characteristics. Agriculture is at particular risk, especially in areas where prolonged droughts, sea level rise, enhanced natural hazards, or extreme natural events such as floods or mudslides threaten marginal existence.

Conversely, large-scale movements of people, goods or capital may also disrupt local environments and further contribute to social problems.

One of the direct or indirect effects of global environmental change that is receiving increasing recognition is forced migration. One example is sea-level rise, whereby populations will be forced to move out of low-lying coastal zones or even entire islands, as has been noted above. Migrations can also be triggered when essential resources such as water or food fall below critical thresholds in a given region. In addition, environmental causes can be combined with social causes, such as large-scale warfare, civil war, political conflicts, and disputes over resources, to produce refugee flows. Social disruption can in itself be at the root of environmental degradation which eventually leads to massive out-migration.

Various studies in recent years suggest that, if environmental change is to be of the projected magnitude and rapidity, there could be as many as 150 million “environmental refugees” by the end of the 21st century. However, even the term “environmental refugee” is struggling for recognition, both legally and institutionally. In view of the current barriers to migration in most parts of the world, the social, economic and political consequences of migration at these projected scales is far from trivial. Most governments are today ill-equipped in legislative terms to deal with this type of situation.

The political and economic tensions that will be raised by an increasing number of refugees could lead to conflict. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the problem, resulting from the complex and often obscure interactions between environmental and economic issues, it becomes difficult to identify and distinguish between the different drivers of migration.

Driving factors include the political, the  environmental (for example, depletion of resources through environmental changes, sea-level rise, desertification, and deforestation) and the socio-economic (for example, land-use changes, agriculture, mineral and resource exploitation, and ethnic issues). All are often intimately linked with conflict.

Policy considerations span both the drivers, the consequential migrations and their social, economic, cultural and environmental implications.

Amongst the complex issues that can lead to migration of populations, it is useful to distinguish between voluntary migration and forced migration. Voluntary migration can occur for a number of reasons, particularly economic, political or ideological. Forced migration also has a number of root causes, with these often being found in political and economic domains (for example, slavery, war and ethnic strife).

In this context, environmental factors leading to migration can be considered to be an indirect consequence of decisions taken in the political and/or economic arenas.

© 2001 Lawrence Moore

While sea-level rise is an obvious environmental driver which may significantly impact many low-lying coastal regions and island states around the world, it is necessary to bear in mind that sea-level rise is a consequence of a warming world, which is in part the consequence of economic and industrial policies that lead to growing greenhouse-gas emissions. Environmental issues are, therefore, often an expression of underlying economic and political factors.

Along similar lines of thought, population migrations may be triggered by conflicts resulting from resource depletion. In this sense, migration does not occur because of the direct consequence of environmental change but rather as a result of a complex series of interlinked, compounding (“snowballing”) factors in which single, clear-cut cause-and-effect relationships may not be identifiable. Causes of migration are thus seen to be embedded deep within a confluence of processes and patterns.

Migration takes many forms, the majority occurring as internal migrations, that is, displacements of populations within national boundaries. For example, the migrations associated with desertification in China and sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation in the Amazon Basin and ethnic rivalry in Bangladesh have involved large numbers of people who left inhospitable regions to seek better conditions within their own countries.

International migrations may also occur as a result of adverse environmental and related conditions. A common perception is that most of these occur from the South to the North, that is, from the developing countries towards the industrialized countries, largely as a result of the perceived economic attractiveness and overall better “quality of life” of the industrialized world. A large proportion of migration, however, takes place within and between the countries of the South. An example is the migration of labourers into a region in which mining or forestry is introduced or intensified, as has occurred recently in both Indonesia and Brazil. In such cases, indigenous populations are often forced out of their homelands as a result of commercial activities that transform the traditional resource base.

The resulting redistribution of population can in no way be considered to represent a stable situation because the out-migration of local inhabitants in the face of new immigration represents a loss of traditional cultures and a profound change in the physical environment. This is a good example of the “push” and “pull” features of environment and resource use that can trigger population migrations, the pull factors representing attraction of migrants into an area, and the push factors generating out-migration. Push and pull factors can be triggered both directly and indirectly by environmental and economic change.

Whatever the direct causes of migration, other factors such as property structures also shape migration patterns. For example, whether indigenous rights are recognized and respected influences the potential of new outside economic interests (for example, mining and forestry) to move in and modify the environment, making it more or less favourable for populations to stay. Pricing structures, whether a reflection of policy or market forces, also influence land use and, therefore, its preservation, efficient use, or its degradation.

Population movements themselves have environmental effects. Thus, there will be a number of economic, political and environmental impacts resulting from the displacement of persons forced from their homelands. Issues such as the sharing of resources between increasing numbers of persons in a region of immigration, land tenure, ethnic rivalry and regional conflicts are likely to emerge as issues needing urgent study and attention.

While a number of adaptive measures can be taken to reduce the adverse effects of environmental change, and the potential for out-migration that environmental change may induce, there is a need to address some of the root issues in an internationally coordinated manner.

In particular, immigration policies in the industrialized world need to be reviewed in order to allow some form of open, well-regulated migration, as opposed to policies aimed at keeping migrants out of the prospective host countries. This will require a change of attitude within segments of the population of the host countries, especially in terms of the acceptance of immigrants and their integration within their host society.

In the developing world also, policies will need to be altered, in particular, in order to remove or at least reduce the push factors of migration. This will require a review of current resource management practices, which are often very poorly developed and implemented, thereby allowing excessive environmental degradation.

There is also a crucial necessity to improve land policies, valuation and property rights in order to reduce the wish or the tendency for out-migration. The problem is that of balancing peoples’ needs and wants with the available resources. Solutions will, therefore, need to involve not only flexible policies about population movement but also about movements of goods and capital so as to achieve efficient and equitable redistributions of well-being.

Clearly, the topic of environment and human migration is still in an embryonic state, meaning there is an urgent need for fundamental studies related to the scientific and policy dimensions of the issue.

A framework for possible future research would, of necessity, acknowledge the following:

  • the multidimensional nature of migration, especially that associated with degrading environmental conditions;
  • the current lack of agreement in definitions of terms and in the use of classification procedures;
  • the important role of case studies in aiding our understanding of environment-migration relationships;
  • the emerging information technologies and  the improved analytical methodologies that are rapidly increasing our ability to characterize the environmental variables that serve as indicators of pressures which drive migration, for example, through remote-sensing techniques, monitoring and the modelling of environmental change and its impacts;
  • the need for research-based studies to provide relevant, timely and useful advice to policy- and decision-makers, which will allow them to respond in a more proactive manner to environment-related immigration issues;
  • the important and not always mutually supportive roles of international, national and local governmental agencies; and,
  • the need for those involved in environment-migration studies, policy development, decision making and assistance programmes to identify research priorities that will address current gaps in our understanding, reduce uncertainties and increase the usefulness of technical and policy-oriented studies related to environment and migration.

The topic of migration and environmental change is of growing importance but is still in the initial stages of analysis.

The current literature on migration and environment is far from having a well-developed theoretical or conceptual framework for addressing these issues, though one is beginning to emerge, partly as a consequence of the modelling studies that have been initiated in recent years.

Given that there could be as many as 150 million environmental refugees by the end of this century, the need to undertake basic research is taking on a new urgency.

Further information
John Hay, International Global Change Institute, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand. Fax: +64-7-8585689. Email: j.hay@waikato.ac.nz. Web: www.waikato.ac.nz/igci/. Martin Beniston, Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, Perolles, CH-1700 Fribourg, Switzerland. Fax: +41-26-3009746. Email: martin.beniston@unifr.ch.

On the Web
On the Web: Small Island States lists relevant links.

This article is based on the presentations and discussions at the Wengen-2001 Workshop “Environmental Change: Implications for Population Migrations” held in Wengen, Switzerland, between the 19th and 21st September 2001. Over 35 researchers, officials and individuals from the private sector, representing 16 countries from many different parts of the world, attended the workshop, the seventh since the Wengen Workshops on Global Change were initiated in 1995. The authors acknowledge the important contributions of all workshop participants.