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Disasters driving world migration
Article Type: News items From: Disaster Prevention and Management, Volume 19, Issue 1
Climate change may make it worse
Climate change and its attendant environmental disruption may drive the migration of 200 million people worldwide by the year 2050. According to the UN report In Search of Shelter, “The impacts of climate change are already causing migration and displacement. Although the exact number of people that will be on the move by mid-century is uncertain, the scope and scale could vastly exceed anything that has occurred before. People in the least developed countries and island states will be affected first and worst.” (www.ciesin.columbia.edu).
Economic and political factors are the main causes of human displacement around the world. But, “Disasters continue to be a major driver of shorter-term displacement and migration”, the report says. “As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of natural hazards such as cyclones, floods, and droughts, the number of temporarily displaced people will rise. This will be especially true in countries that fail to invest now in disaster risk reduction and where the official response to disasters is limited.”
One issue is whether the cause of displacement will require different types of humanitarian relief. Koko Warner, an economist with the United Nations University and the lead author of the report, says, “The cause (of migration) does matter. Right now we have certain protection regimes for internally displaced people and refugees. There are resources and protection mechanisms for political refugees, and a clear case for being persecuted for religion, race, political affiliation or group identity. If the person can prove their persecution, countries are required to provide assistance.”
However, “Environmentally induced migrants don’t have status like that,” Warner says. She cited as an example the flooding in Mozambique in 2002 in the Limpopo and Zambezi river valleys, affecting between 100,000 and 200,000 people. “There was no guaranteed assistance”, Warner says. The situation came to the attention of the international community via media coverage - one woman gave birth while huddling in a tree above the floodwaters - and assistance was forthcoming. This is not always the case, though. “In other floods”, she says, “there’s been donor fatigue. The cameras weren’t there.”
The anticipated climate-based causes of migration vary. In Asia, for instance, glacier-fed rivers originating in the Himalayas may deliver less water as the glaciers disappear, affecting power generation, irrigation, and fishing. Northern and central Mexico are expected to see declines in precipitation over the coming century of as much as 70 percent, affecting the area’s primarily rain-fed agriculture. This could have the ancillary affect of increasing Mexican immigration into the United States, already a contentious issue. The data are not complete enough to know whether people are actually being motivated now to migrate because of climate stress. “What we’ve been hearing from the field is anecdotal”, Warner says. Camps on the Mediterranean island of Malta, for instance, are often staging areas for refugees trying to get into Europe. “We went to Malta and talked with people operating the camps”, Warner says. “They said that over the last five or six years, they’ve noticed changes in the characteristics of migrants who are arriving. Instead of healthy young men, 15 to 45 years old, they’ve started noticing more women, young children, babies, and more elderly. They’ve also been noticing more people traveling in groups, whole families, and some indications that there are clusters of neighbors or people from the same village.”
This could, of course, have many causes - that countries have tightened admission standards, or that general economic conditions are worse. But some of these people would admit that they “had a hard time feeding their family … that’s as far as we get in whether climate change was the driver of displacement right now”.
In Search of Shelter suggests several policy initiatives to deal with the issues, including avoiding dangerous change, focusing on human security, prioritizing the world’s vulnerable populations, and including migration in adaptation strategies.
(Abstracted from Natural Hazards Observer, September 2009)