As part of the recently-concluded Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development
, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
presented a new report last week, titled Climate Change, Vulnerability, and Human Mobility: Perspectives of Refugees From the East and Horn of Africa
. The report was created in order to “understand the extent to which refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the East and Horn of Africa have perceived, experienced, and responded to climatic events and trends in recent years.”
In order to achieve this goal, UNHCR and its collaborators (including the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security, the London School of Economics, and the University of Bonn) interviewed approximately 150 refugees and IDPs in parts of Ethiopia and Uganda.
While the narrative is more anecdotal than data-driven, it nevertheless identifies several apparent trends in climate-related migration:
Overwhelmingly, stories of mobility associated with moving away from worsening impacts associated with climate variability followed a specific pattern. That is, where movement related to climatic stressors did occur, such movement was taken as a last resort (only after all efforts to remain and adopt other methods of adaptation had been exhausted), particularly where the land being left was self-owned and only after all efforts to remain and try a number of alternative forms of adaptation had failed. Where movement occurred, in most cases it was likely to be internal, circular, and temporary rather than cross-border and permanent.Stories of international migration were rare, and generally occurred either because migrants already lived near a border and were familiar with the area, or because they had encountered violent conflict (often of a political nature) during an earlier intra-state relocation.
The report also mentions that a majority of those interviewed claimed to have noticed significant changes in weather patterns over a 10- to 15-year period. In fact, many interviewees frequently claimed to be able to distinguish “normal” climate variability from more “permanent” changes.
Significantly, Climate Change, Vulnerability, and Human Mobility highlights several ongoing sources of debate and controversy regarding the issue of climate-induced migration as well.
The links between climate change, migration, and violent conflict are not well understood. And the question of whether climate change precipitates conflict or merely exacerbates it is still unresolved, though research on the subject is ongoing.
The terminology used to describe climate migrants remains a hotly-contested issue as well. While terms like “environmental refugee” and the especially popular “climate refugee” can make for good headlines, the UNHCR report strongly disapproves of such terms, given that the word “refugee” has a very specific legal definition.
Indeed, there is still much debate over how to classify climate migrants. It has been pointed out, for instance, that it is virtually impossible to separate out the various factors that induce migration, and questions as to whether migration is forced or voluntary also persist. For the most part, the UNHCR report shies away from such contentious questions, aiming instead to present a general and “human” narrative designed to call attention to the plight of climate migrants.
Definitional debates aside, the issue of climate-induced migration has been in headlines recently. The Asian Development Bank reported in March that 42 million people were displaced in the region during the last two years due to storms, floods, and other extreme weather events. And Israel signaled a tougher stance on immigration by deporting South Sudanese refugees in the wake of a major Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection report warning of future climate-induced migration.
The particular vulnerability of women too is drawing increased interest. An article in Environmental Research Letters points out that “women tend to be poorer, less educated, have a lower health status, and have limited direct access to or ownership of natural resources,” and will therefore be disproportionately affected by climate change. Gender disparities must be accounted for in policymaking then, to ensure that future climate migration policies are equitable and inclusive, the author, Namrata Chindarkar, argues.
The challenges of defining and measuring the phenomenon remain – the UN Environment Program’s 2006 prediction of 50 million climate migrants by 2010 has not come true, and has even been a source of some embarrassment for the organization – but the recent UNHCR report is a timely reminder that climate-induced migration remains a major issue with tremendous long-term implications.
Sources: Asian Development Bank, Environmental Research Letters, Human Rights Education Association (HREA), The Jerusalem Post, The New Republic, National Geographic, OECD, Scientific American, Der Spiegel, UNHCR, The Washington Post.
Photo Credit: Displaced Somalis, courtesy of UNHCR.