It is no longer in any doubt that environmental damage and climate change have consequences for migration. Nevertheless, the multiple causes of population movement make it difficult to label certain migrations as environmental, just as they hinder the implementation of legal tools designed to protect persons displaced for environmental reasons. Re-politicizing environmental migration is therefore crucial for devising public policies that are capable of supporting and protecting the most vulnerable.
A 2018 report by the World Bank estimated that between now and 2050, more than 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Asia and Latin America will be pushed to move within their country because of climate change. This study reflects the growing scientific and political attention to the link between migration and the environment. However, the multiple causes of population movement make it difficult to characterize environmental migration and bring into play the legal instruments designed to protect displaced persons for environmental reasons.
Comment: Climate migration primarily affects countries of the South and first and foremost the poorest and most vulnerable. The World Bank report used as a source for this graph focuses on Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. According to these forecasts, forced displacement within migrants’ own countries for environmental reasons between now and 2050 varies between 31 and 143 million. According to the reference scenario, the most pessimistic, sub-Saharan Africa will be the most affected, involving over 3% of the population of its states, in other words 71 million people.
Characterizing environmental migration
Humans have always moved for environmental reasons: to acquire better farmland, adapt to new climatic conditions or flee natural disasters such as the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 and the Dust Bowl in the 1930s in the United States. It was only during the course of the 1980s, when environmental and climatic problems became political and international issues, that the debate over environmental migration intensified.
Two schools of thought competed with one another: the maximalists with their alarmist discourse announced that there would be mass migrations due to worsening environmental damage, whereas minimalists considered the environment to be one factor of migration among others. While the former, who mainly consisted of environmental specialists, predicted there would be millions of “environmental refugees,” the more skeptical, who were mainly migration experts, warned against depoliticizing the causes of departure and weakening the asylum system by using this term.
Today, research has taken on board the complexity of the problem and explained the recent changes, which are linked to the increase in extreme climate events and to deeper structural causes connected with urbanization and socio-economic inequalities. It shows the multiple dimensions to be considered: distance (environmental migration is much more often internal than international); timeframe (is it a temporary or permanent move? Is it the result of slow deterioration or a one-off event?); the conditions surrounding the move (is it forced? voluntary? accompanied? legal?). This has given rise to the following working definition, formulated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM): “Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”
Challenges of projection and protection
Although it is no longer disputed that environmental damage and climate change have consequences for migration, producing precise data remains difficult. According to the IOM, forecasts vary between 25 million and 1 billion environmental migrants between now and 2050, the most often quoted estimate being 200 million. Because there are numerous factors involved, access to some regions is difficult, and migration has a potentially temporary dimension, it is not easy to produce a detailed breakdown of past migrations or to make projections. The accurate data that exist are mainly for moves that have occurred after natural disasters : according to the IDMC (International Displacement Monitoring Centre), since 2008, sudden disasters have caused an average of 25.3 million displacements per year.
Comment: This map shows estimates of the number of persons displaced per country due to natural disasters between 2008 and 2017. With the exception of the United States and Japan, natural disasters cause many more displacements in countries of the South, particularly Asia: more than 70 million within ten years in China, and more than 30 million over the same period in India and the Philippines. These per-country totals nevertheless mask geographies that are specific to the three top disasters (floods, storms, and earthquakes).
Comment: The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) calculates its estimates of internal displacements caused by natural disasters from many different sources (government authorities, international organizations, NGOs, the media, etc.). Although droughts are not included, floods appear to be the prime cause of displacement linked to global disasters between 2008 and 2016, followed by storms and then earthquakes.
Problems of projection are compounded by questions of legal protection. While the island states of the Pacific might cause the first “ persons made stateless by climat,” to appear, no international legal agreement protects the rights of environmental migrants. Some states, however, have accorded a temporary right of asylum to the victims of natural disasters, various regional documents on human rights contain provisions regarding environmental displacement, and the Nansen has produced a Protection Agenda for displacements linked to disasters, ratified by 109 governments.
There is therefore no official legal status to protect the climate refugee. However, has shown how such a figure can be exploited for political ends. First of all, some have depicted climate refugees as representing a threat to the security of developed countries, with the aim of alerting these countries to the urgent climate situation. In response to this neo-Malthusian approach, a second discourse, supported by NGOs and developing countries such as Bangladesh, has demanded basic rights for these “first climate victims.” A third discourse has transformed this status of passive victim into that of a resilient entrepreneur who emigrates in order to adapt. Although initially supported by the scientific community, this last perspective was later criticized for justifying relocation policies and laying responsibility at the door of the poor. Re-politicization of the environmental migration issue is therefore central to formulating public policies and creating legal instruments that are equal to the task of supporting and protecting the most vulnerable.
- climate change > Climate changes
- The UN defines climate change as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods” (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC], 1992). The expression is used to describe global warming of the Earth’s surface, whose extent and rapidity are without precedent in the planet’s history, and results from the increase in anthropic greenhouse gas emissions (principally carbon dioxide and CO2, but also methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride).
- environment > Environment
- In broad terms, the environment is understood as the biosphere in which living species cohabit, while ecology studies the relations between these organisms and their environment. The environment encompasses very diverse natural areas from undisturbed virgin forests to artificialized environments planned and exploited by humans. In a more limited definition of the term, “environmental” issues are those relating to natural resources (their management, use and degradation) and biological biodiversity (fauna and flora). As a cross-cutting public concern, the environment encompasses issues of societal organization (production models, transport, infrastructure, etc.) and their impacts on the health of humans and ecosystems.
- environmental migration > Environmental migrant
- Environmental migration describes the movements of populations, voluntary or forced, short-term or permanent, over greater or lesser distances, driven by environmental conditions in their place of origin (progressive degradation, sudden natural disasters, etc.). The International Organization for Migration defines environmental migrants as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”
- displaced persons > Displaced
- According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the term describes persons or groups who have been forced or obliged to flee or leave their homes or their habitual place of residence, in particular because of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, or to avoid the effects of these, but who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border. These are known as IDPs (internally displaced persons).
- refugees > Refugee
- A status applying to persons living outside their country of origin, who have been recognized by their host country as refugees according to definition set out in the Geneva Convention of 1951. This convention grants the protection and assistance of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (HCR) to anyone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” The term refugee should not be confused with that of asylum seeker, which applies to people who have fled their country and have submitted a request for asylum to their host country or to the HCR in order to benefit from refugee status. A refugee has been an asylum seeker, but not all asylum seekers have their request accepted (those who have been rejected must then leave the country).
- inequalities > Inequality
- Unequal distribution of goods, material and/or non-material, regarded as necessary or desirable. Beyond income inequality (national, international and global), cumulative inequalities can also be measured with respect to accessing public services (healthcare, education, employment, housing, justice, effective security, etc.) and accessing property and natural resources more generally, and also relative to political expression or the capacity to respond to ecological risks. When these inequalities are based on criteria prohibited by law, they constitute discrimination.
- natural disasters > Natural disaster
- A generic term used to describe a meteorological, climatic or geophysical event that has consequences for human societies (victims, economic losses and physical damage). The disaster depends on the cause of the event and the society’s degree of vulnerability. The term is used to describe both sudden phenomena (earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, etc.) and those that evolve slowly (drought, desertification, ocean acidification, etc.). The term of “natural” disaster is often criticized for concealing the structural causes of crises and the political responsibilities involved, both in triggering the disaster (poor management of resources, absence of preventive policies, etc.) and in the responses made to it.
- human rights > Human rights
- These are the fundamentally inalienable and universal rights and duties of human beings, which are indefeasible and universal. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these were limited to “natural rights” (basic freedoms considered to be allied to human nature) but human rights have now been expanded to include civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights on the basis of human freedom and dignity. Human rights have been enshrined in the constitutions of most democratic regimes. They are also subject to many protective provisions at both regional and international levels.
- developed countries > Developed Country
- At point 4 of his Inaugural Address of 1949, American President Harry S. Truman outlined a program of aid for “underdeveloped areas. This phrase refers to all the countries regarded as “lagging behind” in progress toward what thus becomes the model set by the developed, industrialized countries, which at that time had stronger growth and higher standards of living. The evolution of the terminology from underdeveloped to developing and developed countries has not altered the linear, evolutionist aspect of the overall vision. Nor has it in any way nuanced the homogenization and reification of the groups so described.
- neo-Malthusian > Neo-Malthusianism
- The neo-Malthusian approach asserts that planet earth is a finite system whose natural resources are limited and endangered by demographic and economic growth (which it sees as correlated). Inspired by Thomas Malthus, who examined the relationship between agricultural production and demographic growth in the 18th century, which he saw as presaging self-regulatory mechanisms (wars, famines, epidemics) to restore equilibrium. Since they reappeared during the 1960s, these theories have been widely criticized for their empirical foundations (unrealistic scenarios), theoretical basis (economic growth does not drive demographic growth – quite the contrary) and ethical and political implications (coercive birth control policies, etc.).
- NGOs > Nongovernmental Organization
- Use of this expression became more widespread following its inclusion in Article 71 of the United Nations Charter. NGOs do not have an international legal status and the acronym is used in different contexts to refer to very different kinds of actors. It generally designates associations formed by individuals over the long term in relation to not-for-profit goals, often linked to values and beliefs (ideological, humanist, ecological, religious, etc.) rather than financial interests. Active on a wide range of issues at both the local and global levels, NGOs now number tens of thousands, but vary greatly in the scale of their budgets, staff and development.
- resilient > Resilience
- The concept of resilience is understood in many different ways from one discipline to the next. In psychology, it refers to an individual’s capacity to adapt after trauma; in ecology it is the capacity of ecosystems to cope with changed states, to regain their original state or to maintain their essential functions. In describing individuals, communities, states and economic systems, resilience has shifted from a descriptive notion to a prescriptive tool directing policies of adaptation to climate change. Its use has been criticized for tending to perpetuate the existing system rather than change it, and for attributing responsibility for adaptation to individuals rather than to the governments responsible for climate change.