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Is migration a good response to climate change? The answer is complicated

The question of whether migration can be considered a successful adaptation to climate change is a complex one that an international research team seeks to answer. The team, comprising researchers from Africa, Asia, and Europe, recently conducted a study that highlights three key criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of migration as a response to climate change: well-being, equity, and sustainability.

The study reveals that migration, while acknowledged as a potential means to mitigate climate risks, is far from being a perfect solution. The researchers point to remittances – the flows of money, ideas, skills, and goods that migrants send back to their places of origin – as one aspect of this complicated relationship. 

Although remittances can aid in climate change adaptation by improving material well-being for families and households in migrants’ native locations, they often come at a significant cost to the migrants themselves.

Drawing on data from every continent over recent decades, the research paints a picture where the well-being of migrants is often compromised. For instance, in Bangladesh, migrants are largely overlooked in urban planning and policy, leaving them excluded from urban structures and services. This neglect affects all aspects of their lives in their new urban homes, from living conditions and income security to their ability to continue supporting their families back home.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Lucy Szaboova from the University of Exeter, expressed concern about this situation. “The idea of migration as adaptation places the responsibility of predicting and responding to future risks on individuals, and could justify policy inaction,” said Dr. Szaboova. She noted that when migration is not paired with appropriate policy support, it can exacerbate vulnerabilities and marginality, jeopardizing the success of adaptation efforts.

Potential negative side effects

One of the main findings of the study is that migration often introduces tensions within and between the three criteria of well-being, equity, and sustainability. These tensions can result in uneven outcomes – creating winners and losers. The impact of migration as a means of climate adaptation is not uniform; it varies based on factors like age, gender, ethnicity, among others.

For example, while remittances may improve a household’s financial situation, female members may find their workload increase as a consequence of men’s migration. The added burden of maintaining the farm can lead to difficult choices, which could ultimately undermine the success of migration as a climate adaptation strategy.

Dr. Mumuni Abu from the Regional Institute for Population Studies at the University of Ghana emphasized the potential negative side effects of migration. “In the absence of equity, migration can exacerbate rather than reduce vulnerability to climate change.” He added that gender equity constraints in rural origin places can result in unsustainable use and management of natural resources.

Lasting consequences 

Dr. Amina Maharjan of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) pointed out that while remittances are often praised for their potential to support development and adaptation, their role must be evaluated in the context of longer time horizons. The consequences of migration for the success of adaptation often span generations.

In light of these findings, the authors argue that assessments of the success of migration as adaptation should take into account not only the outcomes for migrants but also their households and family members in their places of origin and the host society. Moreover, these evaluations should acknowledge that some implications might not be immediately obvious but could become evident over longer periods.

Possible solutions

To address the tensions and obstacles to successful migration as a climate adaptation strategy, the authors call for migration to be integrated into policy and planning. They argue for the creation of an enabling policy environment that supports migration as a viable adaptation strategy.

Professor Neil Adger from the University of Exeter, who contributed to the study, discussed potential solutions for creating this enabling environment. 

“Migrants in cities are disproportionately exposed to social and environmental hazards which negatively affect their health and wellbeing,” he said. “Despite this, they remain largely invisible and voiceless in policy circles.

“Participatory urban planning and deliberative approaches can support the inclusion of diverse perspectives on building safe, sustainable and resilient cities and can support migration as successful adaptation.”

The research is published in the journal One Earth.

Image Credit: MISTY project


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