Climate change forces people to migrate
The established factors forcing entire populations to abandon their land have now been joined by climate change, which alters ecosystems and renders them uninhabitable.
They are known as “environmental migrants” or “environmental exiles”, and in some case “eco refugees”, although this term is not used by international organisations since it could have significant legal implications. But whichever term is used, migrants who are forced to leave their homes for environmental reasons (e.g. as a result of natural disasters such as earthquakes) pose one of the most daunting challenges for the global community to tackle and climate change is worsening a situation already reaching distressing levels.
Climate and migration: a complex connection
The document Migration in response to environmental change, published by the European Commission, examines the link between migration and environmental change. According to the document, “the five main factors which determine whether people stay or go are: economic, social, political, demographic and environmental”, clearly showing that climate change can directly or indirectly influence all of these factors. According to data from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), climate change affects migration for three main reasons: global warming threatens agricultural productivity and jeopardises ecosystems, reducing the availability of clean water and fertile soil; the rise in extreme weather events, such as floods, will affect an increasing number of people, leading to mass migrations; and the rise in sea levels will permanently destroy many coastal areas, forcing millions of people to leave their homes.
What is an environmental migrant?
As yet, there is no universally recognised definition for those people who leave their land for reasons connected to climate and the environment, but the International Organization for Migrants (IOM) has suggested an “operational” definition which sets out a number of characteristics in order to classify this phenomenon. Environmental migrants are not just people who are forced to move because of extreme weather events, but also those who are seeking a new home as a result of a deterioration in environmental conditions. Such population movements can occur either within a country or across national borders, they can be short-term, long-term or even permanent events, and they can be forced or determined by personal choices. Currently, from a legal standpoint, people migrating for climate-related reasons do not fit into any of the categories set out by international law for asylum seekers, but these new migrants are partially protected by international human rights law. Anyone forced to move within their own country as a result of natural or manmade disasters is protected by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement of the UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR). However, despite these international declarations and guidelines, the legal status of environmental migrants remains complicated and shrouded in uncertainty.
Forecasts and solutions
Generally speaking, in many countries environmental migration is already a reality and the numbers involved are predicted to grow: by 2050, around 200 million people will be forced to permanently leave their homes as a result of climate change. In particular, by 2050, North Africa and the inland areas of southern Africa will be struck by devastating droughts, while other models forecast that by 2100, the sea will engulf coastal areas of the Mediterranean and the North Sea, forcing thousands of people to relocate. “In order to manage this situation, we need well defined relocation policies like the guidelines which many countries are working on under the guidance of the European Commission”, explain the experts involved in another European project created to raise awareness on the links between climate change and migration, and to identify potential solutions: Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Evidence for Policy (MECLEP).
According to analysis provided by this European project and similar initiatives, it is crucial to take action on two fronts simultaneously: firstly, it is important to develop and strengthen approaches to containing climate change in order to reduce its impact. This involves initiatives which should be implemented here and now, but whose effects will only be seen several years down the line: they would be an investment in our future. At the same time, however, we need to take action locally, in the areas affected, to provide immediate support and encourage best practices in environmental and agricultural sustainability, with a view, where possible, to preventing such migration from occurring.