When home exists no longer: climate change and forced cross-border migration

Uepi, Western Province, Solomon Islands, 2012. Photo: Yvonne Green / Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Creative Commons).

Sophie Stuber is a member of Stanford’s class of 2018. After graduating with a degree in international relations with honors, she will pursue a joint master’s degree in international affairs and journalism at Sciences Po in France. Below, Sophie answers questions about her honors thesis “When Home Exists No Longer: Climate Change and Forced Cross-Border Migration” as well as her experience at Stanford.

Why did you choose to study international relations?

I started at Stanford interested in the human condition and how people respond to threats of violence, or extreme duress. As I began my freshman year in college, my interest in narratives, historical conflicts, and human rights led me to major in International Relations. Through courses at Stanford and opportunities on my own, I was able to study topics of human rights such as genocide, transitional justice, and war and foreign policy. Exposure to these subjects has given me a stronger understanding of historical conflicts and prompted me to consider how individuals and organizations can work to mitigate tensions globally.

Sophie Stuber

What was the theme of your honors research?

My senior honors thesis investigates how the international community should assist persons displaced due to climate change. As global environments continue to transform, the number of forced migrations will rise, and international institutions will need to find solutions to assist these groups of migrants. Humanity possesses a complex relationship with its surroundings, and resource battles can often trigger war and violence. Thus, environmental challenges and migration patterns are intertwined.

What inspired you to pursue this topic?

This past year, my time in Paris and Florence introduced me to new perspectives on how to live and address global and local issues. I learned much through daily interactions. I spoke to both my Italian and Parisian host families about immigration policies. Small nations, such as Italy, face serious challenges because they do not have the geographical capacity to accommodate more humans, but are between many refugees and their final goal destination countries, such as Great Britain.

I was in Paris when then President Francois Hollande closed the Calais refugee encampment. I saw the areas around Gare du Nord fill with new refugee camps. I felt powerless, but this increased my desire to pursue a career, such as journalism, where I can be an advocate.

What were the main observations/takeaways from your research?

It is an unfortunate reality that the governments of home states can negatively impact the possibilities of a nation to recover from natural disaster or adapt to the threats of climate change.

Though media coverage and previous international involvement in Haiti produced an overwhelming immediate response to the 2010 earthquake in the country, there was no coordination between government agencies, the UN, or non-governmental organizations. Thus, reconstruction projects in Haiti achieved little long-term success and much of the funding raised after the earthquake was wasted.

Initial barriers to aid included minimal transportation, weak communications technology, ruined infrastructure, and the deaths and injuries of government officials and other personnel. Powerful nations were unwilling to invest in long-term projects to rebuild Haiti and did not put pressure on the failing Haitian government to create an effective plan to repair the island. In fact, the case studies in my thesis demonstrate that influential nations are often unwilling to become involved in post-environmental disaster development unless it is in their vital national interests.

The U.S. was unwilling to put political pressure on Myanmar’s government after Cyclone Nargis — a decision that quashed the possibility of an overwhelming multilateral response. Though France spoke out and called on the UN to invoke the Responsibility to Protect, there was no realistic possibility this would happen without the consent of other major UN players. France’s protests eventually quieted. In the international community, it is difficult and exhausting to be a lone voice of moral imperative in a sea of self-interested nations, especially in an environment that is as bureaucratic as the UN.

Unfortunately, it will likely be decades before the international community is able to design and implement a new framework to aid persons displaced due to climate change. Independent member interests and prior regional investments still have strong influence and the international community is slow to entirely rewrite policy and frameworks. UN Security Council data indicates that the UN exhibits greater concern over the predicted magnitude of a refugee crisis than the opinions of individual member states, but this in itself is telling.

For example, a small island nation such as Niue or the Solomon Islands is unlikely to produce an international refugee crisis of significant scope, so the international community may be less interested in providing assistance to small countries in the event of a climate-related crisis or natural disaster. Thus, it is essential to develop responses that can be enacted in greater immediacy and more effectively. Though an international legal framework is necessary, for now it is just an ambiguous, distant idea.

Sophie presents here honors research at the annual International Relations honors symposium.

In the meantime, regional agreements could be more efficient and avoid the bureaucracy of UN resolutions. Regional agreements also offer greater response flexibility and could be more attentive to the needs of smaller nations that are overlooked in the international community. Nations within the same geographic sphere also share more common interests and could potentially work together to accommodate nearby populations displaced due to climate change. This way, a greater number of migrants could remain in the same general geographic area as their home state.

Regional agreements should also focus on offering support and assistance programs to the states combating the effects of climate change such as drought and rising sea levels. Past research shows that populations prefer to remain in their home state whenever possible. Thus, regional agreements should first concentrate on efforts that support home state governments through monetary assistance, infrastructure, disaster prevention strategies, and response programs.

All future agreements — whether international or regional — should prioritize prevention and mitigation. Current frameworks are too reactive. Although response strategies are necessary, future migration crises will be less severe if international efforts are preventive and address the root causes of climate change.

After researching this thesis, it is my opinion that larger, wealthier nations should accept culpability for the effects of manmade climate change and pay reparations to the smaller, poorer nations that are disproportionately affected by climate change. These reparations could help offset the costs of adaptation and planned relocation efforts and provide funding for education and training for new labor markets. However, I acknowledge that this system is unlikely to become a reality.

How do you hope your research will inform/influence future discourse on the topic?

Future research should focus on implementing regional agreements and adaptation strategies. Additional efforts should be devoted to creating public awareness of the plight of persons displaced due to climate change. This can be achieved through responsible media coverage and accurate reports from NGOs. Increasing public awareness will hopefully lead to greater political pressure. Currently, there is little political incentive for world leaders to prioritize assistance to persons displaced due to climate change, but this political pressure is essential to the success of collaborative international frameworks.

Lastly, though the connections between climate change, migration, and conflict were outside the scope of this thesis, further studies should investigate the connections between these phenomena. Scholars have already suggested that increased terrorist presence and regional conflict in areas such as Syria, Iran, and the Sahel are driven in part by drought and resource scarcity. Forced displacement due to climate change is a complex and deeply rooted challenge that will need to be addressed through a combination of scientific and legal innovations.

How has the international relations degree program influenced your thinking and prepared you for your next steps?

In my studies I have explored how international organizations, such as the United Nations, address conflicts and how non-governmental organizations distribute aid. Many scholars write about journalists’ relationship with aid organizations and governments. Journalists help determine how a conflict is perceived by the public, which can drive a political response, or greater aid donations. If wrongly reported, journalism can have dangerous consequences. However, journalism can be a positive force, give a voice to groups who are suffering and illuminate global issues.

My specialization in Social Development and Human Rights has developed my desires to do work to promote human rights globally. I recognize that there are people globally who do not have an avenue to express free thought. I hope that international journalism could provide a way for me to help address international challenges, such as climate change and violations of human rights.

You can read Sophie’s complete thesis here.

Please join us in congratulating the class of 2018! As the academic year draws to a close, we are highlighting students graduating from across our 14 programs. Click here to view more student spotlights.