Migration is a global reality. It has been a livelihood strategy for human beings on all continents for centuries. Climate change, environmental degradation and disasters are impacting human life around the world and reshaping contemporary migration dynamics. While migration has always been a strategy to adapt to changing conditions, more frequent and damaging extreme events are catalyzers of accelerated and increased, and in some cases decreased, decisions by people in climate-vulnerable areas to move. In a politicized context where climate-linked mobility is often instrumentalized with an alarmist rhetoric or as a security threat, adopting a nuanced and objective perspective is imperative.
Within this context, on January 22, 2024, Helvetas organized an insightful discussion on climate change and migration in Geneva in conjunction with the 14th Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). This event explored the complex issue of climate change and human mobility, shifting the focus to a deeper and more systemic approach to identify practical measures contributing to inclusive and sustainable development.
Distinguished experts, academics and representatives from governments and NGOs, including Michelle Yonetani (UNHCR), Patricia Barandun (SDC), Lawrence Huang (Migration Policy Institute), Shakirul Islam (OKUP), and Rupa Mukerji (Helvetas) and Alte Solberg (PDD), gathered to unpack the complex relationship between the two phenomena.
Below are the five key takeaways from this insightful discussion.
1. Climate migration reflects a nonlinear and complex relationship with diverse outcomes.
The diversity in drivers, contexts, risks and outcomes make it difficult to offer simple generalizations about the relationship between climate change and human mobility. Changing environmental and climatic conditions interact with other drivers of mobility (e.g., social, economic). The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report indicates that storms, floods and wildfires are strongly associated with short-term displacement, while droughts, extreme heat and precipitation anomalies are more likely to stimulate longer-term changes in migration patterns. Some individuals can adapt in place, while many people do not have the capability to move, and others might be able to but are reluctant to leave homelands to which they feel irrevocably bound.
Adopting a context-specific approach is needed to grasp what this complexity means. For more insights, read the action research conducted in Bangladesh by the Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP) and Helvetas.
2. A balanced narrative is needed to prevent fear and counterproductive actions towards migrants.
Although research challenges the popular idea that climate change will lead to mass migration, this alarmist narrative is increasingly used by various types of actors – with different objectives – and polarizes an often-simplistic debate. It masks the reality of being, among other things, a highly complex issue, a predominantly domestic phenomenon and an unlikely mass migration trend.
This oversimplification is damaging to objective discussions and inhibits the design of action plans adapted to the needs and reflecting the perspectives of people affected by the impacts of climate change. It prevents policymakers from mobilizing adaptation financing and implementing strategies that consider migration as an adaptation strategy and a development opportunity. Evidence must be used to define a more nuanced narrative which can effectively influence policymaking.
3. Multistakeholder, participatory and integrated approaches are crucial, particularly with local communities since climate-linked mobility predominantly occurs internally.
An integrated approach is needed for no one to be left behind. We must engage with frontline communities and take the needs of climate change-affected populations into account. The focus should be on the people rather than on the phenomenon. Creating long-term support systems for the communities through grassroot organization can enable them to take more informed decisions. Protection mechanisms should also be accompanied with development opportunities (e.g., skills enhancement, decent jobs).
Climate-linked mobility is mostly internal and happens predominantly in a rural-urban dynamic. In this process, cities and local authorities stand as crucial actors at the forefront of addressing climate change and human mobility.
4. Migration as a climate adaptation strategy can enhance resilience, but requires supportive policies to avoid burdening migrants.
Migration can be regarded as an effective and, above all, legitimate adaptation strategy to cope with climate change. Shifting the focus to practical support and recognition of its potential is crucial for sustainable development. This requires effective climate adaptation and mitigation strategies, robust legal and policy frameworks, and inclusive planning and financing mechanisms that can support the needs of underserved communities. If migrants are supported and informed in their decision-making, and if adequate opportunities are created, migration may offer the potential for economic and social development and serve as a viable strategy to adapt to and anticipate climate change. It presents both development opportunities and challenges.
5. It’s time to stop focusing on the problems, and to instead shape solutions that contribute to inclusive and sustainable development.
Good evidence and sound knowledge already exist. We must not reinvent the wheel. We are in the Decade of Action, and this is not time for business as usual. The discussion should not focus on describing the problem, even though it matters, but rather on packaging our solutions in an actionable way.
Helvetas organized this event on climate change and human mobility as one step towards gathering the experts and organizations with the knowledge and resources to define solutions that are inclusive and sustainable. We are also conducting research to address the complexity of the topic and identify context-specific responses. At the same time, we are capitalizing on our climate resilience and safe migration knowledge and experience to shape solutions by building the resilience of climate-undeserved communities. We work towards this goal through the adoption of climate-smart agriculture technologies and practices; building awareness on migration risks and opportunities with a special focus on migrants’ rights; supporting the development of alternative livelihood skills for potential migrants; and promoting safe migration advocating for recognition and actions to address climate-induced migration.