Migration and Climate Change

Climate change is becoming an increasingly significant factor in migration, even if nightmare scenarios predicting a human tide of “environmental refugees” are unfounded and counter-productive, concludes the first authoritative overview of the relationship between climate change and migration, published by UNESCO and Cambridge University Press.

“Migration and Climate Change” brings together the views of 26 leading experts from a range of disciplines such as demography, climatology, economics, geography, anthropology and law. They present case studies from Bangladesh, Brazil, Nepal and the islands of the Pacific, analyzing the often alarming statistics and tearing down the myths associated with one of the most-discussed but least-understood aspects of climate change.

“This new publication is a vital contribution to one of the major debates of our time,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who on 1 July took over the chairmanship of the Global Migration Group (1). “We have all read startling headlines warning that climate change will force tens of millions of people to move. This book looks at the evidence for these claims, shows us the real issues at stake – especially those concerning human rights. It also provides some sobering guidance for policy and decision-makers at local, national and international level.”

The publication emphasizes that while increasingly important, climate change is only one of a range of factors that push people to leave their homes and sometimes their countries. Ignoring this “multicausality” has distorted and polarized public debate on the issue which has “become heavily politicized.”

“The doomsday prophesies of environmentalists may have done more to stigmatize refugees and migrants and to support repressive state measures against them, than to raise environmental awareness,” writes Stephen Castles, Associate Director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford, in the book’s conclusion.

Nonetheless, the authors acknowledge that tropical cyclones, heavy rains and floods, drought and desertification, and sea-level rise are increasingly influencing migration.

The authors stress the need for more research, but also point out the necessity for practical action at all levels

Lack of substantial progress in international negotiations means that “it will be too late for mitigation strategies to prevent or even slow down imminent changes” and the major polluters “need to work together globally to provide financial, scientific and logistical support developing adaptation.” They suggest a number of options, such as diversification of economic activity; changes in government attitudes to rural-urban and cross-border migration, by abandoning restriction and criminalization, and helping people to move in conditions of safety and dignity; and a “new, fine-grained collaborative effort to understand the real challenges and to find solutions.”


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