The issue of climate-forced migration, and its impacts on human health, is a discourse that is often underplayed when it comes to discussions about climate impacts and adaptation. The ramifications of ignoring it, and consequently failing to put in place appropriate policy frameworks to cope with increased levels of migrants at an international level, will be huge. The health problems associated with climate-related migration also pose a major challenge for existing healthcare systems and the international humanitarian response.
According to International Organisation for Migration and United Nations figures, between 200 million and 1 billion people could be forced to leave their homes between 2010 and 2050 as the effects of climate change worsen, potentially inundating current response strategies.
Climate change migration is already happening across the world - right now.
Some are migrating because of the direct impacts of natural disasters like floods, droughts and acute water shortages. Whilst indirect impacts such as conflict and increases in food prices can also contribute to people being forced to leave their homes.
There is no doubt that forced migration due to climate change will increase the pressure on existing infrastructure and urban services, especially in sanitation, education and social sectors and also consequently increase the risk of conflict over access to scare resources, even amongst migrants.
A study released on 28 November, entitled ‘where the rain falls: climate change, food and livelihood security, and migration’ reveals a much more nuanced relationship between projected climate variability and migration, which could provide key insights into likely drivers of migration the coming years. The study, carried out by CARE International and UN University, in 8 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, revealed that in nearly all instances in which rains have become too scarce for farming, people have migrated, but mostly within national borders.
At a side event at COP18 on this issue last week, one of the authors, Dr Koko Warner, remarked that "those resilient households use migration to reduce their exposure to climatic variability… In those households, migrants are in their mid-20s, single, move temporarily and send remittances back home. Those resilient households use migration to invest in even more livelihood diversification, education, health and other activities that put them on a positive path to human development."
However, there are also much starker consequences for more vulnerable households:
1. Households may migrate in an attempt to manage risk but suffer worse outcomes. They are found in countries with less food security and fewer options to diversify their incomes. They move within their countries seasonally to find work, often as agricultural labourers.
2. The study also described how migration could be an ‘erosive coping strategy’; as a matter of human security, when few other options exist. These households are found in areas where food is even scarcer. They often move during the unpredictable dry season to other rural areas in their regions in search of food or work.
3. Lastly, the study found "households that are trapped and cannot move, and are really at the very margins of existence," according to Warner. These households do not have the capacity to migrate.
Health policy making in the context of migration can either been seen as a human rights issue, putting the needs of the individual first, or as a security issue, in terms of its threats to public health (eg. communicable disease control) and social stability. The latter approach relies principally on monitoring, surveillance and screening, and could be argues to be the modern-day cousin of centuries-old quarantine measures, without an individual-focused perspective. The human-rights based approach takes into account nuances and special needs of individuals, as well as the social determinants which may have affected individuals’ health along the migratory pathway.
With respect to the UNFCCC process, the response to environmental migration is an area that is particularly underdeveloped.
The negotiating text elaborated at Tianjin in 2010 invited Parties to enhance adaptation action under the Adaptation Framework through: [‘m]easures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation related to national, regional and international climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate’. The Cancun agreement in 2010 took some strides forward and laid out a roadmap for progress with reference to migration, but as yet it hasn’t been implemented, and highlights the need for better and more equitable policy at a global level.
As Jane McAdam observes: “Finally—and perhaps most significantly—there seems to be little political appetite for a new international agreement on protection. As one official in Bangladesh pessimistically observed, ‘this is a globe for a rich man’.
In “Migration and Climate Change,” a recent publication by UNESCO, Stephen Castles, Associate Director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford suggests that we may need to re-think our strategy. “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.”
We should be doing more, much more, to raise awareness of this issue, and we must start preparing to cope effectively with the health issues associated with it.