Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Robert McLeman

Robert McLeman

Robert McLeman is Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. A former foreign service officer, his research focuses on how environmental change influences migration and community adaptation.

Mar 10th 2016 by Robert McLeman

On Inequality and Environmental Migration

There’s an old saying in natural hazards research that the most vulnerable people live in the most hazardous locations. While this isn’t always true (e.g. more than one millionaire’s waterfront condo on Miami Beach will become an undesirable address later this century due to sea level rise), it’s safe to say that at a global scale, the poor and disempowered are disproportionately exposed to the worst effects of environmental degradation. It is also safe to say that their numbers will grow in coming decades from the combined forces of population growth, climate change, and growing economic inequality.

The poor and disempowered are disproportionately exposed to the worst effects of environmental degradation"

Researchers who specialize in the study of how the natural environment influences migration and mobility have long known that socio-economic inequality and political powerlessness are simultaneously a cause and an outcome of environmental migration.

But until fairly recently, there was little empirical information to help us better understand exactly how environmental and socio-economic processes interact. Without such evidence, it has been difficult to offer anything more than normative or aspirational prescriptions to policymakers of what, if anything, ought to be done. 

Over the last five years there has been a rapid expansion in the number of peer reviewed studies documenting the relationship between environment and migration.

Socio-economic inequality and political powerlessness are simultaneously a cause and an outcome of environmental migration"

They approach the subject from a variety of disciplinary origins, use a range of methods and theoretical assumptions, and poke and prod at aspects and dimensions – like gender, race, and humanitarian law – that were once largely unconsidered. While there is still much work yet to be done, the study of environmental migration has matured to a point where we are now able to make nuanced statements about not just who is at risk of becoming an environmental migrant, but also about the implications of environmental migration for destination communities and for the people and places left behind. We are also now able to offer decision makers detailed assessments and recommendations on how to address the coming challenges, many of which require tackling non-environmental processes that are ratcheting up socio-economic inequality all over the globe.

In January 2016, my colleagues Thomas Faist, Jeanette Schade, and I were proud to publish an edited volume entitled “Social Inequality and Environmental Migration”. It may not be the catchiest title, but we saw no point in beating around the bush. Originating from a conference held at Germany’s Bielefeld University, our volume brings together contributions from emerging and established scholars who have dug into the social, economic, and political dimensions of environmental displacement and migration, and have found connections to pervasive inequality found in countries on every continent. Without giving too much away (after all, we want you to buy the book), we can say there are several recurrent themes throughout the book:

  • While it is popular to describe migration in terms of adaptation, its success as an adaptation strategy is heavily determined by inequalities in socio-economic status
  • In times of environmental stress or hardship, inequality has especially severe impacts on livelihood capabilities, mobility prospects, and migration agency
  • Environmental migration has implications for the future vulnerability and capability of individuals, households, and communities in the places left behind
  • Many inequalities are maintained or reinforced by institutional structures, and without undoing these, true agency, capability, and adaptability will not be achieved
  • How we describe and define environmental migration has implications for migrants and non-migrants, and current international laws and policies pay little attention to issues of inequality, capability, and adaptive migration

There’s more – a lot more – to be found in our book, including examples of empirical research from Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, China, Ghana, Haiti, Mexico, and Turkey, as well as reflections on food security, translocality, and the invisibility of the most vulnerable people. Like any good survey of the scholarship, our book generates more questions than it answers. We hope you will pick up a copy (or, given the price, ask your institutional library to acquire a copy), and send us some comments about what you find.

Photo Credits: Robert McLeman; Gülçin Lelandais