Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Kayly Ober & Svenja Enge

Kayly Ober & Svenja Enge

Kayly Ober is a research associate/PhD candidate at the University of Bonn, where she works for the TransRe Project. She has over eight years of professional experience on issues related to climate change, adaptation, migration, gender, and human security. She has previously worked at the World Bank, Overseas Development Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center, and World Resources Institute, among others. // Svenja Enge is a master's student in “Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security” at the United Nations University-EHS in cooperation with the University of Bonn. Since April 2017, she has been a student assistant for TransRe. She has a strong interest in natural hazards and especially in the interrelations between climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Her academic focus lies on the assessment of risk in hazard-prone areas, particularly in the light of global dynamics such as migration and climate change.

Nov 16th 2017 by Kayly Ober & Svenja Enge

Making Migration Work for Adaptation

Under which conditions can migration contribute to climate change adaptation?

On 6 November 2017, Fiji and Germany officially opened the 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23) in Bonn, Germany. This year, the declared goal of the conference is to put the words hammered out in the 2015 Paris Agreement into action. Even before the conference started, experts warned that it would be extremely difficult – and, without an immediate and drastic policy change, impossible – to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. Therefore, it looks increasingly likely that we will have to take climate change adaptation much more seriously—including taking into account that irreversible impacts may make certain landscapes and livelihoods untenable. Given this, experts argue that migration may very well be a legitimate adaptation strategy. However, not all migration will be a positive form of adaptation—and may even be maladaptive. This begs the question: under which conditions can migration be a form of adaptation?

With this question in mind, on Tuesday, the 14th November, the TransRe Project, together with DIE/GDI, organized a COP23 side-event which brought together insights from research and policy in order to advance the migration-as-adaptation debate.

The five speakers came from a wide range of institutions, including Vanessa Lueck of the Arizona State University [USA], Patrick Sakdapolrak from the University of Vienna [Austria], Cosmin Corendea from UNU-EHS [Germany], Kees van der Geest from the University of Hawaii [USA] and Mariam Traoré Chazalnoel  from IOM [Switzerland]. Benjamin Schraven from DIE/GDI moderated, while Harald Sterly, coordinator of the TransRe Project, provided a wrap-up, summarizing all key messages, at the end of the event.

Flipping the Debate: From Climate-Induced Migration to Migration as Adaptation

Moderator Benjamin Schraven urged the audience to be careful with concepts like 'climate refugees' and alarmist numbers of climate change-induced migrants leaving their homes in the near future. “Generally,” he explained, “it is hard to define what environmentally or climate change induced migration is…as human migration decisions are complex and multidimensional…It is really hard to measure the dominance of environmental factors or climate change factors in these mobility decisions.”

People don’t migrate directly because of climate change but there is a lot in-between."
– Kees van der Geest

Kees van der Geest illustrated this further with preliminary findings of his research with the University of Hawaii on the connection between livelihood-threatening climate change impacts and migration decisions in the Marshall Islands. He showed that climate stressors are one of often several reasons for livelihood insecurities in the Marshall Islands, which form complex and highly individual decision processes.

Cosmin Corendea presented similar results from his just recently published study on migration and human rights in the wake of climate change in Fiji and Vanuatu. From his legal perspective, migration decisions are often strongly connected to climate change-related human rights violations. He therefore argues that climate change, human rights, and migration cannot be addressed separately from one another.

Due to this complexity, it is difficult to conceptualize purely “climate-induced migration.” As Schraven pointed out, this lack of a clear framing for climate change-driven mobility might also give room to misused numbers and arguments for political reasons. Moreover, the common political focus on “climate change displacement” and “climate refugees” fuels a negative framing of migration and detracts from the potential migration might have in terms of climate change adaptation. As Patrick Sakdapolrak put it: “Migration is happening already but the feedback processes of migration on adaptation in the areas of origin of migrants are not so much in the focus of policy and research so far.

The panelists agreed that migration indeed has a certain role to play in climate change adaptation. This role however is ambivalent: As Sakdapolrak showed by drawing on field work conducted by the TransRe Project in Thailand, migration can be both a sign of failed or successful adaptation to a changing climate. For example, many of the migrants working for garment factories in Bangkok live under precarious conditions and working contracts, leaving them more vulnerable. At the same time, some Thai migrant workers in Singapore were able to save up money to invest in land and new businesses upon return to their rural communities. However, success stories may be unevenly distributed within communities, or even amongst a household. As van der Geest's research found, Marshallese migrants perceived migration more beneficially, while their families back home perceived it more negatively.

Sakdapolrak and van der Geest suggest using multi-sited research, where places of origin, of destination, and migrants themselves are included, to get to the bottom of the true nature of such migration as adaptation stories. 

Successful Migration as Adaptation Depends on Degrees of Freedom

In my opinion the crucial issue for the assessment of migration as a success or a failure is related to the degree of freedom in choice people have in their decision to move or to stay, in order to increase or maintain their well-being.”
– Patrick Sakdapolrak


According to a number of panelists, the crucial factor for migration to become either a failure or a success in terms of climate change adaptation is the degree of freedom which (potential) migrants have in choosing to stay or to move.

These degrees of freedom will be determined by much more than just the capacity of the migrant, but also constraints or facilitation by higher-ordered structures. “The conditions in places of origin are crucial to understand how the interconnectedness to the place of origin is structured,” said Sakdapolrak. Likewise, “if the working and living conditions [in the destination area] are very precarious, migration as adaptation’s positive potential is not possible…how you treat migrants in your country has a potential for impact of migration as adaptation,” he added. This means that the support of migration as adaptation needs to begin with the strengthening of vulnerable groups’ adaptation capacities in the places of origin, giving room for free decisions, but at the same time needs to safeguard working and living conditions for migrants in their areas of destination. This could then lead to multiplier effects, as migrants which manage to gain social and financial assets potentially can also use these to support sustained social networks in their home regions.

As Mariam Traoré Chazalnoel reiterated, people need to be supported and offered help, regardless of whether they decide to stay and adapt to climate change impacts through other means aside from migration, whether they want to migrate or whether they already are on the move.

 We need to find solutions to help people stay, to help people move and for those already on the move.”
–  Mariam Traoré Chazalnoel

The question really then should be: How can we make sure that migration “works” for adaptation?

Engaging New Actors and Exploring New Pathways

To answer this question, the session also considered the policy angle of the migration-as-adaptation debate. For years, human mobility has received very limited consideration in climate policy. Since 2015, however, two major mechanisms have laid the groundwork for advancing global migration and displacement policy: The Global Compact for Migration (GCM) and the Task Force on Displacement (TFD). Both these mechanisms, which hold the highest potential to influence the political debate on human mobility in the next years, are just now entering a critical stage. In early December 2017, the GCM starts to take stock of all inputs received from the thematic sessions during the finished consultation phase and prepares a zero draft for the actual negotiations, which will begin in February 2018. The TFD, meanwhile, started its work in May 2017 and is right now collecting important information for their recommendations, which will be considered in the high level negotiations of COP24 in Katowice, Poland. Hence, the time seems right to push recent research on migration, and specifically the migration-as-adaptation nexus, out into the political debate.

Besides the usual suspects of households making migration decisions, NGOs, and national governments, other actors will undoubtedly also play a role in influencing the debate and potential outcomes. As Corendea explained, “from the legal perspective, [most] states are not prepared to deal with migration and climate change or human rights.” International mechanisms, at the same time, develop and come into action at a slow pace. Panelists highlighted two additional actors worth investigating: The private sector and regional institutional frameworks.

The regional approach, as shown by Corendea, might indeed represent a valuable addition to missing capacities on the international or national level. Specifically, the case of regional migration dynamics in the Pacific Region has proven that regional approaches might be a solution for regulating and improving the outcomes of migration in relation to climate change.

The private sector meanwhile, another oft-neglected actor, is also closely involved in migration and climate change adaptation policies.  As Vanessa Lueck illustrated with her research, the private sector can both enable and block migration as adaptation, which raises questions on which role the private sector can and should play, specifically with respect to equity and justice along the migration and climate change adaptation nexus.

If we, policy makers, activists, and researchers within climate change, want to enable and encourage equity and justice in the challenging situation of climate change induced migration, we need to include the private-sector as an influential actor at the confluence of adaptation and migration.”
– Vanessa Lueck

Putting Migration as Adaptation Back on the COP Agenda

To date, the concept of migration as adaptation has received less and less attention within the COP process. Some panelists speculated that it may be due to traditional debates over financial responsibility, while others thought that the already messy political discourse over migrant rights may play a role. Traoré Chazalnoel, however, felt that “there is space [in international mechanisms like the TFD] to discuss what we here call adaptation, but with other words.” Due to the typically negative framing of migration, politicians seem to be reluctant in framing migration as adaptation. Hence, there is still the need to overcome this negative framing of migration and shift the focus away from questionable constructs such as 'climate refugees'. Instead of continuing these lines of thought which lead to policies that mainly try to prevent migration, we should increasingly recognize under which conditions migrants can become active agents of adaptation and how policies can facilitate these conditions best. “The main goal of the TFD is to produce recommendations to avert, minimize, address displacement…in the word avert, prevent is where we can bring in the migration as adaptation discourse,” she said.

Image Credit: Photos/Video by TransRe


Making #Migration Work for #Adaptation: Under which conditions can migration contribute to #ClimateChangeAdaptation? Find the answer and key messages from the #COP23 side event 'Adaptation in Motion' in this BLOG POST by @KaylyOber & @SvenjaEnge |NEW BLOG @TransReProject