Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Melanie Deter

Melanie Deter

Melanie Deter is currently studying in the Master’s programme of Geography at the University of Bonn. Focusing on development and globalization, she is particularly interested in global inequality, mobility, and migration. So far, she has spent several internships in East Africa (Tanzania and Kenya).

Nov 10th 2016 by Melanie Deter

Methodological Challenges in Environmental Migration Research: Take-home Messages from TransRe Midterm Conference

Trapped populations, migration as adaptation, and due diligence in research: As a participant in the TransRe Midterm Conference “Connecting the Dots” I received the impression that the presenters had their finger on the pulse of environmental migration studies. In the following, I will highlight the key thoughts of the first session’s speakers. Considering a meta-theoretical framework, they stressed some challenges of current environment-migration research – and provided inspiring impulses for appropriate considerations.

“Climate change and migration have become a quite hot topic in the last decades”. Calum Nicholson regards migration from a policy perspective and reminds the audience of conceptual challenges that have to be considered in research. He argues that researchers need to have a closer look at how definitions of terms are made and which (political) structures underlie. In order to make his argument clear, he discusses the question of “What is a migrant and what is not?” He claims that the notion where we draw the line between a migrant and a non-migrant is very ambiguous:

“The drawing of the lines is a political act. If you say ‘a migrant has to cross national borders’, it is a political construct. It is not founded in analytical truth; it is founded in political decisions.”

Concepts like the one of migrants can easily be used and abused in the service of political agendas with which we might disagree. They might be used to depoliticize the causes of migration. As an example, he refers to the labeling of Syrian refugees: referring to them as environmental refugees could make relations of the conflict to environmental changes like droughts clearer, but from a political viewpoint, this definition is very dangerous as it does not contain the legal protections that only refugees receive.

Concepts like the one of migrants can easily be used and abused in the service of political agendas with which we might disagree."

Nicholson therefore invites the audience to address reflexive questions about themselves and to consider the importance of due diligence in research.

“How can migration support adaptation?” The research question of the project that François Gemenne is currently involved in can be perfectly allocated to the well-known dogma of “migration as adaptation”. As many other current research projects, he has turned his back to the causalities of migration and is interested in the consequences: “Migration studies were obsessed with the causalities of migration in the recent years. We turn it the other way round and investigate the consequences.” The project particularly focuses on the way that migration, displacement and planned relocation benefit or pose challenges for adaptation to environmental and climate change. In a further step, Gemenne deconstructs what he calls the policy agenda of “migration as adaptation”. He states that the agenda was in the first line implemented to create a more positive view on migration and asks the audience to consider that the term migrant has become a life-threatening label: “If you want to be protected by civil rights, you’d better be a refugee than a migrant”.

He concludes that the EU spends millions and billions of Euros in order to keep migrants where they are.

If you want to be protected by civil rights, you’d better be a refugee than a migrant.”

His main point concerns the huge discrepancy between environmental and migration policies: the environmental policies very much support migration as a strategy of adaptation, but the migration policy makers prioritize avoiding migration at all costs. In the context that migration policy makers are much more powerful than the environmental policy makers, he questions the power of the agenda of “migration as adaptation” critically.

In her presentation, Helen Adams states that the questions of “success of migration for whom, when, and where?” have to be addressed more explicitly in current research. In the beginning, she discusses the conditions under which a win-win-win scenario where migration is good for the countries of origin, countries of destination, and migrants themselves can be achieved. To do so, she demands a closer look at how “success” might be defined: “Is migration something good or not – is it something desirable or not?”

 Investigating the “trapped populations” could bring about new insights into the limits of access to migration as a strategy."

As migration can improve the resilience of a household, it can also worsen their situation – e.g. when there is no job in sight for the migrant or the household has even ran into debt to support their migrants’ expenses.

To go one step beyond, Adams argues that for many, migration is not even an option: as migration studies focus mostly on mobile people, investigating “trapped populations” could bring about new insights into the limits of access to migration as a strategy. She thereby stresses one of the key messages of the midterm conference and refers to an approach that is also rising in the context of conflict studies and migration.

Having a look at migration as a system, she asks who is included in a cost-benefit-analysis. Migration that is good for an individual may have negative effects for a household. This goes hand in hand with a spatial-mismatch: migration may benefit sending areas in remittances, but may cause problems in receiving areas. Referring to the question of when success can be assessed, researchers have to consider that migration may not produce positive outcomes until years after the migration event or even until the next generation.

What can we learn from these meta-theoretical considerations? These take-home-messages can help us to consider the field of environment and migration from new perspectives:  

  1. Research results and concepts like the one of migrants can easily be abused in the service of political agendas: Researchers have to address reflexive questions about themselves.

  2. “Migration as adaptation” is a strategy that faces challenges: researchers have to consider that environmental migrants lack legal protection and that the dominant political agenda is not considering them.

  3. For measuring the success of migration, one has to consider the questions of “where, when, who, and success in what?” in a more differentiated manner.

  4. Migration studies should also focus on immobile “trapped populations": this perspective could bring about new insights into the limits of access to migration as a strategy.