Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Hedda Ransan-Cooper

Hedda Ransan-Cooper

Hedda’s research interests include the human dimensions of global environmental change, the theory and practice of sustainable development, and the intersections between human mobility and climate change. She completed her PhD in 2013 at the Australian National University (ANU), with visiting periods at the University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila University. She subsequently worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the Climate Change Institute at ANU, where she pursued research on risk and migration, framings of environmental migrants, and climate change/energy change policy in Australia. She is currently a research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra

Sep 28th 2016 by Hedda Ransan-Cooper

Migration, environment, and social change: how do we incorporate migrant ‘voices’?

When I first started my PhD on environmental migration in 2010, I was struck by a peculiar juxtaposition: On the one hand, NGOs were using emotional imagery and language to depict environmental or climate change migrants. On the other, academic analysis of the same issue often presented migrant decisions in a cool and detached manner, quantified in terms of numbers and categories (such as slow or sudden onset). Perhaps migrants’ lived experiences were needed to capture public (and donor!) imagination, and yet the policy arena demanded of researchers to come up with universally applied generalizations that skimmed over complex migration decisions.

Is there a way to reconcile capturing lived experiences with academically rigorous explanations for mobility? How might we go about expanding our toolbox for capturing migrants’ lived experiences? And given how policy relevant our research is, could we find more innovative ways to communicate such findings to policy makers in a way that doesn’t compromise the integrity of our research? I don’t seek to answer these big questions here, but hope they can form part of the conversations in upcoming conferences on environmental migration.

In a recent paper, I argued that mobility decisions are never entirely rational, yet we as a community of researchers have often understood them in this way. One example of alternative ways to understand migrants’ decision making is through a lens that understands behavior as rooted in routine ways of doing and thinking.

 Is there a way to reconcile capturing lived experiences with academically rigorous explanations for mobility?"

To illustrate this approach I’ll share some findings from my research in the Philippines on cultural experiences of emotions. This approach leads us to appreciate why migration continues to be attractive to many rural inhabitants, even in contexts where urban employment and living standards are risky and precarious.

Unpacking ‘hopeful’ migration

We often assume an urban bias in our thinking of what drives rural-urban migration. Surely people must long for the chance of sophistication and economic security possible in urban or peri-urban centers. For respondents in my research, urban areas did indeed represent hope, but the emotions driving this were more complex than simply a pining for bright city lights.

The desire for a more secure source of income in the long-term explains the short-term migration to urban areas. Contract work in the city provides income required for educating the next generation so that they can move out of farming. In participants’ eyes, in the absence of workable non-farm opportunities locally, urban areas represent the only feasible option for a more secure future. It was not urban areas in and of themselves that were attractive to respondents (although some young migrants did express a desire to experience novel elements of urban life). But rather, the possibility for transformation that urban work – through cash for education expenses - could enable. The importance of this to farmers is felt on a deep level. It was in speaking of the difficulty of paying for education expenses that participants expressed the strongest emotions, whether expressed in tears, or poignant silences.

Understanding how different groups in contexts of environmental stress experience and understand hope may well be as important for understanding their responses to environmental change as the material impact of the stressors. For instance, negative responses to escalating environmental change, in the form of helplessness and fear may very well be counteracted by ‘hopeful’ short-term migration to urban areas.

Vulnerability is not just material – emotions must also be managed

While migration can represent hope, it can also represent loneliness, anxiety, and a sense of dislocation. There is a delicate balance that migrants must walk in relation to moving yet maintaining a consistent sense of self. We often talk about vulnerability in a material sense in relation to migration, but security is not only material: it’s about relationships and a sense of being whole. Being away from one’s family and other social networks requires active emotional management.

While migration can represent hope, it can also represent loneliness, anxiety, and a sense of dislocation."

Young people spoke of the loneliness of being in cities and how romantic relationships often formed in this context. Spouses spoke of the worries they felt and the frequent trips they made home in order to maintain relationships.

Familiarity was important to maintaining a sense of self - familiarity with employment, with social networks and with places. The importance of familiarity in engaging with particular forms of employment has implications in the context of future environmental changes. For instance, it raises the question for future studies: will relocation become more compelling as local conditions become less familiar?

Migrant experiences critical to understanding social change

The emotional dimension of migration has been neglected in rural-urban environmental migration studies, as it has in development studies.  I would suggest that one way to expand our toolbox for understanding migration is to attend to lively conversations happening more broadly in migration studies and other relevant disciplines about how to capture the dynamics of migration. As others have argued, this requires us to think deeply about the interplay between structural factors, and people’s responses over time. In other words, migration is linked inextricably to social change and we would do well to attend to all relevant dimensions of change, including migrant experiences.


Image Credits: The Future of Migration / ILO in Asia and the Pacific under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 // The best thing about migration is coming back home. / ILO in Asia and the Pacific under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0