Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Kayly Ober

Kayly Ober

Kayly Ober is a research associate/PhD candidate at the University of Bonn, where she works for the TransRe Project. She has over five years of professional experience on issues relating 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. CONTACT kober@uni-bonn.de

Jan 7th 2015 by Kayly Ober

World Bank’s Turn Down the Heat Report Turns Up the Rhetoric on Migration

In late November 2014, the World Bank released the third report of their flagship climate change series, “Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal.” This report focused on the biophysical impacts of different climate scenarios in Latin America and Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa, and Eastern and Central Europe.

For the first time, it contained a dedicated piece on social vulnerability, which was also an important thread in each regional section. Given this, migration featured prominently throughout. In parallel, the World Bank seems to be generally interested in the topic of environmental change and migration, given its decision to have a working group around this under the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD). Perhaps this is why Turn Down the Heat exhibits far more nuance than most reports. However, discussion of migration in the end followed a set, and one might even argue formulaic, schema.

(Full disclosure: I worked on this report from October 2013-May 2014. I did not write, edit, or handle the final product.)

In “How the IPCC views migration. An assessment of migration in the IPCC AR5”, I argue that there are three different types of discourse that tend to view migration as: 1) negative/maladaptive; 2) adaptation; and 3) a possible research subject for the future.

“Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal” does not stray far from this assessment. In it, migration is seen as both a negative and positive force as well as a phenomenon of everyday life. In total, migration is mentioned over 50 times in distinct ways (e.g. not counting redundant sentences or when migration was mentioned more than once in a sentence). However, migration features overwhelmingly as negative, with some 30 separate references alluding to migration as last resort, a challenge, and even a catalyst for conflict. Some choice examples:

  • [C]limate change may induce greater levels of female migration; in the context of gender-based discrimination, these women may face more challenges settling down and finding adequate housing and stable jobs (p. 83)
  • Migrants tend to come from similar locations and settle in the same areas which usually are marginal areas in urban areas where they might have social capital or social networks (Vignoli 2012). This contributes to creating social vulnerability to climate change by increasing spatial segregation at the destination, or by modifying social networks of migrant households in their origin (p. 84)
  • Larger flows of migrants could potentially destabilize destination countries (p. 84)
  • Deteriorating rural livelihoods may contribute to internal and international migration, adding further stresses on particularly urban infrastructure with associated health risks for poor migrants (p. 113)
  • Migrants to urban areas often live in marginal land with poor infrastructure, liable to flooding or on unstable slopes, and this at great risk from extreme events. The migrants are likely to be poor, face health risks related to low-income urban environments (e.g., overcrowding, poor water quality, poor sanitation). Such areas are also typically at higher risk of crime (Black et al. 2012; Hugo 2011). In some areas, migrants also face discrimination based on their ethnicity, making it harder for them to access services and find employment, with the risk that poor migrant children may have more limited access to education than other local children (Marcus et al. 2011) (p. 157)
  • Migration in the Western Balkans has already led to severe demographic changes, which coupled with an aging population is expected to lead to further increased regional climate change sensitivity as a result of decreased adaptive capacity (p. 173)

Migration is written about positively and as a fact of life a handful of times. Some quotes here:

  • Migration is considered an adaptive response to maintain livelihoods under conditions of change. Assunção and Feres (2009) show that an increase in poverty levels by 3.2 percent through changes in agricultural productivity induced by regional warming of 1.5°C in 2030–2049 is reduced to two percent if sectoral and geographic labor mobility is allowed for. This means that migration can reduce the potential impact of climate change on poverty (Andersen et al. 2010) (p. 82)
  • Labor migration can also provide benefits to migrants and their families. Migration can generate an increase in a family’s financial assets, as work in the new location often pays better. This contributes to better living conditions if the family is able to migrate together or generates remittances that can be sent back to help the family left behind (p. 83)
  • In Central Asia today, migration plays an important role in the development of the region, notably through remittances (Asian Development Bank 2011) (p. 196)

What is perhaps more illuminating is that certain regional chapters feature more negative rhetoric than others. The Middle East and North Africa in particular suffers from an exceedingly negative outlook of migration. One can extrapolate this is perhaps because of the focus of parts of the chapter specifically on security implications. Added to this is the fact that the Turn Down the Heat series is based on extensive literature reviews, and may just be only reporting on already existing biases. Whatever the reason, it appears that the discourse at the intersection of migration and climate will have a hard time moving out from under the specter of “climate refugees” and “climate conflict.”


Image Credit: World Bank