Migrants of a Different Kind

Samysuddin, a current resident of Indonesia, can recall the days when he would take his trusted speargun and dive into the coastal waters of Ujung Village and be able to catch his family’s dinner. But things have since changed in the waters off the Kapoposang island of Indonesia: “I can spend the whole day motoring around, paddling and swimming, I’ll try everything. Sometimes I don’t catch any fish and we’ll go a whole day without eating any. These days, the coral reefs around Kapoposang are degrading. If the reefs continue to degrade then there won’t be any fish here. There won’t be anything left for us to do.”

A home on the water in Indonesia, a country where migration is already an inevitable method of adaptation and will be exasperated in the future. (Source: Curt Carnemark / World Bank)

Samysuddin is a part of a growing population of Indonesia migrants that have been displaced as a result of economic, social, and now adverse environmental changes.  changes.  Narratives like his are becoming a familiar tocsin. UN forecasts predict  “200 million to 1 billion” people will have to migrate as a result of climate change with 200 million being the most widely cited estimation but not devoid of misapplication and manipulation. While there is a considerable amount of research on migration as a response to various, social, political, and economic conditions, humans are now beginning to migrate as an adaptive strategy to adverse environmental conditions. Migration due to rising sea levels is in its most nascent forms as push and pull factors vary greatly among regions and social groups and are often intertwined with livelihood opportunities and public policy responses. For example, research conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch found that rural Nicaraguan families in extreme poverty were the least likely to migrate as they were unable to finance the cost of moving. Yet Costa Rica still absorbed an enormous influx of Nicaraguan migrants that have been victims of violence and have faced constraints in accessing social services.

Furthermore, there is a clear body of scholarship, well-documented by the CGP blog at that, pointing to the global challenges of rapid urbanization, increasing South-South migration, and the displacement of refugees due to armed conflicts, a trifurcation of  migration that will be seriously exasperated by climate migrants. Often when climate change is one of the factors in a person’s decision to relocate, it is likely they will move a short distance within their own country. If the migration is resulting from a loss of arable land or water, this will displace former agricultural workers into urban enclaves. According to the 2013 U.N. Human Development Report, “although low HDI countries contribute the least to global climate change, they are likely to experience the greatest loss in annual rainfall and the sharpest increase in variability with dire implications for agricultural production and livelihoods.”

Migration due to rising sea levels is in its most nascent forms as push and pull factors vary greatly among regions and social groups and are often intertwined with livelihood opportunities and public policy responses.

The interaction between climate and human migration has serious implications, especially for the stability of coastal nations that lack the resources, governance, and resilience needed to respond to these adverse consequences. The U.N. indicates that “145 million people are presently at risk from a [sea level] rise of one meter, three quarters of whom live in East and South Asia.”  Even though climate change is reinforcing patterns of temporary and circular movement, permanent movement will begin to occur as coastlines are particularly vulnerable to shoreline erosion, inundation, and extreme weather events. For instance, the government of the Maldives is considering buying land in other countries and even moving their 350,000 citizens to Australia for fear of their 1,200 island archipelago becoming submerged. Already 14 Maldives islands have been abandoned because of erosion; similar relocations have happened in Papua New Guinea and even Alaska. India is now a destination for Bangladeshis fleeing “desertification in the north, and floods and soil degradation caused by rising sea levels in the south of the country.” With India being in no position to absorb these migrant populations, violent conflicts, spread of infectious diseases, and shoot-to-kill border policies have resulted.

The interaction between environmental change and migration is yet to be fully understood, although the implications of migration due to any variable—within countries and across borders—have been troubling. Given that “over a third of the world’s population lives in coastal zones within 100 km of the shore,” the effects on human settlements and migration are now pernicious and will later be outright disastrous. Although the definition of a refugee in international law is narrow, including only those displaced by war, violence, or persecution, the exigencies of the gradual phenomenon of reactive migration due to climate change should embolden truly comprehensive and, most importantly, proactive solutions to the future rapid disruptions of economies, societies, and ecosystems as the adaptive capacities of individuals, communities, and nation states will be undoubtedly challenged.

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