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Review: IOM Outlook on Migration, Environment and Climate Change

Photo by Oxfam

“Horn of Africa famine refugee” Photo by Oxfam

By Sandra Fatorić, Center for Climate and Security Research Fellow

The new International Organization for Migration (IOM) Outlook on Migration, Environment and Climate Change report is intended to be a reference publication on environmental and climate change migration, which targets policymakers, practitioners, researchers, international agencies, the private sector, donors, students, and think tanks. Environmental migration intersects a range of policy areas, including migration, climate change and environment, security, development, and humanitarian assistance.

IOM has developed its own working definition for “migration” in the context of environmental hazards. Environmental migrants are defined as persons who are obliged, or choose to leave their home due to sudden or progressive environmental changes that adversely affect their lives or living conditions.

Current international legal frameworks to address environmental migration do not provide an internationally accepted legal definition or specific status for people on the move due to environmental factors. And there are no legal instruments dedicated specifically to this issue. In particular, IOM attempts to discourage use of the term environmental or climate change refugee, which is frequently used in the media.

IOM argues that environmentally induced migration is more likely to occur within the borders of developing countries, rather than across national borders. Climate change is likely to lead to more permanent movements, both in relation to sudden-onset disasters (e.g. hurricanes, floods) and slow-onset impacts of environmental degradation and climate variability (e.g. desertification, sea-level rise). IOM further points out that it is difficult to characterize the cause of migration as specifically environmental or climatic. Political, economic, social, and demographic factors interact with environmental or climatic factors. Movement can be voluntary or involuntary (i.e. forced). However, IOM distinguishes between “displacement” and “relocation”. Displacement is understood as a migration where people involuntarily leave their home (forced migration), usually due to political strife or sudden-onset disasters. IOM defines relocation as “planned migration,” carried out by the public authorities at the national or sub-national level.

The report presents three objectives:

1) Minimize forced and unmanaged migration as much as possible

2) Ensure assistance and protection for those affected and seek durable solutions when forced migration occurs, and

3) Facilitate the role of migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change.

Researchers of climate and security issues might be most interested in the third objective.

IOM shows that in the face of global environmental change, migration does not have to be either a part of the problem, or a last-resort measure; it can also be a positive driver for change. In fact, migration can be part of a solution set when examining adaptation strategies. Planned migration and assisted relocation can be strategies to adapt to environmental or climate-induced changes.

From IOM’s perspective, environmental migration has the potential to contribute to adaptation in a number of ways. Migration can help people manage risks, reduce pressure on natural and household resources, enhance resilience (e.g. diversify and strengthen livelihoods), and increase adaptive capacity of communities who remain home through financial and social remittances.

To date, climate change strategies and adaptation plans at the national level have not adequately addressed the migration, displacement, or relocation dimensions. For example, some least developed countries have partially addressed these issues in their respective national adaptation programs of action (NAPAs), which were developed in cooperation with the UNFCCC. However, NAPAs mainly focus on limiting environmental migration, and generally do not address the potentially positive role the movement of peoples can play in the context of climate change adaptation.

IOM’s Outlook also captures the environmental migration-security nexus. The Outlook notes that the migration-security issue is deeply complex, and that scientific studies are likely deficient in identifying direct linear relationships.

At present, the traditional national security approach is the most visible in regard to the security implications of climate change, where migration in a context of existing political instability, weak governance and structural development issues is likely to be an exacerbating factor rather than a determining factor of security

At the same time, IOM approaches the migration-security nexus from human security lens, which puts the individual at the center of analysis, and considers physical security (e.g. from war, violence) as one of several security needs (e.g. food security, water security). This latter approach is based on a region-specific context, assessing the types of hazard events and corroborating it with socioeconomic factors and individual vulnerability factors. IOM notes that linear, deterministic analyses that perceive environmental migration only as a climate change–conflict transmission mechanism should be avoided.

IOM also calls for better data on potential future environmental migration and displacement. This would allow for identifying potential receiving areas and planning accordingly to avoid tensions or conflict with the receiving communities. Also, the potentially positive effects (e.g. newly built capacity to adapt) of migration for the areas of origin need to be better understood. Conversely, the report notes, policy measures that prevent environmental migration can have adverse security outcomes in the longer term in origin, transit, and destination areas.

The full report can be found here


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