Migration and displacement related to climate change have received increasing attention in the media, in research and among policymakers in recent years. A range of studies have produced extremely concerning statistics and forecasts about the potential scale of migration and displacement due to climate change now and in the future. For example, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre calculated that in 2019 alone almost 25 million people were displaced by disasters such as floods and tropical storms – three times the number displaced by conflict and violence (IDMC 2020a). The World Bank’s 2018 Groundswell report estimated that, if substantial climate change mitigation and development measures are not taken, slow-onset climate impacts could displace as many as 143 million people in just three world regions, or 55 percent of the developing world’s population, by 2050 (Rigaud et al. 2018).
These kinds of figures have been widely reported and drive the prevailing narrative in media and policy debates that climate change will lead to mass migration and displacement, which, in turn, can lead to conflict. There is empirical evidence that rising temperatures, leading to disasters and slow-onset impacts such as drought or sea-level rise are already playing a role in setting people across the world on the move, and these numbers are likely to increase as climate change impacts intensify (UNINE n.d.; IOM’s GMDAC 2020).
However, the links between climate change, migration, displacement and conflict are complex, and vary widely between contexts. The growing community of research on this topic has warned that, without an adequate understanding of the pathways of mobility, predictions of millions of climate migrants and displaced people can cast responses in alarmistic and counter-productive tones (Flavell et al. 2020). Policy on displacement, migration and climate change can therefore profit from investing in fine-grained analyses of the different factors shaping human mobility, and using them to support the development of effective responses that address the needs of migrants, as well as their home and destination communities.
Along these lines, this paper examines the interaction between biophysical climate impacts, migration, displacement and (in)security.
It aims to go beyond the prevailing narratives to better understand the different ways in which mobility can serve as an adaptive strategy to climate- and conflict-related risks and vulnerabilities. It also aims to assess how effective mobility is as an adaptation strategy and will continue to be in light of other stresses, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
The analysis focuses on two case studies, Bangladesh and Central Asia, each presenting different human mobility pathways. It adopts a diversity lens to consider how the success/effectiveness of mobility strategies is sensitive to the position of individuals in society and the opportunities they have. It also considers how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the ability of climate-vulnerable populations to use mobility as an effective adaptation strategy, considering movement restrictions, increased unemployment in cities, reduced opportunities for seasonal work (e.g. in the agriculture sector), return migration and impacts on remittance flows.
In conclusion, the paper makes recommendations to inform governments in countries of origin and international development and humanitarian policies and programmes in relation to mobility and climate change/security, including those of the EU and EU member states.
Firstly, climate-induced mobility should be included in and addressed through broader adaptation and development efforts, for example building urban infrastructure, promoting nature-based adaptation, and ensuring adequate social protection and education. Policies and legal frameworks on migration and displacement in countries of origin should also be strengthened, ensuring the coordination between existing policies at all levels. Global cooperation will be essential to build international standards. And finally, all programming should be supported by an improved knowledge base on climate-induced migration and displacement, including gender- and age- disaggregated data.