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Missing migrants?

  • 16 May 2011, 17:00
  • Neil

Where are all the climate refugees we were promised? That seems to have been the question concerning much of the climate skeptic blogosphere over the past few weeks, and the debate was been picked up by the New Scientist and BBC Radio 4's popular statistics programme More Or Less.

It began with a piece by Gavin Atkins for Asian Correspondent, titled What happened to the climate refugees? Atkins pointed to a  map, made by newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique and hosted on the United Nations Environment Programme's website, which showed the geographical distribution of likely climate impacts was shown. The map stated 'Climate refugees will mainly come from developing countries, where the effect of climate change comes on top of poverty and war.'

Atkins compared the map with census data for the areas highlighted at being of risk of climate impacts, showing that in some of the areas highlighted on the map, populations were increasing. Atkins wrote:

"… a very cursory look at the first available evidence seems to show that the places identified by the UNEP as most at risk of having climate refugees are not only not losing people, they are actually among the fastest growing regions in the world."

UNEP subsequently inflated the story by pulling the map from their website in what was presumably either a too-late spring cleaning or a botched attempt at PR, depending on how generous you're feeling.

So how accurate are projections about numbers of 'climate refugees'? And does population growth in areas of climate impacts show that the issue is bogus?

The map referenced what is probably the most widely known research on the issue, produced by Oxford environmental scientist Professor Norman Myers. In a 1995 paper Myers predicted [PDF] that by 2010 there would be 50 million climate refugees in the world, and in 2005 he argued [PDF] that by 2050

"there could be as many as 200 million people [displaced] by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration, and by sea level rise and coastal flooding."

This would mean roughly ten times more refugees and IDPs (internally displaced people) in the world by 2050 than there are now.

New Scientist noted that Myers had described his numbers as a "first cut assessment", which had required some "heroic extrapolations". However it does seem they have become widely accepted, if only because of a lack of other definitive work on the subject.

Myers' work certainly has its critics. The BBC's More or Less programme spoke to Stephen Castles, associate director of the International Migration Institute at Oxford University, criticized Myers' work, saying "the figure is absolute nonsense. There's no evidence whatsoever that anything like that number have been forced to move by climate change." Castles claimed that Myers had merely taken a map of the world, calculated the areas that would be affected by a given sea rise, and assumed that everyone living in the affected areas would migrate, many of them to developed countries.

"There was no basis for it", he said.

Myers responded to More or Less rejecting suggestions that the 50 million number is wrong, and noting that he had interviewed "governments, agencies, scientists in the various countries, on the ground" and visited refugee camps in order to research the issue. The number was "very cautious", he said. 

So, why isn't there a clearer picture on this issue? We spoke to Hannah Smith, refugee project manager for the Climate Outreach and Information Network, for her view. She told us that while Myers' work could not be taken as a sophisticated prediction, comparing maps of climate impacts with population change does not tell us that climate migration is not occurring.

"The great majority of people working on environment and migration issues have long regarded the numbers as at best educated guess work. Though Myers' figure of 200 million 'climate refugees' by 2050 is commonly cited, it has long been contentious within the migrant research community. It is notable that Myers is an environmental scholar, not a migration expert. In reality, his conclusions represent the population exposed to climate change risk rather than an accurate displacement forecast."

"But the fact that census data shows population increasing in these countries does not allow us to say no one is moving. Just as Myers' figures have long been contested, so too has the idea that climate change will cause rapid, mass displacement across borders. The vast majority of movement and displacement will occur within national boundaries."

With climate change just one factor affecting migration, Smith pointed out that it is likely to be impossible to identify migration caused solely by climate change, because different regions, with different environmental and social dynamics, will respond to a changing climate in very different ways. In such a complex system, she suggested, trying to come up with a single 'number of refugees' was an unhelpful approach.

"The obvious example here is cases of Small Island States at risk of sea level rise … Islands are likely to become uninhabitable long before they are submerged and we are likely to see out-migration before this occurs. Some will move in pre-emptive manner. In contrast, consider the potential role climate impacts might play in migration decisions and displacement in a country like Zimbabwe or Sudan."

Rather than fixating on numerical assessments of 'climate refugee numbers', she suggested, we should view climate change as a 'threat multiplier', which "dramatically increases the burden on already vulnerable communities."

"Politicians, the international community and media consistently obsess over reducing complex issues to quantifiable matters. Others must get on with the challenge of better understanding the nuances of a complex situation. Climate change is a very real threat and the necessity for those affected to adapt their livelihoods through migration needs careful understanding. It is misguided to think that alarmist approaches lead to action."

Smith noted in 2008 alone at least 36 million people were displaced by sudden-onset natural disasters that occurred in that year. Of those, over 20 million cases were climate related.

"There is an urgent need to move beyond 'numbers' in this debate. Rather the debate needs to concentrate on how we protect vulnerable migrants. A person is vulnerable and has protection and assistance needs not because there are 10 million other people like them, but because of their individual situation."

More information on the work on the migration initiatives of the Climate Outreach and Information Network here.

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