What are the factors of environmental degradation

Immigration, Displacement and Asylum: Current Issues

Julian Tangermann

Julian Tangermann works and researches migration and development, climate migration and migration history. This article was created as part of his work as a research assistant at the German national contact point of the European Migration Network (EMN) at the Research Center Migration, Integration and Asylum of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).

Axel Kreienbrink

Dr. Axel Kreienbrink heads the research field "International Migration and Migration Control" at the Research Center Migration, Integration and Asylum of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).

Dealing with environmental and climate migration is no longer a shadowy existence. However, there is no uniform term for people who leave their hometowns due to climate and environmental changes. There are reasons.

A farmer in a dry rice field in Bangladesh. (& copy picture-alliance, ZUMA Press)

Until a few years ago, climate and environmental migration was a topic that only specialized researchers were concerned with and that only a few politicians were interested in. That has changed: In the meantime, questions of the connection between climate change, environmental changes and human mobility are the focus of the scientific debate and are the subject of political disputes. For example, the second of its 23 goals in the "Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration" adopted in December 2018 deals with natural disasters, environmental degradation and climate change as factors of human mobility. It describes the measures that the international community wants to implement in order to minimize these factors. [1]

There is no linear, monocausal relationship between environmental changes as a result of climate change and human migration: "To clearly determine the relationship between climate change and migration is a complex project. There is great uncertainty about what climate migration actually is and how the phenomenon is can be recorded definitionally or quantitatively. This makes both reliable prognoses for the future and decisions about measures to be taken by the political leaders difficult. "[2]

Growing importance in research and politics

In research, climate has long been discussed as a trigger of migration movements: As early as 1889, the German geographer Ernst Ravenstein recognized an unattractive climate as a trigger for migration in his "Laws of Migration". [3] In-depth empirical research into this relationship did not begin until the 1980s, however, as part of the scientific discussion of climate change and its effects. [4] The comprehensive reports of the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change (Climate Council, abbreviated in English as IPCC) also looked at migration as a result of climate change from 1990 onwards. They made a significant contribution to anchoring climate and environmental migration in the international discussion. [5] As a result, scientific engagement with the topic increased: "While there were around 10 publications per year on this topic in the 1990s, this number has increased tenfold in the past few years: since 2008, an average of almost 100 papers have been published each year on migration and the environment. "[6] The research landscape on the nexus" Migration and Climate "has become so large and confusing that overview works appear that summarize the state of research. [7] The topic also moved more into focus at the political and institutional level: in 2007, the member states of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has been part of the United Nations since 2016, commissioned the organization to address the issue of environmental migration. Since 2015 there has been a unit at the IOM that is exclusively dedicated to the topic of "Migration, Environment and Climate Change". [8]

This growing intensity of engagement with the subject in the scientific and political arena is reflected in the multitude of concepts and definitions that are used to describe the relationship between climate change, environmental change and migration. Terms such as "environmental migrants", "climate migrants" or "environmental refugees" are sometimes used next to one another, sometimes as a distinction from one another. So far, no concept has prevailed. On the one hand, this has to do with the fact that the use of the various terms is also an expression of political disputes. On the other hand, all concepts each have their own empirical definition problems (see below), which makes it difficult to implement a uniform concept.

Environmental and climate migration in the political debate

At the beginning of the discussion about climate and environmental migration, "alarmists" and "skeptics" faced each other. "The alarmist perspective, which is mainly represented by environmental experts and NGOs, saw migration as an inevitable by-product of climate change, an impending humanitarian catastrophe." [9] This argument, in which very high prognoses of future environmental migration were often used, aims to sensitize political decision-makers to the threat posed by climate change. In this context, the term "climate or environmental refugees" was used. [10]

The "skeptical" position, represented mainly by migration researchers, on the other hand, tried to make it clear that environmental influences often only have an indirect effect on migration decisions, for example through droughts or the salinization of soils. She also pointed out that environmental migration tends to take place within states rather than across international borders. [11] Representatives of this position therefore tend to speak of "environmental migrants" or "climate-induced migration". In 2011, the Foresight Report ("Foresight Report on Migration and Global Environmental Change") commissioned by the British government was published. This created a "certain scientific consensus regarding the patterns and main characteristics of the environmental-migration nexus" [12], which underpinned this skeptical perspective. The report also made it clear that climate change can not only be a driving factor in migration, but - conversely - can also be responsible for people staying where they live. It deprives individuals of their income (e.g. from agriculture) that they need in order to be able to migrate (so-called trapped populations). [13] A turning point in the discussion also occurred when researchers and political actors began around 2010 to no longer see migration just as a failed adaptation to environmental change, but also to interpret it as a successful adaptation strategy to climate change. [14]

Even if there is broad scientific agreement that climate changes almost always only have an indirect effect on migration movements (exceptions are natural disasters such as storms and floods) and are only one of many migration-related factors [15], the political and media discourse continues to become alarmist argued.

Definitional empirical problems

In addition to the political challenges involved in defining the term, every term used is also associated with empirical definition problems.

Environment versus climate
There is no agreement as to which phenomena are meant when climate or environmental migration is mentioned: "The main challenge in describing the nexus climate change and migration is the delimitation of the phenomena that can or must be subsumed here. For example, there is one The central problem is that it is often not possible to differentiate between climate change in the narrower sense and changes in the environment as a whole as factors triggering migration. "[16] The term" environmental migration "can be used to describe mobility phenomena as diverse as the resettlement of Kenyan farmers due to Long periods of drought caused by climate change, brief refugee movements after a flood in New Orleans or the settlement of northern European pensioners in southern Spain. The breadth of definition also applies to the term "climate migration", but it can also be narrowed down and then only encompass movements that can be traced back to the indirect effect of climate change.

Flight versus migration
In addition, the question of whether people set out voluntarily or forcibly influences the choice of the term. While movements that are categorized as voluntary are referred to more often as "migration", forced movements are more often referred to as "flight" and those affected as "refugees". The term "environmental refugees" is problematic from two different perspectives: On the one hand, the question arises as to when emigration is "voluntary" in the context of climate change. In the case of sudden disasters such as floods, the assignment seems clear: people have to move to escape the floods. In the case of soils that are slowly salinizing as a result of climate change and can no longer ensure a long-term livelihood, however, an assignment is much more difficult and ambiguous. On the other hand, the use of the term "environmental refugees" is problematic for legal reasons: According to the Geneva Refugee Convention, a "refugee" is a person who "out of a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a certain social group or because of her political convictions are outside the country of which she is a national and cannot avail himself of the protection of this country or because of these fears does not want to avail himself of [...] ". [17] Environmental degradation and climate change are not anchored in the convention as reasons for recognition as a refugee.

Internal versus international
The question of whether or not migration crosses international borders also influences the choice of terminology. Migrations that take place within a country, for example from one region affected by drought to another, are referred to as internal migration or internal displacement. The state is responsible for protecting those affected. When migrating across national borders, however, the term migration is often used (in the case of recognition of coercion as a motive for migration, flight is also used). How the migrants are specifically designated is determined by the legal status that the host states grant them.

Short term versus long term
The choice of term also depends on the time horizon, i.e. whether the migration is short-term (e.g. during an evacuation) or whether the migration is or must be designed for the long term (e.g. when islands sink into the sea due to rising sea levels). This also has to do with whether the respective environmental change takes place suddenly (so-called sudden-onset processes) or occurs gradually (so-called slow-onset processes).

Concepts and Criticism

The consideration of these different dimensions with their different characteristics and respective problems makes it clear why none of the terms and associated definitions presented so far have been fully accepted. Some examples:
  • Essam El-Hinnawi introduced the term "environmental refugees" in 1985 in one of the first studies on the influence of environmental factors on migration. [18] In addition to the legal difficulties of the term mentioned above, it is also argued that it makes no distinction between people who flee from creeping environmental changes and those who have to leave their home due to suddenly occurring geophysical events. Since this would mean that a large number of people would fall under the category of "environmental refugees", the usefulness of the concept was in question. [19] Authors who developed this term further (e.g. Wöhlcke 1992, Myers 1993) were exposed to similar criticism.
  • In contrast to the term "environmental refugee", the IOM developed the term "environmental migrant" in 2007. These are "people or groups of people who, for understandable reasons, are forced to experience sudden or gradual environmental changes that adversely affect their life or living conditions, or who decide to leave their accustomed home, either temporarily or permanently, and who are either within a country or move abroad ". [20] Although this definition was widely received in the period that followed, [21] critics countered that it did not differentiate between internal and international migratory movements and thus disregarded protection regulations for internally displaced persons. In addition, the lack of the above-mentioned distinction between forced and voluntary migration is criticized. [22]
Other proposed terms, such as "environmentally-displaced persons" [23], "environmentally induced migration" [24] or "climate change refugees" [25] are also criticized. This criticism arises from the various dimensions of the phenomenon described above. [26]

The discussion currently seems to be going in two different directions: On the one hand, terms and definitions are proposed that are as broad as possible in order to cover as many facets of the topic as possible. The scientists Robert McLeman and François Gemenne, for example, propose "environmental migration and displacement" (EMD for short) as the overarching term. EMD offers a broad but clearly delineated description of the phenomenon, is easily recognizable and has no legal implications. [27] The term encompasses "people who decide to migrate by virtue of their own ability to act, and those who have no choice but to migrate, as well as the entire spectrum in between". [28] On the other hand, scientists question whether it even makes sense to look for clearly delimited categorizations that only emphasize the ecological factor of migration decisions. Rather, the discussion should return to the multi-causal nature of migration decisions. [29]

This article was created with the collaboration of Elene Ingenbrand.

This article is part of the Policy Brief on Migration and Climate Change.


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