Make Migration Work for Asia’s Displaced People
More effort and resources need to be invested in making migration a tool of climate change adaptation rather than accepting it as a failure to adapt.
Migration, both domestic and international, is on the rise in Asia and the Pacific, encouraged by factors like visa-free movement (among ASEAN nationals within ASEAN), easier access to information, and low-budget travel options. Some of the most common migration drivers continue to include family reunification, better income-earning options, greater personal freedoms, and improved prospects for one’s children. But environmental factors also play an increasingly important role.
Since 2010, tens of millions of people have been displaced by weather-related natural disasters in developing Asia. While not all of those displaced were left permanently homeless, many could not return to their ravaged communities or opted to seek a more secure life elsewhere. The number of Asians compelled to move at least temporarily due to storms, floods, and droughts is expected to grow over time because of the continent’s growing population and vulnerability to disasters. Climate change will make the situation much worse as it boosts average temperatures, changes rainfall patterns, causes greater monsoon variability, increases sea levels, and stimulates more intense tropical cyclones.
Environmental migration tends to merge with the region’s urbanization trend in ways that lead many migrants to settle in large coastal cities that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of typhoons, storm surges, and rising seas, often compounded by subsidence. In this way, people do not only migrate away from regions at risk, but also towards regions at risk, often in search of employment.
Since 2010, tens of millions of people have been displaced by weather-related natural disasters in developing Asia.
Environmental migration is further intertwined with the broader dynamics of migration in general, something that governments in Asia and the Pacific have yet to effectively manage (as evidenced by the illegal status of many migrant laborers working abroad). Environmental migration is an issue that calls for attention in a variety of fora, including the well-established mechanisms for international dialogue on migration, like the Colombo Process. What may be less obvious is the potential contribution of migration to climate change adaptation. The decision to migrate (or not to migrate) should be one’s choice, and not be left to the whims of Mother Nature. Advance planning and preparation can shift a decision about migration in the face of an environmental threat from a life-saving need, to a personal choice - and ultimately to a form of adaptation.
Indeed, public policies should increasingly be geared toward offering people options to build their resilience and remain where they are, or to relocate to a less vulnerable place. Zoning laws (e.g., no building near the shoreline), policies supporting development in locations less vulnerable to environmental disasters, and civic education on environmental risks can help reduce forced displacement and distress migration.
More and more people in the Asia and Pacific region are experiencing the harsh impacts of severe weather – weather that is likely to become more common if decision-makers fail to halt the inexorable movement toward a +3 or +4 degree world. Should the planet warm in such a fashion, environmental migration will become a common pattern and a dominant form of migration. For this reason, more effort and resources need to be invested in making migration a tool of adaptation rather than accepting it as a failure to adapt.