As Climate Change Transforms Migration, Governments Must Act to Ease Restrictions

The damaging effects of climate change are increasingly driving people to migrate. Photo: ADB
The damaging effects of climate change are increasingly driving people to migrate. Photo: ADB

By Andrea Cinque, Lennart Reiners

Climate-induced disasters are intensifying in Asia and the Pacific, affecting migration and causing economic strain. The need for effective adaptation strategies and international cooperation is urgent as remittances play a vital role in risk management.

Climate change is increasing both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and heat waves.  As policymakers commit to net-zero emissions targets, people in the Global South are already experiencing the impacts of climate change today. This is particularly true in Asia and the Pacific, where rising sea levels, stronger typhoons, and prolonged heat waves are threatening many livelihoods, often in already fragile environments.

Effective adaptation and risk-management mechanisms are therefore essential. Governments and international organizations are investing in infrastructure and resilience measures, but those directly affected are also adjusting their behavior. 

Among the most common such coping strategies is migration – both within or across national boundaries – which enables two interrelated coping mechanisms: Beforehand, people can move to change their exposure and vulnerability to climate change and disasters triggered by natural hazards. 

Afterward, remittances can cushion income shocks for parts of families that have not migrated out of affected regions. In East Asia, and in the Pacific, these financial flows from overseas amounted to as much as ten times the annual overseas development assistance over the past decade, making them a critical component of risk-coping.

As climate change affects countries, regions, and economic sectors in different ways, migration patterns will be altered and intensified. The World Bank's Groundswell report estimates up to 40 million climate migrants in South Asia alone by 2050, and a large body of literature suggests that climate change - and related disasters - are already increasing both national and international migration. 

In Asia and the Pacific, international mobility is already particularly pronounced, with many workers migrating temporarily to Middle Eastern countries as construction workers or domestic helpers. For example, up to 4% of the active Philippine labor force worked abroad in 2023. Some scenarios predict that these numbers could potentially increase as climate change worsens.

The world is beginning to grapple with the political consequences of climate-induced migration, particularly in countries that have been migrant destinations. The recent introduction of stricter migration regulations around the world is therefore no coincidence. 

By tightening border controls and increasing the selectivity of migrants, one important strategy for coping with disasters is being severely curtailed.  As international migration is increasingly restricted, individuals are more likely to be "trapped", which in turn affects remittance flows that can mitigate climate-related income shocks. This can lead to a double burden for traditionally migrant-sending countries.

What does this mean for disaster-affected and migration-dependent regions across Asia and the Pacific? While the recent pandemic has served as a case study of temporary migration restrictions in the context of a short-lived event, the evidence on longer-run impacts of disasters under scenarios of restricted migratory options is limited.

As climate change affects countries, regions and economic sectors in different ways, migration patterns will be altered and intensified.

Our recent study on Indonesia analyzes how migration restrictions affect countries' ability to cope with disasters. Such estimates are crucial for understanding the underlying dynamics and informing policy decisions.

Our results suggest that  poverty in regions affected by disasters increased by up to 13% (or 2 percentage points) when international migration as adaptive strategy is restricted. These effects are particularly pronounced for flood-related events. 

The analysis helps to understand two mechanisms that may explain the relationship between migration restrictions, disasters, and poverty: First, the decrease in overseas workers reduced remittances, and thus the ability to cope with income shocks. Second, disasters impede alternative coping strategies, such as working in the informal agriculture sector instead of seeking work abroad. When floods affect rural areas, regions reliant on agricultural production can no longer absorb workers who are unable to migrate due to the ban, creating a double burden for affected communities.

Given the pronounced reliance on agriculture and remittances, as well as vulnerability to climate change across Asia and the Pacific, these findings suggest that other countries in the region could suffer from restricted migration options as well. 

Policymakers should therefore pay particular attention to the interdependence between international migration opportunities and disasters.

As a first step, this may involve mapping disaster affectedness and migration dependency across communities to identify the most vulnerable regions. Data from past experiences, migration agencies, and official statistics provide a starting point, some of which are readily available. 

Regions potentially facing the double burden of disasters and limited migration options require special consideration by public services. While existing measures such as disaster relief can address the immediate impact of events, strengthening of economic resilience and decreasing remittance-dependence could reduce vulnerability to migration restrictions even before disasters strike.

 In addition to ensuring the safety of their citizens living abroad, governments should also create safe pathways for people forced to migrate due to climate change. This could be achieved through bilateral labor agreements between host and source countries to protect the human rights of migrants, following the guidelines of the International Labour Organization and the UN Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. 

For example, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia signed a labor agreement in 2013 that guarantees, among other things, a basic entry salary, days off, and no retention of migrants' passports.

Efforts should also be made to reduce the transaction costs of remittances, with a particular focus on post-disaster remittances, which are essential for smoothing income shocks caused by disasters. Reducing transaction costs will increase the disposable income of households in sending countries and increase the incentives to send remittances.

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