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Climate migration can be a viable adaptation strategy, if policy keeps up

Woman working in field, Bangladesh

Migration and displacement are likely to be aggravated by climate change, both through direct impacts, as well as through compounding effects on poverty, unemployment, and conflict, which drive mobility worldwide.

In Bangladesh, for example, mobility has been used for decades as a coping strategy to deal with extreme weather events such as cyclones and flooding. In recent years, however, long-term internal migration has significantly increased as people try to cope with slow-onset climate change impacts, such as sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion and rising temperatures. Often, this means moving to even more precarious livelihoods in cities.

However, in the face of worsening climatic conditions, it is often the most vulnerable that will be unable to move, and those being left behind can become even more susceptible to the impacts of climate change and socio-economic inequalities. Moreover, different demographic and social groups experience the interplay between climate change and mobility differently. Despite their high exposure to climate change impacts, women are more likely to be “trapped”, or unable to move due to financial, social or physical barriers. In Central Asia, for example, migration remains a predominantly male phenomenon, which leaves women at home dependent on remittances, still vulnerable to environmental impacts, and having to take on additional work and caring responsibilities.

On top of all this, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the related mobility restrictions introduced to contain its spread, have increased unemployment in cities, and reduced opportunities for seasonal work and remittance flows. This has severely harmed the ability of climate-vulnerable populations to use mobility as an effective adaptation strategy. In Bangladesh, where 40 per cent of rural incomes are estimated to depend on remittances from family members in urban areas, the pandemic and associated responses have led to a substantial increase in poverty country-wide.

Mobility is often used as a short-term coping rather than anticipatory adaptation strategy. However, under the right circumstances, it can be an important and effective strategy for adapting to the impacts of climate change. Cross-border migration and remittances, for example, can benefit sending and receiving countries and build resilience at the household and community level.

Our research has identified five ways that governments and international actors should foster mobility as adaptation and support those impacted by climate change:

  1. Increase knowledge and awareness

Policy needs to fit specific contexts. Policy-relevant research and increased exchange between researchers and policymakers on climate-induced migration and displacement will help ensure that crucial local dimensions are taken into account. Governments should also ensure that researchers have access to sex- and age-disaggregated data on internal and cross-border movements.

  1. Promote adaptation and development

Broader development policy and investment can both reduce the underlying vulnerabilities and pressures that cause people to move, and support individuals at their destination. Effective measures can range from sustainable infrastructure in migrant-receiving cities, to disaster risk management and early warning systems in rural areas. Economic programmes, job creation and upskilling should be tailored to ensure they promote education for women, which has a demonstrable multiplier effect.

  1. Strengthen and develop national policies, strategies and legal frameworks

The best way to address the multifaceted linkages between climate change, mobility and security is to include displacement, migration and climate change systematically across ministries and government levels. Supporting rural development and land tenure can reduce pressure on rural communities, while fostering regular migration pathways can strengthen the positive impact that migration can have on labour markets, GDP growth, technology transfer, and more. It is vital that migrants and displaced people can access basic services and social protection and be integrated into receiving communities.

  1. Finance the responses

Sources of finance such as the International Organization for Migration’s Development Fund and new Migration Emergency Funding Mechanism, as well as the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund and the Green Climate Fund can help governments cope with migration driven by climate change. Individual risk can be lowered through insurance and risk management, and governments should aim to facilitate access to these instruments. Finally, the cost of remittances can be reduced by encouraging competition.

  1. Drive strong global action and cooperation

Networks of laws and standards should facilitate cross-border mobility, for example through agreements enhancing freedom of movement and extending mutual recognition of skills and qualifications. At the same, it is more important than ever to drive global efforts to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, by encouraging and supporting countries’ plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, and working towards more ambitious mitigation and adaptation action at the COP26 climate negotiations in 2021.


Read the full CASCADES policy paper on climate change, mobility and security in Bangladesh and Central Asia here.