Young people’s priorities on climate migration

Amid growing recognition of the impacts of environmental and climate change on migration, a comprehensive package of policy solutions is needed.

3 minute READ

In recent years, there has been growing recognition of the impacts of environmental and climate change on migration and, as the effects of climate change have become more prominent, numbers of environmental migrants have rapidly increased. 

Without concrete climate action, it is estimated more than 143 million people will become internally displaced in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America by 2050, with young people disproportionately impacted and most likely to be forced to migrate due to climate change effects.

Current estimates suggest children born in 2020 will face on average twice as many wildfires, 2.8 times more crop failures, 2.6 times more droughts, 2.8 times more river floods, and 6.8 times as many heatwaves during their lives than people born in 1960. 

At present, most migrants are young adults while only one in eight migrants and half of the world’s refugees are minors. But as the impacts of climate change intensify, livelihoods will be undermined, resources become scarce, markets destabilized, and social upheaval increase, leaving young people with no option but to migrate.

Event video: What can we do about climate migration?

Climate change’s influence on migration is difficult to disentangle from a web of other social, economic, and environmental factors shaping migration patterns. But there is little doubt the effects of climate change are a malign background presence, nudging things in the wrong direction in favour of a disruptive, unpredictable chains of events.

In 2021, a ‘super year’ for climate action, migrants and refuges on the frontlines of the climate emergency require urgent policy attention. The UN Human Rights Committee issued a ruling which stipulates countries cannot deport people whose right to life is violated by climate change, and many countries are developing national adaptation plans and action plans to implement the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

At present, most migrants are young adults while one in eight migrants and half of the world’s refugees are minors.

While this is a positive step, a comprehensive package of policy solutions is needed to properly address climate migration, and the necessity of this is further complicated by climate migration being trapped within negative narratives on migration more generally.

The Common Futures Conversations (CFC) community were asked to develop policy solutions which address climate migration at both the local and global level. CFC members from across Africa and Europe drew on different aspects of climate migration and their own communities’ first-hand experiences and identified three areas to focus on in addressing climate migration: awareness raising, adaptation, and visibility.

Awareness will demand results: Ceylan Inan, Turkey and the UK  

Social media campaigns in developed countries encourage genuine citizen action against climate change. Climate action requires resources, expertise and leadership from advanced economies, and this is only possible if the pressure to deliver a coordinated response soars.

But beyond encouraging measures to counter climate change by allocating mitigation targets and via individual action, social media campaigns need to stress the importance of proportionality, equity, and responsibility in policy approaches.

Social media campaigns also educate the public on climate migration in the context of historical responsibility for and present contributions to climate change. This helps reframe the issue of climate migration and focuses on people’s rights and the policy repercussions of equity in climate debates.

Many of the people most impacted are the least responsible and their resilience to the effects of climate change has been eroded by generations of poverty. Social media campaigns urge the public to demand that impact burdens and adaptation strategies, including migration, take centre-stage and are properly funded with fit-for-purpose instruments instead of the current preference for market-rate debt to channel climate finance. Campaigns also urge the public to hold governments accountable for political and financial commitments.

Civil society organizations from both developed and underdeveloped countries – such as farming collectives and trade unions – must play a key role in developing these campaigns. This ensures the efforts reflect lived experiences and draw on those organizations’ campaign expertise.

Strengthening the adaptability of communities: Safia Sangster, UK

Greater emphasis is needed on building the adaptive capacity of communities particularly at risk of becoming climate migrants but this is complicated by the huge disparities of personal and national economic situations.

Solutions are needed which do not solely depend on a government’s economic capacity to support communities in adapting to climate change. International organizations must fill this void and work with climate-vulnerable communities and governments to develop ways to adapt their livelihoods and housing, as well as improve their resilience.

This is particularly important for communities impacted by slow-onset drivers of climate change. Slow-onset drivers – particularly where migration is internal rather than across borders – are likely to permanently displace many more people and adaptive responses can avert future impacts rather than purely dealing with the aftermath of a climate event.

Unfortunately, these communities are rendered almost completely invisible in the international context as people migrate at a slow place and do not garner the same attention as communities impacted by natural disasters until it is too late.

Making climate migrants visible: Nanjala Were, Kenya

Effective policies to address climate migration must include climate migrants’ voices and lived experiences. So climate migrants must be empowered to be ambassadors of environmental protection in the host countries or communities where they have settled. This allows them to partner with local organizations to ensure the complex reasons for migration are captured in policy approaches.

Making climate migrants visible: Nanjala Were, Kenya contd.

A high demand for scarce resources – such as water or grazing lands for pastoralists communities – can be closely related to conflict and lead to displacement and migration. As ambassadors of climate action, climate migrants can demonstrate how issues such as conflict and climate change interact. This highlights the human dimension of climate migration and ensures it is considered in the development of programmes and policies.

Moving forwards needs collaboration

Addressing climate migration requires collaboration among governments, activists, community leaders, and civil society organizations. Mobility is often seen as a failure to prevent climate change but, under the right circumstances, it can be an important and effective strategy for adapting to climate change.

COP26 represented a crucial moment in moving policy and action on climate migration forward. The three solutions proposed here – awareness-raising, adaptation, and migrant visibility – demonstrate that addressing climate migration necessitates policies and programmes which address the reasons to migrate, and safeguard transit as well as support resettling.