Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the future drivers of migration in his third post for our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
What are drivers of migration in the future? There is one large difference from the past. This is on the tip of everybody’s tongue: climate change. We will take a critical look at this new driver of migration. It will complicate some of the narratives surrounding climate change related migrations, and we will consider some of the ultimate implications (and destinations).
Climate change holds the threat of ecological devastation and a radical global transformation — it is no wonder that it has occupied the popular imagination and mainstream political discourse in recent years. Climate change has been linked with migrations all over the world, whether in Central America or Bangladesh. Headlines like “Climate Change will Create World’s Biggest Refugee Crisis” litter the contemporary mediascape. The Guardian, in the aforementioned article, suggests that “tens of millions of people will be forced from their homes.” This is a moderate estimate; in the extreme end, there is Vice with the headline “Climate Change Will Create 1.5 Billion Migrants by 2050 and We Have No Idea Where They'll Go” painting an apocalyptic scenario. In response, the first global movements have begun to protect the image of the climate migrant. In a very recent landmark ruling in January 2020, the United Nations human rights committee has declared that it is unlawful for governments to return migrants whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change.
The Syrian civil war has been linked to climate change as well. The Syrian civil war began as Arab Spring-inspired pro-democracy protests that were met with violent repression. This was the catalyst for further escalation. What sparked the initial discontentment? From a climate change lens, the narrative points to the drought from 2006 to 2011. This was the most severe in recorded history and decimated the livelihoods of the rural population. The drought led to a rural-urban migration, increasing competition for resources, and leading to conflict that took on an ethnic dimension.
This has not gone without scrutiny. Other researchers have pointed to policies of economic liberalization that cut rural subsidies and ultimately put farmers in debt. Government policies have led to the rural-urban migration in this narrative. It is beyond our scope to recount the play-by-play of academics in their boxing ring. It suffices to say that migratory events are complex and multi-factored. Climate change is undoubtedly an important consideration, but there is no First Cause when it comes to migration. A critical view on other migratory factors like internal politics and wealth concentration in urban areas allows a more nuanced perspective on contemporary migrations.
In the discourse of the climate change migrant in the West, there is mixed in an image of anxiety and fear. How will the West survive the flood of climate migrants? However, the West is far from a stoic Atlas that carries the burden of global migrations on its shoulders. The case of Syrian refugees presents a poignant demonstration.
Despite popular political narratives, most Syrian refugees have been relocated outside of Europe. As with other migrations, most of the migrants were displaced internally. Seven million of the 13 million are still within Syrian borders. In terms of international migration, there are roughly 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey, 950 thousand in Lebanon, and 670 thousand are housed in Jordan. Germany accepted 593 thousand Syrians, and this is followed by Iraq with 252 thousand. While this may not be representative of all migrations, the case of the Syrian migrations seems to suggest that not all roads lead to Europe.
As a conclusion, what are the drivers of future migration, and what are the consequences? In response to popular narratives, the article answered in the negative: climate change is not the Prime Mover in migration, and one must be aware of the erasure of other migratory factors when this occurs. Migrations in the future will not overwhelm the West. As with contemporary migratory patterns, one will expect internal migrations to occupy a large portion. External migrations will be distributed throughout the region, and will not be concentrated solely in the West.