Facing the reality of mass migrations in Asia-Pacific
The numbers don’t lie. Disasters are on the rise in Asia and the Pacific and they are affecting more and more people. In 2014, about 16.7 million people had to leave their homes due to sudden onset disasters like floods, typhoons, earthquakes and other phenomena.
That’s a staggering 30 people every minute.
Not only are disasters affecting more people, they are also more frequent and severe. Rising sea levels, coastal erosion, desertification and storm surges tend to hit the poor and vulnerable hardest. They live on the ragged edges of society, pushed to where land is cheapest and less fertile, effectively trapped in unsafe, often illegal or semi-legal dwellings, without the skills or the finance to make the simple improvements needed to make their homes safer.
Examples are everywhere, from the South Asian cities spilling into the sea to the shanty towns clinging to the sides of mountains in disaster-prone regions all over the Pacific Ring of Fire. The effects of disasters, and the fragility of the human populations that live in their thrall, can perhaps best been seen on the low-lying islands of the Pacific, where unique, ancient cultures live the reality of climate change.
Some weeks ago I had the privilege to visit the remote and lovely nation of Kiribati, attending the High Level Dialogue on Climate Induced Migration, hosted by the country’s President Anote Tong and Prince Albert II of Monaco on behalf of the Coalition of Atoll Nations against Climate Change.
As the plane flew over Tarawa, I looked at the tiny horseshoe island, baffled by the idea that the entire country lies only a few feet above water.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific authority on climate change issues, has already expressed concern on rising sea levels submerging the island, which may displace thousands. The reality of the threat struck me as we landed, and I watched people rushing to place sandbags by the curb to prevent the waves from eroding the main road.
Though small islands have been the most vocal in advocating for strong mitigation and adaptation measures, it isn’t only these countries that risk losing lives and livelihoods — and acres of habitable land — because of climate change. Asia and the Pacific represent topographical diversity at its best, and with this comes vulnerability to a range of slow and sudden onset events. As the climate changes, these natural hazards will increase in frequency and intensity, consequentially affecting migration flows.
Nobody wants to see entire nations uprooted but we have to face the unpleasant truth: relocation has to be part of our adaptation strategies, backstopped by compassion and kindness.
Despite the far-reaching impact that climate change has on human mobility, the nexus between migration, environment and climate change has taken time to come to the fore. A negative tendency when reflecting on this topic is to emphasise forced migration. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has however, advocated strongly to ensure that mobility should be viewed from a wider perspective. Allowing the option of migration implies that those living in vulnerable areas can move away from risks and become more resilient. Relocation of communities in outer islands in the Pacific to central atolls is evidence of this.
The inclusion of the terms “climate induced migration, displacement and planned relocation” in the sixteenth United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (Cancun) decision in 2010 was instrumental in bridging human mobility and climate change adaptation. More research has since been conducted on how migration acts as a means to livelihood diversification; and how the facilitated transfer of remittances, skills and knowledge from diaspora and migrant communities benefit countries vulnerable to climate change.
Many have now begun to see the thousands of migrants from the region who send back remittances as potential resources that could be leveraged in addressing this gigantic challenge. The contributions of this community following natural disasters in the Philippines and more recently in Nepal have also proven that we should work hard to engage migrant communities in climate change adaptation. Kiribati, through its migration with dignity programme, is aiming at exactly that.
As negotiations on the outcome document of the 21st Conference of Parties proceed, a few champion countries such as Bangladesh and the Small Island Developing States have tried hard to keep human mobility in the text.
Since the UNFCCC decisions have thus far formed the framework for climate change from which national and regional policies stem, the IOM firmly believes that to ensure that humans remain at the centre of the climate change debate, we need to strive for the inclusion of mobility in the legally binding agreement forged in Paris. This will then form an important basis for discussions on how to effectively address the migration challenges arising out of climate change.
Andrew Bruce is regional director of the International Organisation for Migration’s Asia-Pacific Office, based in Bangkok.