In the debate on the environmental impacts on migration, migration as adaptation has been acknowledged as a potential risk management strategy, based on risk spreading and mutual insurance of people living spatially apart: migrants and family members that are left behind stay connected through a combination of financial and social remittances, joint decision-making and mutual commitment. Conceptualizing migration as adaptation as translocal livelihood systems enables us to identify the differentiated vulnerabilities of households and communities. COVID-19 and the restrictions on public life and mobility imposed by governments worldwide constitute a complex set of challenges for these translocal systems and strategies, especially in the Global South. Focusing on examples, we highlight two points: first, the COVID-19 crisis shows the limits of migration and translocal livelihoods for coping with and adapting to climate and environmental risks. Second, as these restrictions hit on a systemic level and affect places of destination as well as origin, the crisis reveals specific vulnerabilities of the translocal livelihoods themselves. Based on the translocal livelihoods approach, we formulate insights and recommendations for policies that move beyond the narrow, short-term focus on the support of migrant populations alone and address the longer-term root causes of the vulnerabilities in translocal livelihoods systems.
1. Introduction: understanding “migration as adaptation” against environmental risks through the lens of translocal resilience
Many migrants and their household members in places of origin are currently facing a double exposure to two major crises―in addition to numerous other risks: the ongoing climate emergency and the unfolding and intensifying COVID-19 crisis. These two are interrelated in several ways, as we argue in this piece, and we need a translocal perspective to fully understand these interrelations, their relevance and possible entry points for policy. While (forced) migration can be the result of in-situ adaptation failure, in many cases migration is an active strategy adopted by individuals and households to decrease vulnerability and to better deal with environmental and climate risks. Migrants who live and work away from home stay connected with households and communities in their place of origin – through sending financial and social remittances, through joint decision-making and strategizing or social networking. This translocal connectedness enables households and communities to spread risks across different locations and income-generating activities: remittances from tourism, industry or service sectors from migrants’ places of destination can for example counter the environmentally induced failure of harvests in rural areas. Translocal connectedness thus has the potential to strengthen the ability of households and communities to respond to climatic risks and sustain their livelihoods and wellbeing. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the respective containment and mitigation measures are systemic and felt by global, national and local systems alike. And they become manifest simultaneously in migrants’ places of origin and destination, stretching strategies of migration as adaptation to their limits.
We propose to investigate the mechanisms of this process and the implications of the COVID-19 crisis on migration as adaptation, through a translocal social resilience perspective. In the following sections, we will conceptualize this perspective and exemplify aspects of it using news media reports on the nexus between COVID-19 and migration. We will sketch on the one hand how translocal livelihood systems are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and related mitigation measures; and on the other hand how this in turn affects households’ ability to deal with environmental and climate risks. Finally, we will discuss what this may imply for policy making.
2. Conceptualising translocal social resilience, and understanding the effects of the COVID-19 crisis
A translocal social resilience approach shifts the focus away from single-sided views of either migrants or households in the place origin; of either rural or urban places and issues: instead, migrants (households) in places of destination and family or household members in the place of origin are understood as a single, functional social unit. The concept of translocality emphasizes the multi-dimensional and continuing links and connections between migrants and their places of origin and the resulting socio-spatial interdependencies.
It is important to understand that migration (and, from a functional perspective, translocal livelihoods) is one out of several possible strategies of households to deal with a broad range of risks. However, as environmental and climate risks such as floods or droughts often affect whole communities or regions, strategies such as migration that allow to spread risks and livelihood opportunities across locations and sectors are especially important when dealing with such risks.
A translocal understanding enables us to grasp the causal mechanisms through which migration can work for adaptation, including how differential capabilities and aspirations translate into a certain choice of migration; the legal, working and housing conditions in places of destinations and how they translate into remittance sending; the ability of households in places of origin to transform financial and social remittances into adaptive and transformative action in the context of environmental, economic, social and political change; and the ability of both migrants and household members in places of origin to self-organize and engage in collective action at the community level and beyond. The COVID-19 crisis influences the core mechanisms for translocal resilience building in at least two ways:
First, the maintenance of livelihoods is impacted by the COVID-19 crisis simultaneously in places of origin and destination, as a result of migrants falling sick, but also of mobility restrictions and the consequent economic downturn. These factors severely undermine the ability of households to diversify risks through translocal embeddedness and access to livelihood opportunities especially in the informal economies of the Global South.
Second, the COVID-19 crisis weakens and disrupts translocal connectedness itself – the transfer of tangible and intangible resources between migrants and their households as well as translocal mobility. This includes, for instance, the impact on sending remittances, on visits to maintain translocal ties, as well as the option of (e.g. seasonal) migration as a way to cope with or adapt to environmental risks.
An analysis of the impeded potential of migration as adaptation must therefore initially focus on the vulnerability of these translocal livelihood systems, consisting of migrants in places of destination and their household and family members in places of origin. In the following section, we thus consider three key aspects of the vulnerability of translocal livelihood systems to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: i) their exposure to external stressors, ii) their sensitivity and iii) the adaptive strategies of the actors involved.
With regards to the (i) exposure, we need to acknowledge the multiple stresses and perturbations that especially migrants, including refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), but also their household and family members in places of origin, face. This includes the following non exhaustive list: a) COVID-19 infection; b) mobility restrictions and forced immobility; c) forced mobility; d) quarantine; e) business closure and economic downturn; f) criminalization and stigmatization; g) violence and conflict; h) media portrayal and defamation; i) legal and social discrimination.
Furthermore, we need to consider the full range of characteristics that shape the (ii) sensitivity of translocal livelihoods, and thus of migrants and their household members in places of origin: a) health status; b) livelihoods, poverty and food insecurity; c) housing and shelter; d) social embedding and status; e) legal rights and welfare provision; f) mobility and immobility; g) (insecure) legal status; h) unsafe work/housing conditions.
Moreover, (iii) there needs to be an understanding of how the actors within the translocal livelihood systems, migrants and their household members in places of origin, are actively coping and adapting to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and from whom they get support (government, non-governmental organizations, international organizations, private sector, civil society, family and friends) in which areas (basic needs, financial, legal, social-psychological).
Lastly, the effects are also extending beyond the household level: migrants’ places of destination are affected for example by the lack of labor, as returned migrants are missing or cannot fill seasonal jobs due to border closures, and the communities in places of origin are affected by decreased remittance flows, competition over resources, or social and political tensions arising from the return of large numbers of migrants.
3. The impact of COVID-19 on translocal livelihoods, and the ensuing decreased resilience against environmental risks
In order to better understand the multidimensional ways in which COVID-19 mitigation measures affect translocal livelihoods, a database has been set up at the University of Vienna. The database is collecting and systematizing global online media coverage regarding the impacts of COVID-19 and the related containment and mitigation measures on migrants and their translocal livelihood systems. It is searchable in the categories outlined in the previous section and thus allows a global as well as country-specific understanding of ongoing processes. The following examples provide an overview of different thematic areas:
(1) Restrictions of everyday mobility and their translocal livelihoods impact
The restriction of everyday mobility and access to public spaces is a widely applied COVID-19 containment measure. It had strong and direct livelihood impacts, as migrant workers and small-scale entrepreneurs were not able to reach their place of work (factories etc.), and self-employment (e.g. selling goods in public spaces) was hampered. These measures were taken in both migrants’ places of origin and destination, and therefore simultaneously stress both sides of the translocal livelihoods systems. This is illustrated by the following two examples:
a). Foremost, a hat manufacturer and retailer operating a large production facility in Nantong, 150 km north of Shanghai, could resume production after the end of the government-ordered factory closure only at a capacity of 80 percent in February 2020. This was because of hundreds of Foremost’s (migrant) employees who live outside Nantong (but not in their home villages) could not return to work due to travel restrictions still in place. This de facto joblessness makes it impossible for migrant workers to remit money home.
b) In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh mobility restrictions severely impact the lives of rural populations in places of origin. In April 2020, the so-called “Janta Curfew” prevented farmers, laborers, and small-time traders from attending to their work, resulting in food and other supply shortages as well as price rises. Additionally, farmers experienced labor shortages as most farm laborers are migrant workers from other states and were kept from moving due to the curfew.
(2) Economic downturn, market disruptions, return migration & conflicts
The COVID-19 crisis has severe impacts on the functioning of markets and the economy. Migrants were not only confronted with unemployment due to the closing of factories and businesses but also with food price hikes and shortages. Already in early April 2020, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned of a “looming food crisis” caused by the global COVID-19 health crisis. Evidence for the intertwined stress for migrants can be observed for the case of India: tens of thousands of internal migrant workers tried to return to their places of origin as they lost their jobs due to factory closures, and the (public) transportation system ceased to operate. In several cases, people walked thousands of kilometers to make it back home to their families. In many cases, migrant workers did not have the choice to wait out the end of curfews, because not only joblessness but also food price hikes up to 50 percent made survival in Delhi impossible for migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand. Although the government provided food and shelter in schools to stranded migrant workers, the report finds that public assistance did not meet the high demand of support caused by the multiple crises. Returning migrant workers have increased the supply of labor and demand for resources in their localities of origin and might lead to fierce competition over scarce jobs, which has on occasions resulted in property disputes triggered in their home villages.
(3) Drying up of financial remittances
As early as April 2020, the World Bank estimated an overall decline of remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries by around 20 percent for 2020 (USD 445 billion) as compared to 2019 (USD 554 billion). One of the main contributing factors to the decline of financial remittances has been job and income loss due to COVID-19-related business closures and lockdown measures. Additionally, remittances services providers have been affected by business closures, shortened operating hours, and physical distancing measures, making it difficult for migrants to access these services. Electronic transfers are an alternative but are oftentimes not accessible for poorer and irregular migrants. The example of the Philippines shows that populations in countries whose GDP highly depends on remittances are specifically vulnerable to these developments. Financial remittances sent to the Philippines equal nearly 10 percent of the country’s GDP. As of May 2020, the Philippines’ Department of Labor and Employment estimated that nearly 90,000 overseas migrant workers were either displaced or had no income due to COVID-19 containment and mitigation measures, severely impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who depend on the missing transfers.
(4) Disruption of (mutual) visits and mobility
Migrant workers in translocal livelihood systems oftentimes spend long periods in their places of destination, away from home. Therefore, the rare and mostly costly visits to their families play an important role for maintaining social relations and mental health. Visits mostly take place on the occasions of important religious feasts such as the end of Ramadan. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and is currently facing one of the most severe outbreaks of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia. Every year, tens of millions of Muslim Indonesians head home (mudik) to their families to celebrate the end of Ramadan (Idul Fitri). This year the Indonesian government banned all holiday travel over Ramadan in the end of May 2020 as part of its COVID-19 mitigation strategy. At the same time, it urged its tens of thousands migrant workers in Singapore and Malaysia to refrain from traveling home to Indonesia for the Idul Fitri celebrations.
(5) Impacts on migration
Translocal livelihood systems are not only well established worldwide but are being established every day. Current global travel bans, immigration restrictions and business closures are, thus, also affecting those who have planned to take on a job far from their places of origin. The case of Nepal, for example, illustrates that migrant workers who are not allowed to leave for their new work destinations do not only experience future wage losses but also lose the investments they made to obtain work permits, travel documents, and tickets. As of mid-March 2020, Nepalese overseas recruitment agencies stopped issuing labor permits as a result of immigration bans installed by most countries of destination. Every day, 1,500 Nepali migrant workers used to leave for the Middle East, Malaysia, and South Korea to work as domestic workers and in the construction industry. For most of the affected migrant workers, there are no alternative job opportunities available in Nepal.
Understanding these mechanics of translocal social resilience (and its potential failure) is important to understand the reasons why, to what degree, and in which circumstances the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing migration as adaptation to its limits. In Bangladesh for example, even modest amounts of remittances from domestic migration form an important part of many rural households’ livelihood strategies to cope with environmental risks. In 2020 the combination of exceptionally intense flooding with the lack of income due to closed garment factories makes the situation especially dire for many domestic migrants and their rural households. In Nepal, the lack of remittances from international migrants, many of whom were forced to return to their home villages due to visa cancellations, makes it difficult for households and communities to cope with landslides caused by intense rainfalls. And in the Horn of Africa, the decline of remittances in combination with the locust invasion has driven food prices and threatened food security, especially of children in poor rural households. These situations pose different threats and stresses to translocal social livelihoods, they prompt different strategies by the migrants and their (rural) households in places of origin, and thus require different forms of political action for support or relief.
4. Implications for policy making
There is an urgent need for continuous and critical discussion of the recent changes to migration (governance) systems worldwide, which have resulted in more restrictive immigration processes and related hardship. These consequences require a multi-level policy response. In the short term, the goal should be to improve the access to health services, sanitary measures and primary care for migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons and ‘trapped’ populations – particularly for those vulnerable to environmental risks in the whole Global South. Governments and development cooperation agencies should concentrate their efforts on preventing further deprivation of affected translocal livelihoods, which depend on migration as adaptation, especially in case of a second wave. Short-term social protection programs for distressed households including temporary social transfer schemes to address income and food insecurity created by the pandemic are essential.
In the longer term, the systemic nature of the pandemic, in combination with environmental risks, necessitate broadened and integrated social, economic and environmental policies, which aim at achieving translocal livelihood resilience. COVID-19 recovery packages at the regional and national levels should address issues related to mobility and translocality, including impeded mobility and consequent socio-economic and environmental impacts, and the disruption of adaptation mechanisms, in a systemic manner to ‘build back better’. Specifically, in locations with both high migration flows and exposure to environmental hazards, policy responses need to be embedded in economic stimulus packages, social and health protection mechanisms, labor market interventions, and rural and urban recovery plans. The growing commitment for investments in the social protection and health sectors, coupled with the widespread call for green and resilient recovery from the pandemic, create timely opportunity for setting comprehensive policy agendas at the regional, national, and sub-national levels that integrate public health, migration and environmental concerns. For instance, translocal livelihoods can be supported through direct employment in public sector projects aimed at conservation and restoration of degrading land and forest ecosystems (in both areas of origin and destination), hence delivering a “triple dividend” by contributing to local social, economic, and ecological resilience.
These policies should be interlocked with several community-based measures such as capacity building workshops to raise awareness about migration and environmental risks to translocal livelihoods among (local) decision makers. Such initiatives could also help to identify how migrants and their families can best be supported through policy interventions or practical measures. Financial training measures for households and individuals might enable migrants and households to make the most of financial remittances, by promoting financial literacy and strengthening financial planning and risk management skills. Establishing local migration funds could enhance the potential benefits among community members. Strengthening capacities of return migrants by supporting communities in accessing finance services and adopting climate-smart agricultural or non-farm business models may strengthen community resilience to the adverse effects of environmental and climate change. Preparation and mentoring for future migrants and their relatives give the latter the opportunity to reflect on potential migration-related challenges and goals.
Another fundamental policy challenge is social coherence: struggles over even more scarce (natural) resources, worsening economic situations over longer periods of time after the lockdowns, as well as scapegoating related to COVID-19 spread that often targets migrants, might slowly but severely increase anti-migrant and xenophobic tendencies. This might in particular affect ecologically vulnerable regions, severely deteriorating relations between host and mobile populations. Decision-makers and authorities at all levels therefore must engage in building a joint narrative to counter this. A joint sense of community is essential in this regard.
These policies have to draw on the lessons learned so far; systematic surveys and evaluations of good practices are necessary to help prepare for future pandemics. Importantly, long-term impacts of COVID-19 policy responses on migration as adaptation to environmental change in different country contexts need to be examined to inform social security interventions in anticipation of future global crises. Moreover, further trust in, and capacity building of, local authorities, implementing agencies, and disease surveillance systems is certainly needed.
A major policy challenge is related to priorities and attitude: major shifts of international policy priorities due to COVID-19 will likely lead to both reduced monetary flows by governments, international organizations and development cooperation agencies for issues of migration and displacement and a lower priority for the topic in general. Currently, important policy dialogues addressing human mobility in the context of environmental changes (including climate change) are extremely disrupted. The 26th Conference to the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was postponed to 2021. Any potential progress of the migration-related work-stream of the Climate Agenda – in particular of the UNFCCC Task Force on Displacement – is jeopardized. Similarly, regional reviews of the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) are being adjusted to the new reality. In this context, the operationalization of the GCM Multi-Partner Trust Fund, which was also to start funding projects in 2020 and which could potentially include projects on climate migration, may be delayed. Thus, there is the very realistic risk that climate and migration policy dialogues suffer considerable setbacks. In addition to funding impacts, political interest in supporting programs and strategies tackling human mobility and its environmental dimensions may be weakened, as attention has mostly focused on the COVID-19 crisis.
However, the starting point for more integrated and “pro-translocality” related policy actions, as described above, would be at least raising awareness of, and at best a joint attitude on, migration at all levels and in different relevant policy fields (urban & rural development, health, climate change, environment, disaster relief, migration etc.) – not only in the specific context of the discourse on the migration-climate change nexus. An ideal-type policy makers’ attitude should be characterized by the willingness to overcome the sedentary bias, which is still very influential in many policy fields, and to foster a policy approach that seeks to promote the potential of translocal livelihood systems.
Considering that the pandemic seems to increase the acceptance of radical changes, and that national governments can mobilize significant expertise and resources in the face of the threat of COVID-19, there might be a chance to prioritize the human mobility, climate change and health nexus in the future. As climate change is expected to result in a higher frequency of climate-related disasters (including triggered by health hazards, depending on the increased propagation of vector-borne diseases) and increasing livelihoods risks, it is expected that population movements will continue to rise. Instead of curtailing mobility even further through nationalism, enhanced collaboration among international actors would allow to keep advancing on measures to deal with human mobility in the context of environmental changes. In fact, the establishment of international agreements as an attempt to standardize responses to COVID-19 could not only foster risk mitigation and preparedness but also better address climate-induced migration. Furthermore, multilateral agendas that tackle issues of climate risk and migration (e.g. UNFCCC) should be quickly adjusted to post-pandemic realities through enhanced understanding on the impact of COVID-19 on the vulnerability of translocal livelihood systems, and shift towards system-level approaches to action and support on environmental migration.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to contain it hit migrants especially hard; however, the impact goes far beyond the migrants themselves, also including their household and family members in places of origin. These effects are multidimensional, including the domains of health, economic, mobility, legal status, discrimination, housing, and others. A translocal social resilience perspective can help to understand the mechanisms of these impacts: migrants and their family or household members in places of origin are thereby seen as a single functional and social unit, yet, having distinct characteristics and vulnerabilities. Such a perspective enables to disentangle the multiple social and spatial dimensions and scales through which these translocal livelihood systems are affected.
A number of conclusions can be drawn from this, and from the insights of emerging field and media reports. First, the impacts of COVID-19 and related containment measures on translocal livelihoods are systemic, area-wide, and happen simultaneously across places: whereas migration and translocal livelihoods can well enhance resilience against (environmental, market, health, etc.) risks at either origin or destination, the pandemic is affecting both origins and destinations, often disrupting the very mechanisms connecting places. Thus, COVID-19 brings the resilience of translocal livelihood systems to its limits. Second, the translocal social resilience perspective also allows for a closer look at the mechanisms of impacts, which are often specific and not evenly distributed for all countries, sectors, migration types, and social groups. Such a perspective can thus also help to guide more specific and targeted policies to alleviate the impacts of COVID-19 on migrants and their translocal households, and to maintain their resilience against environmental risks. Third, there is still little detailed empirical knowledge about the different ways in which the pandemic affects translocal social livelihood systems around the world, albeit the growing evidence that it does so. A combined effort would be needed to gather relevant information and turn the resulting insights into political action in order to provide targeted and timely support to those who are in the direst need of it.
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About the authors
Gunnar Stange is assistant professor in the Population Geography and Demography Working Group at the Department of Geography and Regional Research, University of Vienna, Austria. His research interests include peace and conflict studies, development studies, and forced migration studies. His regional focus is on Southeast Asia.
Harald Sterly, University of Vienna. Harald Sterly is a research associate at the Population Geography and Demography Working Group at the Department of Geography and Regional Research, University of Vienna, Austria. He focuses on the spatial and social aspects of migration, urbanization, and technological change, with a specific interest on how the use of information and communication technology (ICT) changes vulnerable groups’ scope for agency and their vulnerability and resilience.
Patrick Sakdapolrak is Professor of Population Geography and Demography at the Department of Geography and Regional Research, University of Vienna, Austria. His research field is at the interface of population dynamics, environmental change, and development processes, with a focus on the topics of migration and displacement as well as health and disease, mainly in South- and Southeast Asia and East Africa.
Marion Borderon is assistant professor in geography in the Population Geography and Demography Working Group at the Department of Geography and Regional Research, University of Vienna, Austria. Her research interests concern population and development studies. Much of her work focuses on contributing to the development of concepts and methods for the spatial assessment of vulnerability and risk in the context of environmental change in Subsaharan Africa.
Benjamin Schraven is a Senior Researcher at the German Development Institute/ Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE). His work focuses mainly on the relationship between environmental change and human mobility and potential policies addressing “climate migration”. Furthermore, he also works on migration governance (with a particular focus on West Africa) and the discourse on migration and development.
Diogo Andreola Serraglio is a Guest Researcher at the German Development Institute/ Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) through the International Climate Protection Fellowship Programme (ICP) - Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH). His research concentrates mainly on the legal aspects of human mobility in the context of climate change, with a particular focus on Latin America and the Caribbean.
Mariya Aleksandrova is a Senior Researcher at the German Development Institute/ Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) in Bonn (Germany) with expertise in the field of climate risk governance. Her current research focuses on comprehensive climate risk management approaches, adaptation finance and climate-responsive social protection.
Photo: "Jaipur,Rajasthan,India_May-2020. Distribution of food items and water at railway station to Indian migrant laborers leaving the city due to covid-19 pandemic. Helping the needy migrants. Credits: Mukesh Kumar Jwala".
This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.