Environmental Migration and Displacement - What we know, and what we do not know

Robert McLeman, Michael Opatowski, Betina Borova, Margaret Walton-Roberts
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This report was prepared as advance reading for a workshop on environment and migration held in Waterloo, Canada from January 22-23, 2016. A full description of the workshop and a list of academic participants can be found at http://www.laurierenvironmentalmigration.com. The aim of the report is to summarize what is currently known and not known about environmental migration and displacement (EMD) in terms of the available empirical evidence. The report begins by defining how EMD is used in the report and by providing basic descriptive statistics of current EMD and of current general international migration flows to Canada and the USA. There exists sufficient empirical evidence to make the following statements about EMD with reasonable confidence:

- Environment interacts with other drivers of migration

- Environment can be an independent driver of EMD, but such events are infrequent

- Those most likely to experience EMD are poorer groups living in poorer regions

- Rapid-onset environmental hazards and slower developing environmental changes both can trigger EMD, but the processes play out in different ways

- Most EMD takes place internally, within countries - Most international environmental migration is between contiguous countries - Environmental migration is both an outcome of and a contributor to socioeconomic inequality in sending areas

- The number of people migrating for environmental reasons will grow in coming decades, for reasons related to climate change and global demographic patterns

- EMD has taken place in North America in the distant and more recent past.

- EMD is relatively small in comparison with larger global migration flows. Large scale EMD and complete settlement abandonment are particularly rare.

- EMD can be linked to political instability, but the security literature warns us to be wary of simple cause-effect assumptions

The report also describes key aspects of EMD about which relatively little is know with certainty. Such topics include:

- We do not know how many people already migrate globally for environmental reasons

- We expect climate change will increase EMD, but we don’t know by how much

- We are not actively measuring how much EMD is taking place in North America, within or between countries.

- We do not know how EMD trends will play out in the short- to medium term (i.e. between now and 2035). We can make some informed predictions

- There are unequal probabilities of EMD occurring in any given situation. We don’t know how best to calculate these, and we don’t know the “tipping point” at which EMD ensues.

- Is EMD good or bad? Desirable or undesirable? There is no consensus.

- Should environmental migrants receive preferential treatment?

- How can we use emergent technologies to monitor, model, and forecast EMD?

- There are important gender dimensions to EMD we need to learn more about

- We do not know how policy and program initiatives influence the potential for EMD, nor what may be best practices.

- Planned relocations are an oft-suggested option, but more work is needed to see that it is done right

The report concludes by describing existing and proposed international policy tools and initiatives for responding to EMD.